2013-Oct-21 - Public Relations

A project log for Rocketometer

Flight-proven Do-it-yourself Spacecraft

kwan3217kwan3217 04/05/2017 at 16:510 Comments

I had worked on sounding rocket flights before (this was the fifth or so flight of this payload) in an official capacity, but this time I was there on my own time and budget. Therefore I took my own car on the long trek to Las Cruces, New Mexico, the nearest civilization to White Sands.

Even though it was a noon launch, you have to get to the base extra early. I was there around 7:00am, because the safety roadblocks go up about then, and because this is the last time any of us get to actually touch the rocket. A pretty common thing to do is to sign the rocket with a sharpie, and put stickers on it. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to sign the rocket (I was a few minutes late) but I did get to put a Rocketometer 1 sticker on the interior of the blockhouse.

This time, our Principal Investigator (PI, the chief scientist and person most responsible for the mission) made an effort to get many people from the lab to join us at the launch. We had about 15 people that were able to attend, and I, being a veteran of past launches but having no official duties on this flight, was drafted for public relations. As I said, it was a several hour wait from the time people had to show up on site to the time of launch. So, I told stories I had directly experienced, stories I had heard about the base, stories about Range Safety, etc.

For instance: The launch was at White Sands Missile Range, Complex 36 Athena launcher. This is a complex run by the US Navy, on a US Army base. The mission was sponsored by NASA, so there was plenty of bureaucracy to go around. The Army was in charge of Range Safety, which meant that there was an Army officer somewhere with his hand on a button ready to set off the Flight Termination System (a fancy word for "self-destruct") if needed. This position dates back all the way to 1946, when the Army started flying captured V2 rockets. The range is a long piece of ground, with the launch sites in the south and the intended impact points in the north. One day, they launched a V2 that went off course and started flying south, ultimately crashing in a cemetery in Juarez, Mexico and causing quite an international incident. On that day, the concept of Range Safety was born. Since that day, no rocket launched on any American rocket range has caused any damage or injury to anyone off the range.

I also talked about the history of Complex 36. It was built by NASA back in the Apollo days, for testing the launch escape system. The whole complex is still like a time capsule of how rocketry was done. I say there is quite a bit of bureaucracy involved in a simple sounding rocket launch, but that is NOTHING like what has to be done to get something into orbit. There is an old saying about how you can't fly until the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the vehicle. Well, a sounding rocket is a pretty light vehicle, so there is still plenty of opportunity to get hands dirty.

I kept the crowd entertained with stories, with videos, with talks about sounding rockets in general and our mission in particular, until just before noon when we all went outside (about half a mile away from the launcher) and counted down to launch.

If you have never seen a rocket launch, you have no idea what one looks like. Pictures don't do it justice. A rocket is bright. If you have seen ten launches, you still don't remember what one looks like. It is brighter than you remember.

After the launch, we went back inside to listen to the chatter on the voice loops. The main payload worked fine, and the three scientists operating it collected the data they needed in space. After about 10 minutes, the rocket fell back into the atmosphere, slowed from about mach 7 to almost zero in about 20 seconds, then plummeted back to near the ground, when it fired its drogue and then main parachute, bringing it to a soft landing in the desert about 15 minutes after launch.

About an hour after landing, the Army sent a pair of helicopters out to pick up the payload. Three hours after launch, the payload was back in the barn. The data from the main payload was transmitted during the flight, but the Rocketometer had no telemetry transmission at all -- it was just a passenger. It recorded all the data on its own memory card.