NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Deputy Mission Systems Engineer
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
For me, launch started on Jan. 16, 2006. That was rollout day, when the Atlas launch vehicle was rolled along train tracks between its vertical integration building and the launch pad. There was concern that a wire could break during the rollout on the third stage, which would cause the spacecraft to freely rotate inside its protective fairing. The only way to detect that was to turn on the New Horizons guidance and control processor and the inertial measurement unit to see if it was unintentionally spinning.
The rollout started at 10:25 a.m., and completed 44 minutes later. During that time I could see every small motion of the launch vehicle stack, which was very entertaining to watch. That was a prerequisite to launching, and everyone was happy to see the wire held.
The first attempt at launch was on Jan. 17, but was scrubbed due to cloudy weather in Florida, so we had to spend several hours recycling the spacecraft for the attempt the next day. The second attempt, on Jan. 18, was scrubbed due to a power outage at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland. The Mission Operations Center at APL was left with a single working terminal that was operating off a battery; the data processing center was overheating because the A/C was off, so there were large fans and ductwork running throughout the building, trying to pump the hot air out. (Someone commented it was like being in a submarine, where you had to hop over tubes in dark, hot rooms waiting for the spacecraft to launch.) Everyone was working hard to see if we could meet our launch requirements, because we all wanted to go, go, go. However, mission managers (including Mission Systems Engineer David Kusnierkiewicz) made the correct call not to launch that day. If anything had gone wrong after launch it would have been difficult to work crowded around a single computer.
So, the third time was the charm. We finally launched on Jan. 19, about 52 minutes into the launch window (again, due to cloud cover). What amazed me was how fast the rocket leapt off the launch pad. I had seen many launches in the past, and usually there is a slow acceleration as the rocket picks up speed, but not in our case. We were quickly on our way, eager to get started and headed out at more than 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) per second. We heard back from New Horizons 50 minutes later, briefly celebrated, and then we quickly began our work to get the spacecraft to Pluto, a job that took 9 1/2 years.
So, hurry up and wait.
A chart tracking changes in the motion of the New Horizons spacecraft as it "rolled" atop its Atlas V launch vehicle to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Jan. 16, 2006. (Credit: Gabe Rogers)
Gabe Rogers (standing, second from right) and other members of the New Horizons team celebrate in the Mission Operations Center at APL as the spacecraft lifts off toward Pluto and the Kuiper Belt on Jan. 19, 2006. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)
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