I went for a rocket launch, and stayed for the science. Have you ever wondered what it actually takes to get a rocket into space? And why we go there at all? I hadn't. Come with me on a behind the scenes tour of Wallops Flight Facility. Space balloons, sounding rockets, and a bonafide rocket launch!
Thank you again to Laurie Bonneau, John Mitchell, and John Huntington, NASA, and Orbital ATK/Northrup Grumman for letting me use your amazing photos!
Check out Laurie B's Flickr page here
John M's Flickr page here
and John Huntington's coverage of the launch.
Keysight oscilloscope probe promotion here.
0:00 - Getting to Wallops Flight Facility
4:40 - "What's on Board" Science Briefings
8:03 - CubeSats
9:32 - Concrete in Space?
11:10 - Cold Atom Laboratory and Bose Einstein Condensates
15:09 - Launch Pad 0A Visit
15:50 - Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF)
19:29 - Range Control Center
21:23 - Space Balloons
24:25 - Sounding Rocket Machine Shop and Test Lab
28:53 - Astronaut Kay Hire
31:04 - OA9 rocket launch day!
On the Virginia coast, hours away from any major airport, you’ll find what appears to be a sleepy little town. It’s not a tourist town or a beach town, that’s further down the road. Driving through, you’ll see an abandoned roller rink and billboards for opioid abuse programs, a retro country radio station, and the seafood restaurant in the next town over. There’s a single diner is nestled in a gas station, right across the street from a house with a half dozen American flags and a huge “support our troops” sign in the front yard.
But when you drive a little further, you might start to wonder if there’s more to this town than meets the eye. Down the road from the diner is the smallest Lockheed Martin building I’ve ever seen. Drive a minute longer, and the forest clears.
Immediately, you know there’s more to this town.
Your eyes are first drawn to giant satellite communication antennas, and then to radar installations and what look to be airplane hangers emblazoned with the NASA logo. Of course, all of this is surrounded by fences with stern warnings for trespassers and loiterers – keeping gawkers at bay, leaving them to wonder what’s going on in there.
Thanks to you, who follow us on YouTube and the EEs Talk Tech podcast, I wasn’t left to wonder. And now, neither are you.
NASA granted me and select others special access to tour the facilities.
So, what is this place?
Turns out, it’s a lot of things.
The most exciting role of this place, for me anyways, is that it’s the site of Antares rocket launches.
Twice per year, this sleepy, backwoods town wakes up with a start. The world’s top engineers, scientists, and researchers flock to the town. Wide-eyed high school students working the counter at the lone diner try desperately to feed a line of people that stretches out the door. The hotels in the area are completely booked.
Because this weekend, we’re going to space.
Have you ever wondered what makes a place like this tick? There’s an entire economy and ecosystem dedicated to keeping it afloat.
I always thought the rocketry aspect was the main attraction, but never gave much thought to the actual point of it all. Space is pretty cool, but what does humanity actually gain by getting there?
That’s what we’re going to look at today. We’re going to explore the science. Go past those warning-ridden fences. Take a look at some of the projects that get a lot of press, and some that are less glamorous. Then we’re going to look at how those projects get deployed. And yes, that includes a rocket launch. Here we go.
Day 1. It’s Friday, May 18th. For me, it means travel day. One of the reasons Wallops Flight Facility is a great location is that there’s, quote “virtually unimpeded airspace.” For visitors, this means you have to drive from your major airport of choice for at least a couple hours. So, it’s gonna be a long day. I figure I’ll leave home around 7 AM and arrive at my hotel roughly 16 hours later.
It’s a long day for domestic travel, but what’s a guy to do? As the plane doors close at the gate in Denver, I find out the launch has been delayed 24 hours for additional spacecraft inspections. It’s too late to get off the plane, so I shrug, text my wife that I’m going to be another day on the road, and mentally score one point for fate. Fate 1, Daniel 0. From what I hear, though, delayed launches are just part of the process. No one wants a failed launch.
When I land in DC it’s raining pretty hard, and I decide I don’t really want to cram in a few hours of driving. So I scramble to re-arrange lodging, and catch a movie before bed. Take that, fate.
Day 2. Saturday. I drive from DC to the coast, and start to wonder if I’m really in the right place. I check my phone map, and it says I’m on track. Once the woods clear and I see the com arrays and the hangers with the NASA logo, I know I’m in the right place. After showing a couple forms of ID to an armed federal agent, I get my pass and am ushered into the day’s event – the “what’s on board” mission briefing.
This is when I start to think about more than just the rocketry. Scientists from around the country show off their experiments, which have been loaded into the Cygnus spacecraft, attached to the Antares rocket, and are about to be delivered to the ISS. They’re being delivered on the OA-9 cargo mission, which is why I’m in town. OA9 is completely run by Orbital ATK. Orbital ATK is one of the two commercial companies with NASA launch contracts. The other is SpaceX. But, don’t compare them to Space X, it’s a bit of a touchy subject around here.
