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Artemis 1.1 - The Moon Waits for No One

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

2022.08.29 - Space flight is difficult, especially when the mission reaches out into the depths of space to rendezvous with the Moon. The systems are complex, the components unforgiving, and the risk factors endlessly variable. Sometimes it seems like a miracle that they ever get off the ground at all, and yet thousands have done so since Sputnik first traversed the heavens in 1957. The maiden voyage for NASA's Space Launch System has been a long time coming, but it is finally poised to make its accent beyond the Earth's embrace. My wife and I were fortunate enough to be at the Kennedy Space Center for the first attempt, and even though it was scrubbed in the end, it was still an unforgettable experience.

I grew up in the 80s watching the Space Shuttle launch from Kennedy Space Center. Over many years, I was fortunate to see 3 launches in person and observe the shuttle Endeavor on its final flight through Houston. Every interaction etched an indelible memory into my mind which felt like an intangible connection to the infinite possibility of space via this iconic, black and white proxy. When the program was canceled in 2011, it left an indescribable void that would remain empty for years.

My wife and I have had a life-long love of space. It is one of the things we bonded most closely on even though she works more closely with it than I do (a career decision I often question since I nearly went into Astronomy). We have followed the long history of NASA's development of a heavy-lift exploration vehicle since it started as the Constellation Program in 2005. Since then, the predecessor to Apollo has gone through numerous cancelations, budget cuts, multiple administrations, congresses, economic conditions, and domestic/global politics which have all left inescapable and consequential scars on what is now the Artemis Program. It has been an arduous process to get to this point, but seeing the rocket finally towering over the coast of Florida, it’s impossible to ignore the historic achievement, the work, pride, and sacrifice that the rocket represents to those who have fought to return the US to one of the last great frontiers. SLS isn’t just taking us back to the Moon, it is taking us into a future where we can begin to truly understand our Solar System, and hopefully get a glimpse of a Universe we may never truly know. Artemis 1 is the fruition of a promise we made after Apollo to learn from long-term missions in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and use that knowledge to propel us back to the Moon to stay.

A rare view of the South entrance of the Apollo/Saturn V Building in the middle of the night.

It had always been a part of our plan to travel to Florida for the first launch of SLS, but as the launch date neared, we suddenly had the opportunity to see the launch from Banana Creek as part of the Space Launch Awareness award that my wife received for her tireless work on the Constellation, SLS, and Artemis Programs. We are incredibly thankful for the people who nominated her, ran the award program, and provided the opportunity to tour KSC and see the launch.

The first launch attempt for Artemis 1 was slated for 08:33 – 10:30 EDT on August 29, 2022. This early launch window meant that preparations for the launch would start the night before, as would our travel to view it. We arrived at the buses at around 00:30 in Orlando and headed out shortly after 01:00. As we drove East in the dark towards the NASA Causeway Bridge, information began to trickle in about the storm cell that was producing enough lightning to delay tanking the liquid hydrogen and oxygen. The weather had already been a risk factor for multiple days, with three bolts of lightning striking Pad 39b only a few days prior on the 27th, so it wasn’t too surprising that it was causing problems yet again. After getting through the KSC security screening, we were finally on our way to the Banana Creek Launch Viewing Area.

Reference Map produced by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

The Banana Creek Launch Viewing Area is located just outside the Southeast entrance to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. A long line of bleachers stretches along the water’s edge overlooking the calm expanse of Futch Cove. This location is roughly 3.5 miles from Launch Pad 39b (LC-39b), so at this distance the rocket had a commanding presence along the coastal horizon.

We walked from the stacked rows of buses to the front of the bleachers in a throng of dreary-eyed space-enthusiasts still adjusting to the early morning hour. As we rounded the bleachers, our first view of the brilliant spires of SLS and LP-39b glimmered upon the horizon. The glowing outline of the towering structures stood out starkly from a thick shroud of dark, humid sky along the Florida coastline. I glanced down at my phone and noticed that it was only 04:30; T-minus 4 hours and counting until the launch window.

