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7.2.19 - NASA Ascent Abort 2 Launch

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

I love being part of a NASA family. It means that I get numerous opportunities to interact with our space program, and the experiences never cease to amaze. My wife is an Engineer at NASA, so I have been aware of her work with the LAS (Launch Abort System) for the Orion Crew Module for a while now, and we have been looking forward to this launch since we found out we were pregnant in 2017. I was fortunate enough to observe the the test of the LAS this month with my son and Mother-in-law as the Ascent Abort 2 test flight successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral AFB. The pictures don't do the experience justice, but they are as close as I can get.



I have always loved the cosmos, and the human passion to discern our universe as a whole. I have to admit that I sometimes regret my decision not to pursue astronomy and astrophysics in college, but it's hard to say if I would have loved the daily work as much as I love to read about new discoveries. Regardless of these past decisions, I always find myself consuming the newest information on our understanding of the universe, and our continuous endeavor to experience life beyond Earth through human spaceflight. It is still my contention that our venture into space is one of the single greatest triumphs of humanity, and I will always support the continuation of that endeavor. Needless to say, I am enamored by my wife's career, and all she does to promote a human presence in space (however small and seemingly insignificant as it might seem to her sometimes given the size of the endeavor).


While my wife's efforts on the Ascent Abort 2 test flight mission were largely analytical, and focused on the range safety portion of the flight, they were nonetheless very valuable to the success of the mission. In addition, she had the honor of representing the many contributors from numerous agencies and private companies that contributed to the success of this mission during a broadcast on NASA TV:


The linked video is owned and distributed by National Aeronautics and Space Administration


While my wife was working on the set of NASA TV explaining the nuances of the mission, I was in a very different environment trying to make my small contribution to the event with my son and Mother-in-Law along the Jetty Park Pier.


We arrived in Orlando, Florida the Sunday prior to the launch and headed down to a hotel near Kennedy Space Center (KSC). On our first full day in Cocoa Beach, I visited Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park to scope out the pier and get an idea of where we would need to be in order to enjoy the launch. The sun was searing hot with a heat index well over 100F, and the bright concrete pier reflected the heat back into my face as I walked the 1,200 feet to the end of the jetty in the midday sun. I was pleased to see that the LC-46 (Trident/Athena) launch pad was visible from the last third of the pier, so I was reasonably hopeful that we wouldn’t be as crowded during this launch as we have been during previous launches (especially those on far less stable piers).


As I headed back to the hotel, I checked on the NASA TV van that was already parked along the side of the road in the parking area. I was hoping to get a little beta on how they planned to film the launch, but unfortunately no one was there at that time. However, I briefly met with a few Veterans from US Launch Report and I was very impressed to see the massive equipment they had to track and video the launch.


The lights of the dredging vessel by the pier cast across the jetty in long stripes from the pier's railing
The lights of the dredging vessel by the pier cast across the jetty in long stripes from the pier's railing

We woke up around 04:00, and by 04:45 I was lifting my sleeping son out of his crib and onto my shoulder for the quiet walk down to the car. He didn’t fuss too much as I left him in his pajamas, and his Grandma entertained him in the back of the car as we made the short drive to the pier. We arrived at the park at around 5am, happy that there wasn't a long line impeding our path.


We fortunately found a great parking spot, though they were filling up fast, and we unloaded the gear for the long walk down the pier. The dark and still morning was surprisingly cool, and a brisk, salty wind blew down the shore and across our faces. It’s plenty difficult to haul a ton of camera equipment to a shooting location, but adding all the baby gear made it noticeably more challenging than usual. Fortunately, my Mother-in-law was amazing at helping with my son and all his gear.


The hard, plastic wheels of my Pelican case clamored down the brushed concrete pier, announcing my arrival to the few people currently staking their claim to the narrow band of suspended viewing territory we all now occupied. I found an open nook next to a few tripods that were already set up in the corner and figured I could expect the same courtesies from a fellow photographer as I try to give others in these tight situations. I can’t name the number of events where someone has slipped in just before an event, blocking the view of those of us who have already been waiting for hours, leading to an unfavorable, but necessary confrontation. Fortunately, at this event, everyone was cordial and respectful of everyone else’s space.