Back to the experiments - which NASA likes to call “investigations.” Technically, an experiment’s goal is to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and an investigation is more about gathering data. Potayto potahto.
There are over a thousand kilograms of investigations headed to the ISS this weekend. Access to space gives scientists and engineers the ability to test things that simply aren’t possible on earth. There’s the height advantage – we can look at more of the earth at once without the curvature getting in the way. There’s the obstruction advantage – we can see things without the earth’s atmosphere getting in the way. And there’s the gravity advantage – namely, we can sustain a microgravity environment for more than a dozen seconds.
The investigations being presented also showed me the breadth and diversity of investigations taking place in space. To give you a taste, here are my personal favorites that are a part of this mission. Full disclosure, I’ll likely be too casual with some of these terms, so feel free to correct me in the YouTube comments or at EEs Talk Tech.com:
There’s a DNA/RNA sequencing kit designed to find unknown microbes on the international space station. It’s called “Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology” investigation, or “BEST” for short. In my opinion, this is the best acronym.
They can find most of the bugs on the ISS with their current, culture-based processes, but this kit will allow them to find other microbes. It will also let them track mutations of known microbes – apparently spaceflight causes genetic, epigenetic, and transcriptomic changes.
There’s also a sextant for navigation practice, and some medical tools to monitor astronaut’s eyesight. Apparently long term spaceflight messes with people’s eyes. You know, they’ve seen things…
There’s a liquid separation tool that uses capillary forces to separate flowing liquids. Normally, you’d have to let liquids settle (think oil – vinegar salad dressing), but this does it while liquids flow. Speaking of salad dressing, there’s an enhanced vegetable grower on board, too.
Astronauts will record the flavor and texture of the plants, and their results will be compared to a control sample in Houston. Apparently, even salad is an investigation in space.
Another interesting part of the payload is an array of CubeSats – dubbed “CubeRRT”- aimed at measuring the earth’s RF emissions to mitigate environmental noise. Microwave Radiometers, a tool used to gather environmental data like seawater salinity, temperature, and humidity are extremely sensitive to the emissions. Because of earth noise and increased spectrum use, the radiometer measurements are becoming noisier and noisier – and will possibly become unusable in the not-to-distant future. The goal of these cubesats is to monitor these environmental factors and create a system to remove noise in real-time. When I sat down with the professors responsible for the program, they mentioned that the emissivity of water was a deciding factor in earth noise. Sensitivity to water vapor peaks around 24 GHz, which is right in the middle of the allocated spectrum for these tools. Vegetation and soil moisture also play a role. So, CubeRRT will be able to measure earth-noise from 6 GHz to 40 GHz. If you want to hear more about this topic, I sat down for an interview with this team that will be a future podcast – assuming my recording worked out.
There was also a concrete project – concrete formation is a pretty well defined terrestrial science, but it’s not well defined in a microgravity environment. Astronauts will mix concrete, let it set, and send it earthward for analysis. The findings of this project are the first stages of exploring construction options for the moon and mars. Can you use Martian soil to make concrete? We’ll see.
Finally, the coldest known spot in the universe will soon be the ISS. Led by Jet Propulsion Laboratories, five different research teams will share time on this project – the Cold Atom Laboratory which is designed to cool gas particles to “like one-tenth of a billion of a degree above absolute zero.” (Robert Shotwell). One team, led by Nobel prize winning physicist Eric Cornell, will study Bose Einstein condensates.
This was a new thing to me, so I did a little digging. A Bose Einstein condensate is a quantum state theorized by Bose and Einstein, and realized in 1995 by the same Dr. Eric Cornell we were just speaking of. Essentially, if you super cool a gas – like super-duper cool it – the atoms start to increase in size and behave as waves. Eventually, the size of these wave-atoms becomes larger than the average distance between wave-particles – meaning they’ll begin to interact. At a certain point, all of the wave-particles (known as Bosons) settle in the same quantum state and form one big, happy quantum wave, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.
The problem with this, is that they’re really, really hard to create. One of the reasons for this is gravity. Hence, the Cold Atom Lab. The micro-gravity environment of the space station will allow Dr. Cornell and his associates to reach temperatures colder than that of earth. All without needing time from astronauts. Pretty cool!
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Clearly, there’s a huge breadth of projects invested in this launch.
After the briefing, its back to the hotel to get some work done – it is a workday after all. The day concludes with a dinner with some of the other attendees. Because, what engineer doesn’t love a meal with a bunch of complete strangers?
