The Excitement and Uncertainties of a Rocket Launch

Minotaur-C booster lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

“Negative telemetry at base,” a voice crackled over the radio.

It was the last thing anyone wanted to hear. Minutes earlier, an Orbital ATK Minotaur-C rocket had blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying 10 Planet satellites had disappeared into a cloudy California sky. And now the stream of data from the booster had disappeared as well.

Elizabeth Kulas, assistant producer for NPR’s Planet Money, tapped me on the shoulder.

“Is this bad?” she whispered.

“Don’t know,” I replied. “Doesn’t sound good.”

I didn’t want to say anything more. Nor did anyone else at the press site, which was located in a small grove of trees 2.5 miles from the launch pad. But, there was no doubt what everyone was thinking. Was this simply a communications glitch? Or had the rocket gone kaboom? Until we heard something definitive, it was best not to speculate.

The uncertainty hung in the quiet air that only minutes before had been overwhelmed by the delayed roar of a rocket fighting the force of gravity. Unlike liquid fuel rockets, the solid-fuel Minotaur-C soared off the pad and rapidly disappeared into a bank of clouds. The photographers at the press site had only seconds to record the event.

For the Orbital ATK employees at the press site, the negative telemetry probably brought to mind some unpleasant memories. The two previous flights of the booster, then known as Taurus, had crashed in 2009 and 2011 when their payload shrouds failed to separate, confining two NASA spacecraft worth $700 million to watery graves.

Orbital ATK had upgraded the booster with new avionics and re-branded it Minotaur-C. This was the first test of the revamped booster and the first in more than six years. A success would help rehabilitate the rocket’s reputation and improve the company’s position in an increasingly competitive marketplace. A failure, though, well….

It would be equally bad for Planet, the San Francisco-based Earth imaging company that had paid more than $40 million for the launch. The company had six SkyBox satellites and four smaller Dove CubeSats aboard that would add to Planet’s growing constellation of remote-sensing spacecraft.

The tension built at the press site as repeated calls of “negative telemetry” came over the radio. And then —

Telemetry reacquired! The booster was performing just as planned.  All was well. Everyone exhaled.

The Minotaur-C entered a coast phase before firing its third stage. Shortly thereafter, the booster went over the horizon — out of radio range. Mission control called out the expected deployment times for the satellites, which begun 12 minutes into the mission.

But, had the spacecraft in fact deployed? Had the third stage performed as expected? As a friend and I made the long drive back to Los Angeles, I checked Twitter for updates. An hour passed, then two…but still no word from either Orbital ATK or Planet on the fate of the satellites. Surely, they had passed over ground stations by now.

At 5:02 p.m. PDT — two hours, 25 minutes after launch — came the word everyone was waiting for via Orbital ATK’s Twitter feed. “Our #MinotaurC successfully placed @planetlabs 10 satellites into orbit! Congrats to the entire team! @30thSpaceWing #OrbitalATKDelivers

And at 6:25 p.m. PDT came this from Planet Co-founder Will Marshall: “Launch success! We’ve heard from all 6 SkySats & 4 Doves! Doubling @planetlabs high res capacity! Continuing #SkySat mission Thx @OrbitalATK”

I retweeted Will’s message and leaned back in my seat, suddenly feeling very tired. Man, I thought, this launch business is draining. And I was just a spectator. I could only imagine what it was like for the launch team.