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Ready for Takeoff

Once we arrived at Andrews and cleared the entry gate security checks, the spacecraft and all of its support equipment were carefully transferred to a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III from the 315th Reserve Air Lift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina.

The C-17 is an impressive airplane. I have flown on C-130s both in the U.S. and down to Antarctica, and I've seen C-141s and C-5As at air shows. But the Globemaster is the belle of the ball when it comes to heavy military transports. The C-17 is fully modern — from its well- engineered payload-bay loading systems to its glass cockpit requiring only a two-person crew. And it is huge — 174 feet long, with a 169-foot wingspan, and a height of 55 feet.

New Horizons was expertly loaded aboard our C-17 by a combined Air Force-APL crew directed by C-17 loadmaster Sgt. Brian Farmintino and Vernon. Five careful fork lifts later, the spacecraft and support gear were aboard the C-17. By the time everything was secured for flight and the purge system reactivated, it was almost 1 a.m. on Saturday. Sept. 24.

Our ride to the Cape: On the ramp at Kennedy Space Center.

APL's Steve Vernon (center) discusses loading plans with loadmaster SSgt. Brian Farmintino (to his left) and other crew members.

(Click on the images for larger versions.)

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

Soon, the Globemaster's cargo gate was raised and the aircraft's four giant Pratt and Whitney F117-PW-100 engines were started. After a short safety briefing to the APL crew and myself (and yes, we had to turn off our cell phones), we rolled. Steve Vernon and I sat together for takeoff. Just after the C-17 rotated off the runway, one of us (I can't recall who) said, "Next time New Horizons lifts off, we won't be there, will we?"

Within minutes, we'd taken the active runway and departed to the north, turned over D.C., and headed south, toward Florida, just under two hours and 750 miles ahead.

Shortly after liftoff, I was invited to fly the remainder of the flight in the cockpit's jump seat. As a general aviation pilot with 25 years of experience, a former WB-57 and F-18 flyer, and an aviation nut of the first rank, it took me about 300 milliseconds to say yes to the cockpit offer!

Up on the flight deck were Col. Brian Faulkner and Maj. Ed Schmidt. Both men are reservists, who had flown over three dozen C-17 missions to Iraq as a part of their duties. Col. Faulkner had also flown the Mars Climate Orbiter from JPL to the Cape in 1998.

The C-17's cockpit looks a lot like the layout of space shuttle simulators I have "flown" in, with big CRTs arranged symmetrically on either side of the center console, fighter-like sticks at each pilot station, and an array of overhead and aft panels studded with switches and circuit breakers.

The sky was clear and as smooth as glass as we flew down the Atlantic coast, passing Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, and a host of smaller seaboard towns. By 2:30 a.m., Orlando air traffic control center had handed us off to KSC for a landing on the shuttle runway.

The flight deck of a C-17.
( U.S. Air Force photo)
(Click on the image for a larger version.)

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New Horizons: Ready for unloading, on the ramp at Kennedy Space Center.
(Click on the image for a larger version.)

The nighttime approach into KSC's Runway 15 aboard the C-17 was really a treat, and the flight crew and I talked about the fact that this is something like how it looks to land a shuttle at night in Florida as we flew down the approach corridor and onto the 15,000-foot runway designed for returning space planes. Maj. Schmidt flew the approach from the right seat and set us down as smoothly as I have ever been landed anywhere—and far more smoothly than the commercial flight I took back to Maryland the next day.

At 02:41 we were wheels down, and 15 minutes later, we were out of the aircraft on the ramp, ready to begin unloading humankind's first spaceship to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt from its Globemaster transport.

As I stepped off the aircraft, KSC's Chuck Tatro and a crowd of perhaps 40 NASA, APL and contractor personnel greeted us in the warm, humid Florida night. KSC and APL photo teams emerged to document the spacecraft's arrival. Friends like APL Project Manager Glen Fountain and his assistant, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski, were there as well. The project was really on the ground at KSC!

"Welcome to the launch site, Dr. Stern," Tatro said. It was simultaneously sublime and surreal. A shiver ran up my spine. After 17 years of work, a Pluto mission had finally arrived at the Cape .

I thought to myself, T-minus 110 days and counting . . .

< Part 1: Changes in Latitude