In a public setting, I almost always feel like the biggest geek in the room. Sometimes that’s fun, most of the time it’s not – I’m sure a lot of you can relate. But this was different. There’s something about being a room full of other self-proclaimed space geeks that really made me feel at home.
After a little too much of the good luck ice cream that Orbital ATK orders from a local shop – it’s chocolate with chili powder and cinnamon, which is surprisingly ok - it’s time to rest up for day 2.
Day 2 starts at 8AM. That’s not bad unless you factor in a couple hour time change for me. I quickly wake up, though, as we all hop on a bus to go out visit the rocket. Naturally, we aren’t able to go right up to it, but we’re pretty darn close. Closer than you’d normally get to a fully-primed rocket, anyways. “Surreal” is a term thrown around a lot by launch 1st timers like me, and though it’s cliché, it’s probably the best word to describe the feeling. It reminds me a bit of my childhood, when I could get a glimpse of the Matterhorn at Disneyland while driving to Grandma’s house on the 5. There’s this academic knowledge of a whole group of people living in their little complex, separated world, and the sight of the monument is just the surface of it.
After 15 minutes of staring, it’s time to head over to what becomes my favorite stop of the tour – the horizontal integration facility, also known as the HIF.
We got to get up close and personal with OA10, the next launch scheduled for a fall launch. Naturally, it’s only partially assembled. The HIF is the place that takes all the pieces and parts from around the world and connects them into one cohesive vehicle. Due to the presence of “active ordinance” and “export controlled technology,” all wireless devices had to be left outside and our picture taking was limited. So, I can’t show you the advanced piping and routing that is the backbone of a rocket engine, but think copper-shiny-jet-engine-plumbing on steroids.
I was surprised by how much coordination was involved in the rocket and assembly.
Again, it was fascinating to me to see so many teams working on so many discrete, but integrated projects. And to watch it all come together in this sleepy backwoods town feels a bit ironic.
A quick pit stop for a press conference, and it’s off to the Range Control Center.
The RCC acts as a sort of mission control for launches and other on-site missions. This is where I start to see the work of yet another set of behind-the-scenes teams. Meteorologists to check winds and weather, radar controls to monitor air & boat traffic (the previous launch got scrubbed by a small boat that came too close), technical teams to handle copious amounts of real-time data and processing, specialists manning custom rocket system monitoring software, and more. The ability to photograph any of this was again limited, but it looked something like the systems you’d see bad guys working on in a James Bond dam-hostage situation.
Each of these teams come together and repeatedly rehearse each launch under varying circumstances and environments so that they’re ready to handle any surprises that could pop up on launch day. It’s humbling to think that each of these workstations essentially represents a mission-critical team.
We hop back on the buses and head over to the space balloon research center.
Space balloons sound a bit counterintuitive, after all, how can a balloon float if there’s no atmosphere? Well, they go up to 120,000 feet – so not really into space which more-or-less starts around 100 km. It’s called near space. These balloons are described by Gabe Garde, Mission Operations Manager for the balloon program, as Football field-sized, ultra-sonically heat-welded trashbags. Really. They’re huge .2-.8 mil thick plastic bags that can stay in the sky for weeks or months. That’s about the thickness of a sandwich bag, but the plastic is a little sturdier. Sometimes referred to as the B-line to space, balloons are the quickest and most cost efficient route to near space.
They can also be launched from nearly anywhere on the globe. Gabe, for example, has spent a collective year living in Antarctica for balloon missions. Why Antarctica?
Remember when we found the giant hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica? Space balloons were the vehicle for those measurement tools. The generally-flat geometry of the universe was also confirmed by a balloon-borne investigation.
These balloons have recently been with a giant gimbal, known as the “Wallops arc second pointer”
We then float out of the balloon research center and file into a giant machine shop – part of the Sounding Rocket Lab, where we meet this fine fellow. 
Nose cone that launches off the rocket to expose scientific equipment, coated with a spray-on silicon as a heat-deterrent
One of the benefits of sounding rockets is the possibility for extremely quick turnaround times. How fast?
9 years! That makes me feel better about the timing of some of my projects.
There are also some electrical test rooms with racks full of equipment and the wrong-colored oscilloscopes, in my opinion anyways. I did a little probing into what electronics they’re using, but didn’t get much info beyond the fact that the sounding rockets use an RS-485 communications bus. I’ll have to bug them a little more next time.
After a couple more technical presentations, we have a little chat with Astronaut Kay Hire. She talks through a lot of the processes, activities, and emotions astronauts go through – they don’t deviate much from what you’ll find in a standard astronaut interview. But, there was a moment that stood out.
This seems like a pretty obvious statement, but being surrounded by the teams of people working on slivers of the rocket & surrounding projects really drives this point home.
