Go For Launch
A report from NASA's Wallops Island spaceport
Not a single cloud sullies the sky as a crowd gathers on a public pier on Chincoteague Island. We all wait with calm anticipation for the next resupply mission to the International Space Station to lift off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. All bundled up in our winter coats and hats, we sporadically check our phones for updates on the occasion we’ve all come together to witness. A cool breeze blows in from the nearby Atlantic, making for a bright and sunny but somewhat chilly day.
A half hour or so past noon, a warning siren pierces the crisp air and convivial atmosphere – it’s now ten minutes to launch. We stand on a wooden pier that juts out into a narrow channel that separates Chincoteague from the Virginia mainland. We’re not packed in too tight, and there’s plenty of room to move around if need be. More onlookers congregate in the small waterfront park at the base of the pier.
I overhear one fellow spectator remark that he woke up at four in the morning to make the trek down from New Jersey and see the launch. He seems like a stereotypical space enthusiast, bespectacled and friendly with a bit of a nerdy aura about him – probably an engineer of some sort, or at least one in training. It’s merely a day trip for me: I hit the road from my apartment in Falls Church at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning to see my very first lift-off. The vagaries of weather and the potential for technical scrubs tend to make traveling further afield to see a rocket claw its way into the heavens a much riskier proposition, one potentially laden with disappointment.
This particular launch marks the fifteenth occasion a Cygnus cargo ship flown to orbit aboard an Antares rocket from Wallops. It’s the eighteenth time Cygnus has made this journey overall; one early Antares mission exploded spectacularly on the pad, less than ten miles from where we’re all now standing. As a result, three Cygnus supply runs were forced to hitch rides to the International Space Station from the powerful Atlas V rocket down at Cape Canaveral in Florida while engineers fixed the problems with Antares. For our part, we can’t lay our eyes on the rocket from our vantage point – not even as a thin white sliver standing off in the distance.
By the standards of spaceflight burned into our collective imagination over the decades, Antares isn’t the most impressive rocket. It’s nothing like the massive Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s or its latter-day doppelganger, the Space Launch System. If anything, Antares resembles a slightly shorter version of the twin solid rocket boosters that were strapped onto the space shuttle’s giant orange external fuel tank – or a stockier relative of SpaceX’s lithe Falcon 9 rocket. Antares may not look the part, but it’s gotten the job done over the years despite its early launch pad disaster. And how many other rockets can say they’ve helped inspire a craft brewing company?
Antares is also the product of international aerospace cooperation: while an American company ultimately assembles the full two-stage rocket, its first stage is manufactured by a Ukrainian firm and it relies on Russian-built engines. Within a week of this launch, however, Russia will mount a brutal invasion of Ukraine and several decades of international cooperation in space will slowly but surely begin to unravel. After the United States and its allies slap sanctions on Moscow over its aggression against Ukraine, the Kremlin will cut off the supply of rocket engines to the United States – including those that send Antares into orbit. Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will get into public social media spats with the current head of the Russian space agency, who for his part will level brash threats about the future of the International Space Station.
But all that’s to come; right now, we’re all here to watch this minor marvel of modern science and engineering take flight and, hopefully, keep our shared dreams of space exploration alive. A man standing next to me asks if I know the direction from which the rocket will launch. He’s about my age, maybe a bit younger if I had to guess, and he says it’s his first launch. I’m not sure how I gave him the impression that I’m a veteran of these events – perhaps I’m just the closest adult he can ask – but I tell him I don’t know and that it’s my first time as well.
A real generational cross-section has turned out to see Antares lift off, with all ages represented here today. Little kids and pre-teens mill about the pier with their parents; one woman mentions that her family just happened to be on vacation at Chincoteague when they heard about the scheduled launch. Whether we’re simply attracted the visceral thrill of seeing a rocket blast off or hold more metaphysical beliefs about humanity’s place in the cosmos, there’s something intangible and transcendent about space exploration that draws in a wide range of people. Despite all the problems we’re facing as a society – a still-raging pandemic, steadily rising inflation, and soon a major war overseas – the crowd assembled here today testifies to the persistence of a faint and flickering strain of optimism coursing through our otherwise sour national mood, a silver lining to our dark cloud. Whatever the reason we show up, we’re all grasping for the stars in our own way. All the same, it’s hard to deny that there’s an undercurrent of tension in the air as we wait for Antares to lift off.
Our suspense ends as we see the rocket rise up over the hotels that line the boardwalk. We’re caught off guard by its sudden appearance; it’s silent at first, but then we hear a slow, low rumble akin to distant thunder – not the gut-shaking, bone-rattling, brain-melting noise evocatively described by those who have witnessed Saturn V or space shuttle launches up close. Antares arcs across the sky, a bright orange fireball glowing from its twin first-stage engines as it passes through the blinding light of a brilliant white sun. The rocket leaves behind just a small straggle of white vapor in the cobalt firmament as swiftly it makes its way to the International Space Station, a dwindling yellow star in the daytime heavens that soon disappears beyond our perception.
Just like that, it’s over: about two minutes after we first spy Antares, it’s out of sight.
As short as it’s been, I’m satisfied with the experience and my somewhat impromptu decision to drive down to Chincoteague and see the launch. Given the awed hush that’s descended over us as we turned our collective gaze upward, I suspect most of my fellow spectators feel the same way. It may not be the same as seeing one of NASA’s powerful rockets blast off down at the Cape, but it leaves most of us content. My own appetite has certainly been whetted, and I now have the itch to see one of those more impressive machines blast off. But I also know that this launch is one of those smaller glories and triumphs in life that helps boost our individual and collective spirits.
I turn to leave the pier and see that an even larger crowd has assembled than when last I looked. That’s despite the fact that, like me, many people have already started to disperse and get on with the rest of their days. As much as I’d like to explore Chincoteague or perhaps see if I can encounter one of the wild horses on nearby Assateague Island National Seashore, it’s a bit of a hike back to the Beltway and I decide it’s time to head home. It’s mid-February, and darkness still descends upon those of us in the mid-Atlantic region well before six in the evening.
I make my back across the causeway that connects Chincoteague with the mainland, hoping to beat the sunset home. Packed with traffic when I drove in, the road to Wallops is now deserted; I can see the launch pad itself and its prominent white water tower from my driver’s side window as I cross the causeway. There’s a boat ramp on the side of the road that gave other onlookers a much better viewing angle than I or my fellow pier-mates possessed.
Back on the mainland, I pass Wallops itself. It’s closed due to the pandemic, but I can still get a decent glimpse of the facility. Not the largest or most impressive NASA installation by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s still one of our gateways to the stars: a concrete expression of our shared hopes and ambitions for the future, no matter how bruised and battered they may seem at any given moment. To me, at least, the launch of Antares serves as a reminder that for all our cynicism and despair, these aspirations will remain with us – even when the world feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart.