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The Magnificent Launch of Mars Global Surveyorby Donna Shirley
November 11, 1996
I arrived at "the Cape," as Cape Canaveral is known, a couple of days before the launch. There are two parts to the Cape: an air force facility at Cape Canaveral, and the Kennedy Space Center, which is NASA's launch facility. The space shuttle launches from the Kennedy Space Center, but most of the smaller rockets are launched from the air force facility which is closer to the ocean than Kennedy (known as KSC). MGS was to be launched from the air force side, on launch pad 17A.
The first day we had a review to make really sure that everything was ready for the launch. A review is when the project people present the status of the spacecraft, the mission, the launch vehicle, and the launch facilities to a review board of senior people who aren't connected with the project so they can be really objective.
There had been a few small problems with the launch vehicle, the Delta II 7925, built by McDonnell Douglas Corporation in Huntington Beach, California. The review board mainly wanted to be sure that all the problems had been fixed, and they had. There were some bugs in some new software for steering the vehicle, but the programmers had tracked them down and "patched" them. There were some actuators (mechanisms that move things) which were suspected of having been contaminated, but inspection proved that they weren't. So the review board agreed that it was OK to launch.
That afternoon John Callas, Wayne Lee (from the MGS project) and I made a series of speeches at the KSC visitor's center (called "Spaceport U.S.A."). We told people about the MGS mission and the Mars Exploration Program.
That night, Glenn Cunningham, the MGS project manager, and I gave a talk to members of the Planetary Society. Tony Spear and I will be giving a similar presentation on November 30 just before the Mars Pathfinder launch at 2 a.m. on December 2 (Tony is the Pathfinder project manager).
The next day was a briefing to family and friends of the MGS project people by the deputy director of KSC, by Ed Stone the director of JPL, by Wes Huntress the associate administrator for NASA's Office of Space Science, and by Glenn Cunningham. There was also the unveiling of a large mural which was painted by students at the Ypres School of Art in Los Angeles. The mural depicts the god Mars in a chariot drawn by four horses, led by the MGS spacecraft as it approaches the planet Mars. The god Mars is holding out his hand, inviting the students of the world to learn about the planet Mars. On the right side of the mural is a view of the planet Mars. Three of the children who worked on the mural were there for the unveiling. They ranged from 14 to 16 years old. The manager of the mural project, who is only 11, couldn't be there, but everyone was impressed with the quality of the work.
Finally, November 6, we were ready to attempt the launch. At about 4 a.m. the Delta launch vehicle with the MGS spacecraft tucked into the shroud on top, was rolled away from the structure that had supported it while it was being put together. The vehicle stood, shining with artificial light, and then in the rays of the morning sun, next to its "gantry" which allows liquid oxygen fuel to be loaded at the last minute before launch. MGS project people came out to the pad at 7 a.m. to admire the vehicle and to get a group photo taken. On the rocket was painted NASA, JPL and the names of the companies who built the spacecraft and launch vehicle. The gantry was painted with a big MGS.
In a very sad note, the name of Mary Kaye Olsen was painted below the MGS on the gantry. Mary Kaye had died suddenly, at the age of only 37, a couple of weeks before the launch. You can read Mary Kaye's bio on the Mars Team Online Team page. She was the person at NASA Headquarters who oversaw the MGS project, and everyone on the team liked and respected her. We kept a seat in the launch viewing area, full of flowers, in memory of Mary Kaye for the actual launch.
By 9 a.m. many of us "looky-loos" were crowded into the viewing area behind the consoles of the people controlling the launch vehicle as the countdown wound toward launch time (12:11 p.m. EST). The consoles are like the ones you see when a space shuttle is flying. There are computer screens with a lot of buttons that you can push to see different views of the launch vehicle, or to bring up information - like on the weather. Everyone wears earphones so that they can hear the countdown and listen to the engineers talking to each other to make sure that everything is OK. Glenn Cunningham, the MGS project manager, and George Pace, the MGS spacecraft manager were "on console," as was Bud McAnally, the manager of the MGS spacecraft project at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colorado. Lockheed Martin is our industrial partner and is building the two Mars Surveyor 98 spacecraft as well as MGS.