She also talked a little bit about navigating around space junk and debris:
After all, the launch already got pushed back a day because they needed to run more tests. So, with our official tour over for the day, we head out to get tacos (which are pretty good by East-coast standards), and worry about Kay’s parting words. There’s also so debate about whether or not it’s worth pulling an all-nighter into day 3.
Why pull an all-nighter? Day 3 starts at 1:30 AM. I’m not in the all-nighter camp – I had my share in college, so, I head back to the hotel for a nap – wake up at 1:30, munch gas station donuts and coffee, and drive to meet our bus – in the pouring rain – not a good sign. I expect a pretty subdued bus crowd, given the time and the weather, but the energy is palpable – you can feel the anticipation. Federal guards escort us and the media to the launch-viewing area. As the crow flies, we’re roughly 2 miles away from the rocket, which is as close as anyone gets to these things. I set up my camera gear alongside some other folks, and glance down the line of media photographers. There’s easily over a million bucks worth of camera gear here. Loudspeakers stream the coms, and we start to get worried. The weather folks over at the Range Control Center don’t like what they are seeing, and move the launch target time to the very end of the 5-minute window. We hear words like “anomaly” and “verifying the authenticity of the fire alarm” and get more nervous. I get more coffee and donuts from the catering tent and wait. Apparently donuts are my nervous food.
Tee minus 12 minutes, and it’s time for the go-no go for launch poll. Everyone goes quiet as the work through the countdown. Over the loudspeakers, we hear
The group collectively releases a sigh of relief, some cheer. We’re launching today. We buckle down for the 12 minute wait.
30 seconds left, and all we can do is fidget and wonder if our camera settings are correct. They say that you shouldn’t try to photograph your first launch – you should just enjoy it and let the million bucks in camera gear handle the pictures. I like a challenge so I take a stab at it, but I recommend that if you go see a launch you let other people do the filming.
10 seconds. The iconic countdown starts…
Here’s what it sounds like when you can see the launch, but before the sound arrives (a good 14 seconds before the sound hits us. The night sky turns to daylight, and the rocket starts to make its way up. I’m struck by how slow it looks at first, and how the 200 ft flame does a weird, glitchy dance. It passes through the clouds.
Then the sound hits us. It’s xdB louder than us talking & cheering. You can feel it, like less bassey fireworks.
The sound slowly fades to a low rumble as the rocket re-appears above the clouds. A few minutes later, the light cuts out. Because stage 2 uses solid-fuel, there’s no throttle. So the Orbital ATK telemetry team calculates the velocity and position of the craft. With this telemetry data, they know how long they have to wait before igniting the second stage. This ensures that they only need minimal adjustments to get sync with the ISS.
Adjustments require fuel, which means weight, which means cost. And, private space is all about cost-per-pound into orbit. That’s why the launch window was only 5 minutes, it was a cost play. Cost was also a big factor in the decision to retire the space shuttle.
Stage two kicks in, the brightest star in the sky. Slowly, it fades out and is gone
It’s now past 5AM and people start to pack up, tired, but happy. The firefighting teams hop in their firetrucks and drive towards the launch pad. I can only imagine the relief of the teams that have spent months and years on these systems. You’d never know, though, as their voices ring out over the loudspeakers, working through their post-launch checklists. They are a little more casual, though, a little bit of pride and relief sneaking past their professional masks. There are some anomalies, though, so it may still be a long day for a few folks.
After this 2 ½ day space bonanza, I say goodbye to my new friends and start the long trip home to Colorado. While driving across the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and flying over the Rocky Mountains, I have some time to think about something Astronaut Kay Hire said in her talk. She said this:
I can’t help but resonate with this in the moment. I’m driving over a 4.3 mile steel bridge – when it was built it was the largest over-water steel structure. I’m flying over half of the USA, a trip would take weeks without technology. Then, I think back to the rocket launch. Months, years, and careers were spent making that launch happen. Even more months and years of time was dedicated to the cargo. Even more time dedicated to having a place in space to put it all. Teams upon teams, collective lifetimes of effort – all boiled down to a single, fiery, loud instant.
I dwell on Kay’s statement. “We’re not to fly in space. But we’re built to adapt.” Clearly. That’s why we have spacesuits, 4 mile long bridges, airplanes, and sleepy towns that transform into technology centers. So I agree. We’re not built to fly in space. But maybe, maybe we were made for it.
Most of the big white coms arrays belong to the NOAA Command and Data Acquisition Station. NOAA, founded by Nixon, has a suite of environmental monitoring satellites. These satellites need to be nudged periodically to remain in orbit, and they send down an obscene amount of data that needs to be collected and distributed.
The next time your local weather forecast is accurate, the data that enabled it probably came through this site.