NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Science Team Member
I was thrilled to be able to see my first launch with New Horizons in January 2006. In hopes of taking some photos, I had brought my early DSLR camera along to Kennedy Space Center (this was well before the smartphone). The first two launch dates were canceled due to weather. On the third day, we loaded onto six NASA buses, which took us to the launch viewing site on a sandy beach of the Banana River, about eight miles southwest of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. From here, we had a distant view of the pad, and could hear the commentary from launch control coming over the large speakers that had been installed for us.
I knew that at this long distance I wasn't going to be able to take any pictures of the rocket itself that compared with those from the professionals with their close-up, high-speed cameras, so I didn't try. Instead, as we gathered for the countdown and the launch, I stood in front of the crowd, turned toward them, and took pictures of the cheers, cries, hugs, and applause. Here are a few of my favorites:
New Horizons team and family members cheer the launch of the spacecraft on January 19, 2006, from NASA's viewing site on the Banana River near Kennedy Space Center, Florida. (Credit: Henry Throop)
Scientist David Grinspoon cheers as the rocket carrying New Horizons soars into the clouds, about a minute after launch. (Credit: Henry Throop)
New Horizons team member Paul Schenk and Carter Emmart celebrate, moments after launch. (Credit: Henry Throop)
We watched the launch vehicle clear the tower in three seconds, and disappear into the spotty clouds about 30 seconds later. Two minutes in, listening over the PA, we heard that the solid-rocket boosters were successfully jettisoned. This was one of many critical steps on the path toward the final burn, when the spacecraft gets released in the exact direction for it to glide through space, unpowered, on its way to Pluto. Together, all of these steps take about 50 minutes. We were standing on the beach, listening closely to the commentary, and cheering after each announcement.
And then the NASA bus drivers came over and started herding us back on the buses.
I protested: "Hang on! The launch just started -- can't we just stay out here until it's done? We still have 45 minutes until we're on the way to Pluto. If we get on the bus now, we're going to miss it!"
Our bus driver, Earl: "I'm following the schedule they give me. I gotta get these buses back -- we gotta leave in four minutes. Even if I left you here, they're going to pack up the PA system, so it won't do you any good."
So our lifeline of information was cut! We got on our bus, with a mixture of the excitement of the launch, and the nervousness of being out of contact with it. The buses pulled onto the highway. The small TVs above our heads started playing stock footage about the International Space Station.
And then I got a call on the flip phone in my pocket. (This was 2006 -- the iPhone was still a year away.) It was my sister, who was in her lab in Arizona, listening to the live NASA TV broadcast. She was thousands of miles away, but because she had an internet connection, she knew more about what was happening with the launch than we did, seven miles from the launch pad.
I asked Earl if I could commandeer the bus PA system. He gave me the mic and cranked up the volume, and I had my sister position her phone next to her computer's speaker. I held my phone up to the mic, and then we were listening to the launch commentary live! There were six buses of New Horizons fans at the most intense moment of the nascent mission, driving along a Florida freeway, and we were the only ones on the road who knew what was happening. We drove back to Kennedy while cheering after each event. 'Solid rocket boosters ejected', 'Entering 20-minute cruise phase', 'Signal acquired by South Africa station', 'Upper stage ignited', 'Star-48 burn nominal', 'Centaur disconnect confirmed... payload is on a nominal trajectory to Pluto.' And we pulled back into parking lot at Kennedy just as the spacecraft separated.
In today's era, all of us have smartphones and we'd be monitoring the launch progress online, just like space fans from around the world do for NASA launches every month. But in 2006, before the era of the smartphone, we could send a spacecraft to Pluto, but being able to follow the launch from the road took special arrangements.
Listening to the live launch commentary on the bus ride back to Kennedy Space Center, by holding a speakerphone up to the bus's PA system. (Credit: Henry Throop)
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