In true Dad Life fashion, I changed my son's diaper on my lap and put on his day clothes in the dim light available on the pier. Fortunately though, his Grandma took care of him once I started shooting, with only a few breaks here and there for necessary hugs and attention. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have been able to take any photos if he and I had been on the pier alone, so I can't thank her enough for helping to make these photos possible.



I set up my tripod along the side of the pier, and was surprised to see the small gap along the edge, just wide enough for a tripod leg to slip between. With this risk very close at hand, and a 14-month toddler walking around and leaning on everything, I had to watch my tripod carefully, especially once it was loaded up with gear. One errant jolt could knock the entire thing into the ocean, or at least crashing into the metal railing causing considerable damage.


It was still very dark around 05:30, so there wasn’t much light around to work with other than the lights projecting onto the vehicle from the pad lights. I generally carry around a cable release for just this occasion, but unfortunately my Nikon 750 and 850 use different cables, and I couldn’t find the right one in the dark. I addressed this issue by setting the D850 to mirror up, and setting the camera to delay exposure by three seconds (a fantastic feature of this camera that helps when you don’t have a cable release). In an effort to further negate the affects of pressing the shutter release, and smooth out the water, I set the exposure for around six seconds. While this worked reasonably well, I couldn’t control the wind, nor the horde of people walking back and forth along the pier, so the long exposure proved detrimental as the bright lights were plenty bright enough to show even the slightest movement. While the lights aren’t perfectly still, I enjoyed how it pulled the soft warmth building in the sky, and smoothed out the choppy inlet waters.



I decided to try a new tactic, and instead I dropped the aperture, bumped the ISO, and moved the shutter speed to a more reasonable 2 seconds. By this time it was also a little brighter, so I was able to get a sharper image without as many of the problems of the previous, longer exposure.



As we neared an hour to launch, the pier was really beginning to fill with people. Everyone was enjoying the entertainment of the large dredging vessel slowly working in the channel, and all the times the Coast Guard had to chase down a vessel to keep them out of the restricted area down-range from the launch. I have a number of photos of the Coast Guard that I will share in a later post [See Coast Guard post here!], but I enjoyed this case where a boater slipped by while the Coast Guard was talking to another boat, and then headed directly towards the launch site. The whole launch could have been delayed by one crazy boater. I know the local authorities must have been broadcasting warnings on maritime radio channels to stay out of the area, but I guess not everyone turns to the proper channel before getting underway.



The morning twilight finally began to fill the sky with the brilliant hues that precede the sun. Numerous kinds of birds feasted on the fish swimming in the shallow waters around the jetties. We spotted a few dolphins taking part in the feast, though they rarely crested the rippled surface of the water.



Without warning, the sun crested the long, dark edge of the seemingly endless Atlantic ocean. It rose incredibly quickly, and seemed to ooze like lava from the ocean’s depths. I had been taking photos with my 28-300mm when I saw it break through, so I needed a few moments to get the 300mm and 2x teleconverter on the side-kick gimbal back on the tripod to catch the rest of the sunrise, and it was well worth it.


The birds flew back and forth in front of a massive orb of fire that glistened and bent in the thick, moisture-laden atmosphere. The reflection of the sun merged at its base such that it seemed tethered to the Earth, struggling to break free from the incredible pull of the ocean…even though the exact opposite is actually true. I had quite a few photos of the sunrise, so I will publish those in a subsequent post [See sunrise photos here!].



As the target time of 07:00 slowly neared, the sunrise brought a bright, golden glimmer across the features of the launch pad over 5 miles to the North, and a pink haze settled into the horizon beyond. As the morning hues shifted to a warm, subtle orange, it was clear that it was almost time for launch. I settled in on the target and prepped for the countdown…only to forget that the people playing NASA TV were broadcasting a web stream, so there was inevitably a delay. Before the countdown had even started, the rocket burst to life…and it was finally time.



The engines burst to life with an almost instantaneous plume of hot, yellow fire that transformed into a dark, undulating cloud of thick, cloudy smoke as it cooled. The intense thrust of Northrop Grumman’s repurposed Peacekeeper missile slammed into the concrete structure of the pad and forced the small capsule slowly upward.



