It began simply enough in early Spring of 2012 with a small gesture in a LASP conference room . But by the time the solid rocket fuel was ignited on November 19, 2013, I found myself inextricably tied to the success of its trajectory due to more than a decade’s worth of complex professional successes and disappointments. Since 2001, my entire professional life has been devoted to launching total solar irradiance monitors (TIMs) into space to measure the sun’s intensity with unprecedented accuracy.
My initial work at LASP was focused on flying the SORCE satellite that was highlighted by its 2003 launch into space aboard a Pegasus rocket. SORCE has been flying for more than a decade but was only designed to be in orbit for about 5 years. In order to guarantee data continuity for measurements of total solar irradiance (TSI), we immediately set forth building a follow-on TIM, and I spent 7 years designing, building, and testing the solar pointing system for the TIM. However, when the Glory mission and our new TIM launched in March of 2011, the rocket’s nose cone failed to open and rather than entering orbit as expected, the entire satellite was pulled by gravity back to earth into the Pacific ocean. Extreme disappointment accompanied the Glory launch failure, but we vowed to rally and find a way to quickly launch another TIM into space to ensure the continuity of the total solar irradiance measurements.
So when I found myself in a meeting for the newly organized TSI Calibration Transfer Experiment (TCTE; pronounced like the Mexican beer, Tecate) and there was no one identified to lead the testing of the instrument, I volunteered unaware of what actually lay ahead. We were able to repurpose a spare TIM instrument from the SORCE mission, but we had only 4 months in which to do so. Typically, three or more years are required to design, build, and test a space instrument, but we were hitching a ride to space on the Air Force’s STPSat-3 satellite that would launch in 2013 with or without the TIM. So in those hectic summer months of 2012, we worked days, nights, and weekends to successfully recondition, integrate, and test the TCTE TIM instrument for its delivery to spacecraft integration at Ball Aerospace. Following Labor Day of 2012, we worked with our colleagues down the block at Ball to mechanically and electrically integrate the TIM onto the STPSat-3 satellite and then test it to prove that it could withstand the harsh launch vibrations of the rocket along with the extreme temperatures of space.
By Spring of 2013, the testing was complete and the satellite was fully prepared to be launched into orbit. In parallel, the SORCE satellite was showing its age with severely degraded batteries that were beginning to number its days. In order to achieve measurement overlap between the SORCE and TCTE TIMs, we needed to launch TCTE as soon as possible. Unfortunately and despite our heroic efforts to deliver the TIM in record time, the same bureaucracy that funded our venture also began to impede its way. The government shutdown unnecessarily delayed the launch by two weeks, but when funding resumed, the rocket team worked hard to recoup lost schedule.
And so on November 19th, as I stood in the dark on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at Wallops Flight Facility with my LASP and NASA colleague’s, I had high hopes for the rocket that shown brightly under the spotlights two miles away. So much was riding on the success of the launch. Not only was the TSI science data record at stake, but my own personal investments were also being carried by the rocket.
The time neared and the official countdown commenced over the loud speaker:
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Ignition!
The sky lit up and the rocket jump vertically off its pad with surprisingly high acceleration while cheers and shouts of joy erupted from the onlookers. As it began its slow upward arc, the rocket’s sound began to catch up with its image and the shouting was slowly overcome by a low rumble and then quickly followed by stomach-churning roar of the engine. The visceral roar of the rocket began to shake loose all of the emotions that I held within me—fear, excitement, joy, pride—and I felt completely immersed in the moment. As the rocket proceeded east at a staggeringly fast pace, its path in the sky began to more clearly reflect the smooth arc that coincided with the curvature of the planet that it was about to orbit. The mostly clear sky held a thin, low cloud deck that the spectators had earlier failed to recognize, but as the rocket pierced the clouds at over 7000 mph, shock waves were sent through the vapor in a majestic display that was fleetingly highlighted by the reds, oranges, and yellows of the rocket’s exhaust. One by one, the stages of the rocket consumed their fuel and successfully separated leaving the top of the rocket as just a small star in the sky moving at 12,600 mph. All mission phases had gone well and a large cheer let out when it was announced that the fairing had successfully separated in pleasing, stark contrast to the Glory mission. At that point, the crowds exited in the bleachers en masse, but our LASP team waited in suspense for one final event. 12 minutes after take-off, the flight director announced that STPSat-3 had successfully separated from the rocket’s upper stage and was now in orbit around the Earth! Our TCTE team let out cheers of joy, congratulated each other, and toasted each other with cans of Tecate beer.
The STPSat-3 satellite has been in orbit for almost two weeks now, and the TCTE instrument has been turned on for one week. The entire operations team has been working around the clock to ensure the success of the mission and the instrument, and I am pleased to report that the spacecraft and instrument are performing extremely well. But our work has just begun as we prepare to take overlapping measurements with the SORCE-TIM in late December.
As I reflect on my experience of the TCTE launch, without a doubt, I consider it one of my most amazing life experiences. The very thought that I sent something I built into space is awe-inspiring on its own, but what sticks with me most was journey to reach that moment. When the rocket motor ignited and then cast its graceful arc across the sky, it not only carried our TCTE instrument but also my professional aspirations into space.
Check out a sampling of TCTE launch photos in the gallery below: