May, 2018 — Why would you do that?” my son, Mike Surline, asked. “A long way to go, to see something that lasts only seconds.”
Yes, why? I’d just told him that I had traveled from Denver to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, to witness the launch of his battery — the INSIGHT spacecraft battery he managed and tested — to Mars. He just didn’t get it.
“Your dad helped build the first Mars lander, Viking, y’know,” I said. “You were born while Terry was on the Viking project.”
Terry Surline had become an Air Force engineering manager for the NASA Titan rocket program before returning to Lockheed Martin as a civilian. He was part of the famous Viking mission, a Colorado-based Martin Marietta aerospace project that landed the first successful robot on Mars in 1976.
“Later, when we moved from Denver to Vandenberg you were in pre-school,” I explained. “Terry was a countdown manager on the Titan rocket program. Now, here you are — a technician who makes batteries at the same aerospace company your dad worked for. Your battery will power the next Mars robot. How cool is that? So, I have to see it, see it safely off the earth … see?”
Besides his dad (who died when Mike was 15), Mike’s family includes several “rocket scientists” – his step-dad who also worked on Viking, his uncle on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (another Colorado project) and me, his mom, an engineer on satellite programs. Although our family had built and launched model rockets for fun, I think Mike was a little surprised when I recently built a 3-stager that flew up from a Bear Creek field to 2,000 feet above ground. It deployed like a perfect ULA (United Launch Alliance) rocket.
ULA, whose headquarters is in Centennial, Colorado, built the Atlas V rocket that would propel INSIGHT to Mars. This would be the very first Mars-bound rocket to take off from Vandenberg. (Until now, all planetary rockets have gone from Cape Canaveral, Florida.)
When Mike was six, we visited a real Titan III-C, on its launchpad, not yet loaded with hypergolic fuels but nearly ready for launch. The tour was to let families see what their fathers or mothers had been working on for weeks, 24-7. The size of the vehicle shocked me – fifteen stories tall, and a daunting number of wires/tubes/cables. We formed a line to walk past, staring up the towering structure. When no one was watching, I popped out of line briefly to touch it. I’d always wanted to touch something that would go to outer space, or at least “as far as we can go”.
Hours before the launch of INSIGHT (acronym: Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport) — This was my first night launch. I arrived at the meeting site at 2 a.m. with my backpack that held two cameras and binoculars. I’d garnered a press pass — also a first for me — and was feeling grateful tp be among journalists representing countries in the Mars alliance: England, France, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.
After guard dogs inspected our packs the military personnel escorted us onto a bus. Off we traveled to the viewing area where I was primed to see “Mike’s rocket” on the launchpad. As the bus climbed a spooky mountain road we traveled through patches of fog and it was then I remembered: Vandenberg’s nickname was Vandenfog. But I dismissed even the possibility that fog would prevent us from seeing the launch, or worse, prevent the launch itself.
I remember taking Mike out of school to watch the launch of that Titan III-C, the one I touched. Although he’d heard many rockets blast off at Vandenberg, he’d not yet seen one. He loved the sound of dogs who would howl like crazy for about 15 seconds before we heard the engines roar. Pet and prairie dogs could detect sounds of ignition before our human ears did.
That morning when the dogs started yelping, Mike began jumping up and down, pointing toward the horizon, and there went “Daddy’s rocket” over the Pacific Ocean. We were transfixed as it traveled its arc. With no one else on the beach, it was our scene alone. Mike said (thoughtfully, for a six-year old) “It’s like we own this rocket.” What he meant was, it was like we owned that sight of the rocket, which no one was sharing except a few prairie dogs. The image of it sailing over the ocean was ours to keep in our heads. It lasted only seconds and then it was gone, into the clouds, but our memories would last forever.
Upon exiting the bus, guards warned us not to trip over the edge of the cliff, a real possibility. I was astounded to step onto what could be the surface of the Red Planet (except for the red part). The scene was ghostly — bright lights shining on white expanses of rough gravel and rocky ridges — as if we’d landed from black outer space onto a foreign landscape.
On the bus I’d met journalist from the Armed Services of America who had come to write a story. She and I made our way across the gravel to seats which fronted the view of the launchpad. The Atlas five-engine rocket was out there, somewhere, in the dark night. We couldn’t see the pad; we couldn’t see anything. Occasionally we’d hear a voice over a PA system, broadcasting updates from Mission Control. Everything seemed nominal for launch.
My new friend, the writer from Armed Services of America, was interviewed by a Swiss TV reporter. She described how exciting this assignment was for her, how thrilling to report on a multi-country collaboration. Then the reporter invited me to be interviewed, too, and I told Swiss viewers that I had just arrived from Colorado where the spacecraft was made, where the rocket company was located. Then I told them the story about how father and son each worked on a Mars lander, the first in 1971 and this one, 2018.
The fog became thicker. About 150 journalists/photographers stood two hours in a line along the cliff, staring into black abyss. Cameras pointed at nothing definitive. Occasionally the fog would lift to reveal only hazy lights beyond.
My son touched this spacecraft. While waiting, I considered this fact. He touched the feet of the robot that would stand on Mars, 300 million miles from Earth. It would use its battery to drill deep into Martian soil, discovering more about its origin.
If it launched this night, May 5th, INSIGHT would land on Nov. 26, 2018. Tonight’s launch was just the beginning — it must travel for over six months, then land safely. Humans would not see it touch down in real-time, however, because of an interplanetary 16-minute data transmission delay.
…“Propulsion: Go!“ “Fuel: Go!” “Power: Go!” “Guidance: Go!” said systems managers, one by one. “INSIGHT: Go!”
“All systems are GO for launch!”
Finally, it was happening.
“10-9-8-7…” We counted in unison. “6-5-4…” We steadied our cameras. “…3-2-1.” We held our collective breath. Nothing. No barking dogs. We examined the whole sky. We groaned. Then it came, at last – the rumble. The ground vibrated. We scanned the vista — but no flashing lights, just endless shadow. “One mile downrange,” said a voice. A mile downrange? We’d seen nothing. Everyone’s shoulders and smiles dropped simultaneously. Except mine. I didn’t need to see it after all — it was working! From what I heard over the PA, it was a successful launch, nominal, A-OK.
Atlas V carried INSIGHT to leave the earth. They left the earth.
Did anyone besides me cry (in ecstasy)? Probably Emily, an engineer I interviewed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. She had worked on the program for a year, was ecstatic, and was planning to monitor the spacecraft’s vitals for the next six months as it soared to Mars.
When the battery powers INSIGHT to touch down today around 1 p.m., MDT, we won’t be able to see it in real-time because of an inter-planetary data transmission delay. But we will ‘see’ it 16 minutes later. Tune in online, or on the NASA TV channel, and witness the work of thousands of Coloradans in action.