As the rocket disappeared into the clouds after about 4 minutes of flight, the crowd was hushed for a moment. It was as if we had all held our breath, the sight was so awesome. Then the place erupted in cheers and applause. One of the founders of the nascent satellite company, ProtoStar, was so overcome he couldn't speak for another 3 minutes. In those seven minutes the company went from powerpoint to production, from vision to a real operating business. And we had one of the most awesome experiences we will ever have. Check out the video, and read on.
ProtoStar was the glimmer in the eyes of one founder, who had worked on launching a new satellite company for a decade, and of the CEO, who had worked on ProtoStar for seven years, seven years struggling for money, management, and means to pull off a huge opportunity: direct to home video over Asia, serving the burgeoning middle class with HD from around the world, across a vast area.
Satellites are a high stakes game. The 'stack' which launches runs $250M a pop, and many things can go wrong in the time to the slot in the sky. Once there, they can settle in for 15 years of life; but maybe the batteries go bad early, or some space junk hits the 'bird' and clips its wings, or a solar flare fries the sucker. But the huge risk is in the launch itself.
As we sat listening to the pre-launch briefing, i counted my lucky 7s:
7 years ago the company started
7 hours the launch would be attempted
7 minutes prior the launch goes on automatic
7 seconds prior the fuel arms retract
7 seconds after the main engine fires, the side launchers light
7 minutes in flight it hits orbital velocity
27 minutes the upper satellite separates
By 37 minutes it should get acquired and be under ground control.
At 37 and 7 seconds the insurance guy is informed and he starts breathing again
70 hours later ProtoStar should be entering its slot over Asia.
700 hours later it should go into service
700 days it goes IPO!! Woo woo
The satellite will continue on for 2x7 years.
We milled around for a while after the bird soared into the clouds. The launch went off on schedule, and we were told it was flawless so far. The launch was handled by the European Arianespace, and the Ariane representatives at the site said it was the most spectacular launch they had seen. Maybe they say this to all their customers, but we had ideal conditions.
We launched from French Guiana, around the edge of South America from the Caribbean, on the way to Brazil, where there was water to the East (for a geosynchronous orbit) and to the North (for a polar orbit). Two degrees off the Equator, it has huge advantages in throw weight for a geo orbit - 50% more weight can be launched than at the Cape or Baikanor, the the Russian launch site in Kazakhstan. (When launched at a higher latitude, the satellite has an angle to the Equator, and fuel must be spent to get it back to 0 degrees inclination. Fuel means life to a geo satellite, as once in the slot 22K miles above the Earth, it jiggles around, and onboard fuel is used to keep it from drifiting away into the cold of space.)
It rains a lot in the Guianas. Normally they will launch in rain, but not in a thunderstorm where lightening could hit the vehicle, nor in low clouds, where they would lack visual warning if something went awry. (Run! Run! But where to??) We had gas masks nearby, as the fuel is poisonous, even though our viewing site was 4km from the lauch site. In contrast, I have heard that in Baikanor, the visitors hunker down in a bunker less than a Km away, and rush out after ignition (if nothing has blown up) to see it rise. The Russians use a form of kerosene, so gas masks are not necessary. Nor are there many lawyers yet in Russia.
Earlier that day, thunderstorms came through, and as launch approached in the evening (we launched at dusk), low rain clouds threatened to hustle in and scrub the launch. At T-Time, as they say, the skies were a deep blue, the clouds off in the distance, and the weather relatively cool and light for a tropical spot inches from the massive Amazon rain forests. Within half an hour after launch, we had to hustle under a covered area as the clouds came in and drenched the place. But our lucky 7's had held, and Ariane had their photo-op launch story.
Earlier that day we had the nickel tour. The boss of Arianespace gave the obligatory speech - he apparently comes to every launch. And for $150M a pop, you would too! We visited the launch site of our satellite and got within a Baikanor distance - with gas masks - for a photo op. We also saw the new launch site for the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Interestingly, they are duplicating the Russian launch system with only one exception, down to the building layout and types of concrete and pad construction. This makes sense, as the Russian system works - why change it? They have a whole different philosophy, one the West should emulate. Instead of complex vehicles with cyrogenic cooling and exotic fuels, with titanium hulls and layers of software and failsafe devices, they built for cheap simplicity. For example, their side-launchers are not fastened to the main vehicle firmly, with software to release them; they are plugged in with simple ball joints. As the side launchers fire, the force upwards keeps them in place. When the fuel is expended, they simply fall off. Simple! And fail safe without software.
(Elan Musk, of the all electric Tesla car, is also pursuing a reusable and cheap launch vehicle in his SpaceX company. He is taking the Russian approach one step farther, and having the most expensive parts, the rocket motors themselves, parachute back to Earth to be recovered and refurbished. Let's hope he succeeds in lowering the cost of Space.)
After the launch, we had the official celebration, and later skipped out to go to the engineers' party. Less glamorous, but more fun in the hot night. Yes, after launch, the humidity returned, the Poodle-sized mosquitos re-emerged, and we watched the skilled and successful launch engineers sweat and sway to a local DJ into the wee hours.
Sometime that evening we were informed that the solar arrays had deployed on schedule. We imagined little ProtoStar I, with its wings unfolded, flying high in the sky towards its slot in the sky. Protostar had wings!
It is a tradition to throw the customer in the pool - a welcome one at that, given the heat. But we were in the land of Lawyers, not Russia, so they had fenced in the pool and tried to stop the practice. Instead, we looked around for those large Gatorade barrels you see at Gridiron Football games, where the coach gets drenched after a victory, rain or shine, sleet or snow. We settled for some smallish ice buckets and honored the CEO with ice cold water. After the initial shock, he thanked us for cooling him off!
The next day, back on the private jet from Arianespace and off to the real world again. The CEO was already fast on the cellphone, working deals and handling problems. He has now entered the world of big-belly politics, of large politically-connected companies, military gear and spy satellites, and lots of International wrangling and pressure. Satellite companies are not for the faint of heart.
The rest of us dreamed of the next one, in Baikanor, in February, where they say it is so cold, the beer freezes from can to throat.
I once had a chance to see the largest launch vehicle of them all, the vaunted Saturn V that took us to the Moon. The launch was delayed, and the family at the Cape who had graciously let me stay said, don't worry, there will be others! It was Apollo 17, the last moon launch. So I now grab them when I can. Maybe even in the cold steppes of Russia.