AIM in orbit

Wednesday was an interesting day in the office. In the afternoon, we were invited to the auditorium to watch a live feed of the launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesophere — better known as AIM — mission. AIM was launched on a Pegasus XL from Vandenberg AFB.

Orbital does quite a few things, but Pegasus is the only product that I was really familiar with before joining the company. Before going to the auditorium, I didn’t expect many people to attend; I imagined: surely everone else has seen a Pegasus launch. (But I knew that eventually all of the engineer/gophers would peek their heads out of their offices/holes and come for the free snacks, at least.)

For a long time, the only feed on the screen was of the L-1011 — say it like “L ten eleven” —  Stargazer sitting on the runway with Pegasus slung underneath, the occasional cutaway to stone-faced people in the mission control room speaking on microphones; hours of checklists for those few seconds of fire. Eventually the L-1011, sensing the ennui, left the runway and climbed to cruise altitude. Knowing this with a sort of extra sense, people began to fill the room, the screen now consisting of rotating images of (1) the carrier plane and rocket from below-right; (2) the rocket nozzle from the belly of the plane; and (3) the stone faces, the missile men, the telemetry diviners.

Beside me, a friend who previously worked at the FAA whispered along with the various countdowns. The group murmured satisfaction as Pegasus waved its tailfins on cue. Mostly: anticipation.

Pegasus dropping from the carrier plane is absurd because at that moment you see it for what it really is — a big, heavy, steel canister — falling out of the sky. The gods must be crazy. Ignition and boost is an elegant affair, not the herk-and-jerk that I expected, but a smooth glide first forward and down, then up and away. That first ignition, then the second, then the third were each met with affirmative murmuring — not celebration, mind you, because nothing matters at the end of the ride unless the spacecraft detaches from the third stage. And it did separate, received by only a polite applause in the auditorium, perhaps because in the end it’s only a few seconds of fire after months of development. (The joke goes like this: How many engineers does it take to launch a rocket? One, the guy who presses the button.)

(And, of course, all of the popcorn was gone.)

Apparently things are going well with the mission; an excerpt from an email sent at work today:

The launch was perfect.  AIM has a requirement to maintain a precise sun synchronous orbit, and does not have propulsion for any fine tuning. Therefore, we needed a precise orbit insertion from Pegasus, and they nailed it.

Anyway: great to see a standing-room only crowd watch a guy press a button.

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