Everyone was watching the weather. At a press briefing the day before the weather expert had said that he thought the weather would be fine for the launch, but the day was clouding over rapidly. Every hour or so weather balloons were sent up to measure the winds "aloft." If the clouds were too thick there was danger of lightning striking the rocket. And if the winds were too strong it could get blown off course. Our eyes were glued to a large TV screen in front of the consoles that displayed weather maps and plots of the winds. At four minutes to noon there was a 10-minute "hold" while we waited for the weather to clear. But it didn't.
There were two times each day when the rocket could be launched, when the trajectory could be lined up just right to get to Mars. The first opportunity passed at 12:11 and we all waited anxiously for the next opportunity, which was at 1:15. The launch vehicle controllers quickly loaded new software parameters into the vehicle's computer to account for the different launch time. The countdown resumed. Every now and then we'd go outside to peer at the clouds. Suddenly, the clouds looked as if they were breaking up. Everyone thought - "We're going to make it." But suddenly, at about a minute before 1:15 a loud voice shouted "HOLD, HOLD, HOLD" over the loud speakers. The launch had been cancelled at the last minute because the winds aloft were too strong.
Disappointed, everyone straggled away and the launch vehicle people began to "safe" the rocket and store it for a try again the next day.
That night there was a big party, originally planned for a post-launch party, but which turned into a pre-launch party. The next morning, everything was repeated, but this time the weather was beautiful. At about 10 minutes to noon some of us ran outside and were bussed over to a viewing area a couple of miles from the launch pad. The loudspeaker counted down, joined by the crowd, "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero." And at exactly noon there was a brilliant flash and a roar and the loudspeakers announced "We have ignition!" The rocket rose on a column of smoke and flame and arced through the cloudless sky. We could see six solid rocket motors fall away in little trails of smoke at just the right time. We cheered until the rocket disappeared into the blue, then we ran back to the bus and went back to the control room.
Every event was tracked by different tracking stations around the Earth. When the rocket passed over the Indian Ocean it was too far from any land stations to be "heard," so two aircraft were flown to listen for the radio signals. Then we cheered when the tracking stations in Australia acquired the signal. Everything happened exactly on time. The solid rockets burned out and dropped away. The first and second stages ignited and then shut off. The rocket "coasted" in a "parking orbit" for almost an hour before the third stage burned to send the spacecraft on its way to Mars. Then the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle and was on its own. There were several anxious minutes until the Deep Space Network tracking antennas heard the spacecraft's own signals...but then there they were! The launch was successful!
There was an orgy of handshaking and hugs all around. Glenn Cunningham and George Pace had huge grins. The spacecraft team was now in charge and they began studying the telemetry from the spacecraft to make sure that everything was as planned. Some of the early results were puzzling and the spacecraft team determined that one of the solar panels hadn't unfolded completely. It was at an angle about 20 degrees from where it was supposed to be. This was no problem yet because there was plenty of power being provided by the solar arrays this close to the sun. Everything else was working perfectly and the engineers began diagnosing the solar array situation. They concluded that it was probably not a serious problem, and they had plenty of time to fix it before the first trajectory correction maneuver scheduled for 13 days after launch.
Then there was a press briefing by Glenn, Wes Huntress, Bud McAnally, and people from the Goddard Space Flight Center (managers of the launch vehicle contract). Finally, there was an impromptu party organized by Mike Malin, principal investigator of the MGS camera, where a lot of chicken wings and shrimp were eaten. That night I was interviewed on MSNBC for an "online chat" on the Internet. People sent in questions to the "chat room" and I dictated the answers to Melinda, who typed them in. It was an odd experience - say - ing - ever - y - thing - ver - y - slow - ly - so - Mel - in - da - could - type.
Well, MGS is on its way to Mars. The next big event is the launch of the Russian Mars 96 mission on November 16. Then Pathfinder launches on December 2. Since that's a night launch it will be spectacular. Our fleet will be getting ready to invade Mars starting in July.