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[XTE] XTE Guest Observer Facility

Eye-Witness Accounts of the Launch

Paula Fortner, aged 10

December 30, 1995 was one of the most exciting days of my life. That day I got to see a Delta Rocket blast off. Inside the rocket was the XTE satellite. The launch had been delayed seven times. I sat through the first two launch attempts, and the last two attempts. Of course, the very last attempt was successful.

Even though I had a V.I.P. ticket, I wasn't able to see the rocket very well. It was hard to make out a shape. It looked like half a toothpick.

When I got to the bleachers on December 30th, I heard "4 minutes, and counting" over the loud speakers. The excitement grew. You could almost hear people thinking "I don't believe I'm actually going to see this!" Cameras were being prepared, and everyone was silent. "20 seconds" (pause), "14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ignition!" Gigantic clouds of smoke burst out in two directions, orange flames burned directly below the rocket. The rocket slowly rose into the sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke. We didn't start to hear the booming, thundering noise of the main engine until the rocket was a few hundred feet in the air.

I felt patriotic as the rocket disappeared into the clouds, leaving earth behind, on its journey through space.

Professor Hale Bradt, MIT

All I can say is that the launch was incredibly impressive given my knowledge of the many technical systems that had to work perfectly: first stage, firing and jettisoning of 6 boosters, firing and jettison of 3 more air-lit boosters, proper orientation of the second stage with the vernier engines of the first stage, separation, second stage firing, and shutdown - and of course the guidance systems through all of this. But that was not all: an hour later, the reorientation and second burn had to go perfectly, followed by another reorientation, separation of the spacecraft, and then deployment of the spacecraft solar panels and high-gain antennas. After all the disappointments, technical issues, delays and many launch attempts, I was just not prepared for essentially unadulterated good news, but it happened!

I was in the control center listening to the circuits and watching the videos. I did not try to go outside to see the real thing, preferring to hear all the voice circuits and also the close-ups on the video monitors. At ignition, I watched the close-up of the base of the rocket and saw the flames from the main engines and watched to see the solid ignitions. I did not see it as the flash apparently overloaded the cameras momentarily, and after that the view was obscured by smoke. I then took to watching the bird on another monitor; it was already beyond the tower. One could see the smoke from all 6 solids, and it was moving out like blazes. I looked at the little white nipple on the front of this 12-story rocket and realized that our entire spacecraft, so lovingly built and nurtured, was inside there getting the ride of its life. I knew a whole lot was riding on these moments.

After one minute, the first 6 solid boosters were jettisoned, and this was clearly visible in the telescopic view; the boosters were the long white things in the image. The plumes from the second set of 3 boosters were as impressive as the first six, and their jettisoning at the end of two minutes was clearly visible also, but here the bright hot spots of their exhausts was most apparent. I did not follow the image to see if I could see the second stage ignition. My attention was alternately on the image, on the expected times of events (on another monitor), and/or the audio.

I found the audio to be very exciting. The McDonnell Douglas person calling out the performance at all stages with the words "nominal performance" or some such during each stage was very very reassuring. Hearing the audio from the SOC/MOC at GSFC that our spacecraft broadcasting had been picked up by TDRSS was another special moment. The continuing updating by Mike Bay (at GSFC) of the status of the gyro readouts was much appreciated. Here was the spacecraft telling us how the 2nd stage rocket was performing. At this time, even before separation, it was like there were two heads. The MacD. person telling us of the performance of the 2nd stage and Mike telling us the perspective of the spacecraft. Then, after separation, it was like two worlds. The second stage still had numerous maneuvers and/or burns to get out of the way of the spacecraft and to expend its fuel while the spacecraft was busy with its own concerns (deployments, etc.) It was truly a birth process. The spacecraft was on its completely on its own in this world of extreme temperatures and no atmosphere. Would it succeed in its appointed tasks; it appears that indeed it will!

I might add that, shortly after launch (30 sec?), I could hear the roar of the engines through the walls of the building I was in. At the same time I was watching the video of the rising rocket - very impressive. I was probably 3 miles from the launch pad (maybe more).

All of this, of course, was possible and successful because of heroic efforts by a large number of dedicated people including the McDonnell Douglas team, the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station personnel, the numerous teams at Goddard Space Flight Center, the science teams at UCSD, GSFC, and MIT, and the many, many vendors of flight worthy hardware that was provided to these groups. I came out of the control center into the bright Florida sunlight very very grateful to hundreds of people, many of whom I didn't even know. I trust the science from XTE will be worthy of their great efforts.

Please send questions/problem reports to: xtehelp@athena.gsfc.nasa.gov

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