People in the rocket launching business, no surprise, have seen lots of rocket launches. The same for people who make spacecraft, because they have to be on hand to make sure the payload is alright, which is the point of the whole expensive exercise. The rest of us had better treat a rocket launch like a special occasion.
I’m writing aboard a charter flight from Cayenne to Paris, returning home from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana after viewing, as a guest of the European Space Agency, the launch of its latest science mission – Gaia, a €740 million project to map the Milky Way in unprecedented 3D accuracy.
Before I set off from London two days ago, friends or colleagues who learned where I was going invariably used the words “experience of a lifetime”. Having done it, I can only agree – even as a journalist who’s had his share of experiences of a lifetime on other people’s money.
But for a few ticks of fate, this would actually have been my third trip to see a launch. But fate intervenes, so I wasn’t counting my experiences until I actually saw the Soyuz rocket leave the ground in its fire and fury. Weather or glitches happen, and it’s not unusual for a party like this one – mission stakeholders and press – to fly back home without seeing anything.
Such is the nature of this business, and that’s without considering the possibility of disaster. ESA, Astrium (which built Gaia) and Arianespace (which runs the launches in French Guiana) have an excellent reliability record, but every successful launch is a cause for celebration. As one of the men from Astrium could be heard calling out to Gaia as the brightest star in the early morning sky rose steadily above our heads, “Vol, mon petit – vol!”
My handheld photo here does the scene no justice, but I like to show the blossom effect of the rocket’s exhaust; more seasoned watchers said later that this excellent view – as dawn broke – of such a wonder made this the most perfect flight they’d seen.
By definition, I have to say I’m with them. But it’s hard to think how to improve on flight VS06, or Vol Soyuz no 6 (6 from Guiana, that is; since 1966 Soyuz rockets have flown more than 1,800 times). With lift-off at 0612 local time (0912 GMT), the sky was just getting light, so the rocket thrusting up on the pad lit it up like daytime and, once at altitude, the sun on the exhaust tail was magical; indeed, the backlit sky actually sparkled as debris settled when used stages were discarded.
That image, which could only be seen first-hand, is something I’ll remember vividly whenever I think about a mission to scan the sky and find a billion stars.
Another reason watching a rocket launch is such a rare treat is that, mostly, launch sites are remote places not easily visited. Cayenne is 10hrs’ flying time from Paris, so nobody just happens by and stops for a minute to watch a rocket scream away. Likewise the Russians’ main launch site, Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. As for Plesetsk cosmodrome, that’s on a military base 800km north of Moscow and just outside the Arctic circle – useful for flying the modified ballistic missiles that nowadays lift many a satellite to polar orbit, but not exactly a tourism hot-spot.
The Chinese launch from remote places under strict military control; one colleague on this Cayenne trip who attended the recent International Astronautical Union conference in Beijing says he was surprised (or not, given China) to find that none of the Chinese journalists who follow spaceflight had seen a launch.
Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is probably the exception to the rule, at least for people in southern Florida. But tales are many of great expense and logistical hassle undertaken in vain to watch Space Shuttle launches that got delayed.
Security and safety also works against the launch fan. London, New York and Paris don’t have spaceports because it’s better if a failed launch drops pieces of burning rocket a little farther from populated areas.
And, it’s also best to launch as far south as possible, because the rotation of the Earth gives the rocket a big extra sling – on the order of an extra 460m/s speed in French Guiana – which translates into more payload to orbit. Baikonur is the most southerly point in the old Soviet Union, and remote. Canaveral likewise, though it’s only remote for launches to the East; they don’t launch to the North from there, so as not to fly over the Eastern seabord. When NASA or the US Air Force launch to a polar orbit, which is ideal for Earth observation satellites because the globe spins under them and hence they see every point on the surface periodically, launches are from Vandenberg air force base in California, to fly over the desert.
Hence the beauty of Europe’s facility in French Guiana, which is arguably the best place on the planet for launching rockets. At just 5° north of the Equator and on the shoulder of South America, launches to the North or East are over water and the payload benefit is huge – a Soyuz rocket launched there can orbit about 35% more mass than one flying from Baikonur.
Not only that, French Guiana is legally part of France, which makes life easy for Europeans visa-wise, and makes for good security. And, it doesn’t have hurricanes – a problem for many Florida launches.
To which I would add that the food is good, the people friendly and the weather very pleasant; December conditions back in northern Europe have been particularly foul these last couple days, apparently.
By any measure, then, an experience of a lifetime!