VANDENBERG AFB, CA — This is what it’s like to attend a NASA launch.
5:56 p.m. Take a nap.
6:05 p.m. Can’t sleep.
6:16 p.m. Still can’t sleep.
6:40 p.m. Doze off.
7:11 You startle awake. You stare. Is that 7 p.m. or a.m.? WHAT??? DID I MISS IT???
7:12 p.m. You try to go back to sleep.
7: 23 p.m. You check your email.
7: 31 p.m. You check your Twitter account.
7:40 p.m. You read other people’s tweets.
7:56 p.m. You’re famished.
8:02 p.m. But you’re too exhausted to get up.
8:24 p.m. You’re in your rental car cruising the streets for dinner.
10:21 p.m. Lights out. You take nap #2.
10:40 p.m. You blink. You can’t believe it’s not 12:30. You force yourself to go back to sleep.
10:48 p.m. You breathe in. You breathe out.
11:41 p.m. You bolt up. It’s useless. You turn on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. You laugh. Jimmy Fallon is really funny.
11:50 p.m. You check your email, etc., again.
1:02 a.m. You head out the door, finally.
Winding road along the coast in pitch blackness and fog.
You freak out a little. You wonder if you’re crazy. Sane people don’t go speeding towards a military base in the middle of the night. All you could think of is Pliny the Elder running towards Mt. Vesuvius as it was spewing its murderous fire.
A rocket launch with 220,000 pounds of thrust is quite volcanic, you imagine.
1:52 a.m. The point of no return.2:01 a.m. I join those going toward the white light.2:06 a.m. Everyone is settling in on the bleachers in the public viewing area 3.2 miles from SLC2 (Space Launch Complex 2, pronounced “slic”), and listing to Delta Launch Control over the P.A. system.
Before us, nothing but darkness and fog.
2:17 a.m. @NASASocial host Stephanie Smith explains that the first missile launches at Vandenberg were failures, until . . . peanuts were eaten in Mission Control. “Everything went smoothly as the peanuts went back and forth,” Smith said.
I jot the following in my writer’s notebook while listening to Delta Launch Control:
2:49 a.m. “Zero Alpha, Alpha zero.”
2:50 a.m. “You have permission launch.”
Cheers erupt from the bleachers.
2:52 a.m. The viewing area lights go off.
For a moment, silence.
2:53 a.m. “Vehicle fuel tank open.”
2:53 a.m. “One and two heaters off.”
“Minus 90 seconds.”
“Check hydraulic pressure go.”
“Minus 70 seconds. Hydraulic . . . .”
“65 seconds. We got no water flow.”
2:56 “Hold water flow . . . main power on and apply . . . four-inch line.”
“Perform hydraulic . . . .”
2:57 “Launch will not be occurring this morning.”
Larry Hill, Director of Community Relations, apologizes for the “disappointment.”
Stephanie Smith says, “Better a good scrub than a bad launch.”
3:01 People start to leave.
3:17 Social media attendees linger, tweeting, chatting, reluctant to end a long, happy day in which we got to see and walk through many areas of a top-secret military base, chat with the brightest minds in science and engineering, meet Charles Bolden, the Administrator of NASA himself, and got treated like VIPs.
This what we saw yesterday:
The Cold War is dead and if NASA out to prove anything, it’s that science is fun and cool.
Women and minorities are not anomalies at NASA.
Youth is not disdained. (Many social media attendees were students.)
Age is revered. (Each succeeding generation of missiles is built on the knowledge of its predecessors.)
Science is a catalyst for improving lives. (Measuring the world’s carbon dioxide and offering solutions for “faster, cleaner and less noise” aeronautics, as a start.)
The NASA spirit is the indomitable human spirit. “We know how to get our butt kicked, pick ourselves up and press forward,” Charles Bolden said while standing in front of the OCO-2, just hours before the scheduled launch.
A failure to launch is not a failure, NASA. It’s a resounding success. Of the thousands of mechanical functions on board, you caught the malfunction. Seconds before liftoff. Before disaster struck. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is.
I, for one, am not disappointed. I got to experience an aborted launch. And just as you need shadow to see beauty, I needed to see NASA at “failure” to see NASA at its best. And the best is this: you DID launch yesterday. You launched yourselves into a new age with a new generation, with new work to do.
It’s not about who has the most toys anymore. Or who can reach whose motherland with a missile first.
It’s about being smart and helpful. It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about responsibility.
And when you try again tonight, I’ll be there — not for the reason I came in the first place — for the thrill, but because I want to be a part of that fearlessness that looks into the dying sun and leaps.
NASA, you ROCK it.