The flight test vehicle seemed to be suspended in air for a few seconds as it cleared the surrounding support structures, but it took little time for it to start rocketing up into the golden sky with an incredible, billowing cloud of heat and smoke trailing behind it.



The powerful ATB popped and crackled as it thrust the AA2 flight test vehicle farther into the sky until it sped past the layers of clouds that were looming out at sea and burst into the cool blue heavens above the glowing horizon.



Unfortunately the rocket was extending above the maximum vertical range of my side-mount gimbal, so I decided it was necessary to detach the massive lens from the tripod and shoot hand-held for the remainder of the launch. As I pulled my eye away from the viewfinder, I couldn't help but take in the beauty of the launch as a whole. I didn't have the time to take put a wide-angle lens on the D850, so I snapped a shot with my iPhone.



Unfortunately, the time it took me to disconnect my camera from the gimbal, take the photo with my phone, then re-acquire the test vehicle with the big lens, lead to me missing the LAS firing and pulling the Orion capsule off the booster.



By the time I re-acquired the test vehicle, the LAS and Orion Crew Module (CM) had already detached from the Abort Test Booster (ATB) trailing far below, and the LAS engines were trailing off as they prepared for the next phase. I regretted missing the pivotal separation, but I was happy that the LAS had successfully overtaken the incredible speed of the ATB and pulled the Orion CM out of harms way.



Soaring over 43,000 feet above me, the LAS and Orion CM were at the very edge of the range of my 600mm setup. The D850 has incredible pixel density, but even that couldn’t keep up with the shear distance the vessel had traveled in such a short period of time. However, you can just make out the LAS and Orion CM rotating in a clockwise direction (via the thrust of the assembly’s attitude control motor) such that the Orion capsule pointed away from the trajectory of the ATB.



In another massive burst of smoke, the Orion CM was jettisoned from the LAS and sped away from the simulated danger out towards the Atlantic Ocean. As mentioned on the broadcast, the CM was not supplied with parachutes (as they had already been thoroughly tested and would cost more money to use on this test), so the CM was now on a rapid crash course down into the sea.



As the CM headed off to the Northeast, the ATB and LAS fell slowly together for a while, having served their primary mission functions. However, the much larger and heavier ATB soon picked up speed and plummeted rapidly back down to the Earth.



The small, Orion capsule was very hard to see at this distance, but I was able to track it for most of the way back down. However, as the sky turned bright orange, I became worried that I might intersect with the now blinding sun which could damage my eye through the lens. I decided to forego the risk, and pulled away from the viewfinder. Unfortunately, doing so made me completely lose the path of the CM which was barely visible to the naked eye, and I couldn’t even ascertain the path of the ATB before it hit the ocean with an incredible, though delayed, boom. The impact of the ATB engendered a massive geyser that burst from the horizon and extended what must have been hundreds of feet into the air.



The watery plume hung in the air for much longer than I would have expected before dissipating back into the ocean, but a thin layer of mist still hung like a ghost over the impact site for quite some time.



In the end, the AA2 launch appeared to be a resounding success. It launched without any delays, exactly on time, and the ATB, LAS, and Orion Crew Module all preformed beautifully. The CM had a slightly unstable landing due to the removal of parachutes to cut testing costs, but that was expected by the Engineers at NASA so there wasn't any need for concern.



Under the canopy of a fantastic sunrise, we slowly walked back down the pier to the car in order to head back to the hotel. So many months of preparation was suddenly over in just a matter of seconds, but the experience was well worth it. I'm not sure that my son had any real sense of what had occurred, or how amazing it truly was, but it was fun having him there anyway. I'm just glad to see him starting the launch viewing habit so early.


The rest of the day was spent celebrating with my wife and her co-workers, and we all went to bed happy that this incredible achievement was complete and ultimately successful.


We are so happy that we had the chance to take part in such a triumph for human spaceflight beyond the moon. Congratulations to everyone on a fantastic test of the Orion Launch Abort System! I can't wait to see the LAS, Orion, and SLS fly again as part of the Artemis program!




© 2019 Shaun C Tarpley

 
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