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.

  • Doug, excellent summary. I’ve been on both ends, and ain’t that the truth!

    Also, just to drive your point home: NG/OATK needs to up their press game! NASA does it, SpaceX does it, ULA does it, Ariane does it, heck, even ILS does it now. NG/OATK needs to post a pre-launch summary, have a live stream and then post the actual launch (with rocketcam type footage).

  • duheagle

    There were actually two telemetry dropouts before the vehicle crossed the horizon. NGOATK still has a bit of remediation to do on this vehicle, it seems. Good that everything turned out okay, but you press guys weren’t the only ones wondering about that.

    Entirely endorse Mr. Smith’s comments about the webcast.

    The NGOATK PR lady who anchored the webcast was okay, but I would like to have heard more from the two military officers she interviewed – too briefly – and also from the Planet guy. Too much of the webcast was taken up with the anchor conversing with a second, blonde NGOATK PR person. That this second person had a distractingly Betty Boop-ish voice didn’t help matters. Just because one works in PR doesn’t automatically render one “camera-ready.”

    Also agree that the lack of any rocketcam feeds was not a plus. And the “graphics” showing vehicle maneuvering and satellite deployments looked like something from the late-80’s MS-DOS era of computing. Even the Russkies put on a much better show. NGOATK is still, pretty obviously, not an organization very savvy of modern media nor much used to communicating with the general public. I’ve seen better production values on public access cable shows.

    Finally, the SLC-576E launch pad looked like something a decent amateur rocketry club might have put together. The Antares pad at Wallops has a lot more visual “gravitas.” The fact that the area around the launch stand was cluttered and unkempt-looking didn’t help matters either. Even amateur rocketeers would likely keep their launch facilities looking a bit less like a hillbilly’s back yard.

  • I think it’s important to give NG/OATK points for this being a COMMERCIAL launch. Planet needed a ride for a certain mass, orbit and schedule – Taurus/Minotaur-C provided it. No rideshare, no secondary, no decommissioned stages. I love it when a plan comes together.

    Note to NG/OATK: good job, now find ways to do LOTS more of that!

  • ThomasLMatula

    Don’t forget those things do cost money. And those costs don’t generate new business since the folks that watch the webcasts are not the same ones that are going to be buying a launch. Remember, these are not cost plus government launches

    So be grateful SpaceX has set the standard on sharing their launches with the world and others are following their lead. But remember, they don’t have to do any of this since it doesn’t contribute anything to the bottom line.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Don’t forget those things do cost money. And those costs don’t generate new business since the folks that watch the webcasts are not the same ones that are going to be buying a launch. Remember, these are not cost plus government launches where they need to show the voters they are getting something for their tax dollars 🙂

    So be grateful SpaceX has set the standard on sharing their launches with the world and others are following their lead. But remember, they don’t have to do any of this since it doesn’t contribute anything to the bottom line.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Telemetry drop offs with with small ground launched solid fuel rockets is not unusual. Especially without TRDS satcom or floating relay platform support. Since the telemetry antennas are pointed almost straight down and broadcasting through the rocket exhaust. Which acts as jamming chaff with the high aluminium content in the solid rocket fuel.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX puts on the best launch webcasts and none of their work is cost-plus either. If Orbital was really looking to pinch every last penny, it just wouldn’t webcast the launch at all. If you scruple to put something out in public view it ought to look like you took some pains about doing so. At a minimum, it shouldn’t constitute an embarrassment compared to one’s competition. This was Amateur Night at the Bijou.

  • duheagle

    I give NGOATK full props for the commercialness of this effort. Minotaur-C is the only vehicle in its lineup that it makes entirely in-house. I would be delighted to see it launch a lot. But the pad area was dowdy, unkempt and junky-looking. At a minimum all the above-ground stuff in the foreground and background of the launch stand ought to have been freshly painted and the bigger stuff should have had Orbital logos applied as well. I know this particular launch complex hadn’t been used in years, but letting it look so long-disused and down-at-heel on a webcast was just dumb.

  • duheagle

    All the more reason for NGOATK not to want to look like the poor relations of the launch biz. If money is so tight that sprucing up a launch site that hadn’t been used for six years before webcasting it to the world would have broken the bank, things are a lot worse at the company than I thought.