We claimed a spot at the top of the bleachers where I felt that I would have the best angle to photograph the launch. As people began to fill the bleachers, the constant vibration wasn't conducive to long exposures, so I moved back down to the concrete pad for a few bracketed shots of SLS and LC-39b. I was momentarily delayed by a film of condensation that covered all of my equipment the moment I took it out of my bag. I was unaware that the bus cooled from underneath the seat, so I had placed my bag directly in front of the vent and inadvertently chilled all my equipment to well below the dew point.

At first, I was focused on the details of Artemis 1, but as I finished a round of shots I noticed the faint glow of the clouds above and around the rocket from the brilliant spotlights firing up around it. I’m a huge proponent of dark skies most of the time, but in this rare instance, I could see something beautiful hiding in the looming dark in front of me. I knew the dark environment would make it hard to compose the shot, so I pulled out my 50mm f1.4 which provides the brightest image when wide open. With a 10 second exposure at f5.6 and ISO 1000, I was elated that the shot revealed a sea of undulating clouds above and around the pad. I took another series of bracketed shots in order to create a composite that didn’t completely blow out the rocket, but the fast-moving clouds made the image more complex than the shots of the stationary rocket alone.

Not to be outdone by the sky above, the rippled reflections of the Launch Pad in the waters of Fulch Cove were equally captivating. I could only capture the rocket and the water together at around 300mm, but the only lens I had with me in that range was my comparatively slow 28-300mm zoom lens. It didn't handle the difficult lighting conditions as well as the two prime lenses I had used previously, but I only had so much room in my bag so I utilized what I had with me.

By the time I finished the last series of photos, it was just after 05:00. By this time I would have expected to see the slight blue glow of astronomical twilight along the horizon, but multiple layers of clouds suppressed the subtle precursors of the nearing sunrise. Tired and low on energy, we headed into the Saturn V building to get some food to keep our sleep-deprived bodies moving. Fortunately, they opened the cafeteria early, but breakfast food wasn’t really on the menu. With little else to choose from, we enjoyed a morning meal of pepperoni pizza that was surprisingly satisfying. The calories helped to wake us up, but my wife got busy working on the launch so we were a little late to get back outside. The windowless area of the building where we had been sitting obscured the slow transition of morning, so twilight already accented the sky as we rushed back to our spot on the bleachers to witness the incredibly beautiful view of of twilight melding into the golden hour.

NASA's Artemis 1 is set up on LC-39b (left), while SpaceX is developing LC-39c to the South (right)

The golden hour is a photographer’s ephemeral paradise. It is less than 60 minutes of nearly perfect lighting conditions where colors are warm and saturated, darks are deep but still detailed, and the sky lights up in layers of variation and detail as the sun's rays hit different elevations with varied intensity and hues. It’s what we live for, and this golden hour with Artemis 1 was one of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. The sunrise alone was worth the early-morning trip.

From our viewing position at Banana Creek, the liquid oxygen supply tank was located to the left of the pad, while the liquid hydrogen supply tank was located behind the tower. Roughly midway between the pad and the hydrogen tank, there is a flare that burns off excess hydrogen gas. Consistent wind blowing across the island towards the North/Northwest pushed the swirling flames to the left of the tower where the heat rippled into the sky like an invisible river of turbulent heat. What I love most about the images below is they capture how the ripples of heat created temporary lenses which refracted the light of the golden sky above and made it appear overlayed on the purple clouds below.

By this point (though behind schedule due to lightning delays), the tanks had reached the right temperature to proceed to fast-fill. Fortunately for me, that engendered a larger flame than earlier that morning. An astute observer will note that the flame is burning yellow which is not expected for hydrogen which generally burns a nearly-clear tint of blue. While I don’t have confirmation from NASA yet, I am guessing that they use a different fuel to promote full ignition of the hydrogen gas as it is released, thus providing the necessary impurities to create the yellow flame, especially in windy conditions.

The color and character of the sunrise shifted quickly as our location rotated ever closer to the sun (and ever more aligned with the trajectory that would get Artemis to the Moon). With enough light now available to navigate the cloudy skies, the dark silhouette of NASA’s Airbus H-135s security helicopter darted across the golden sunrise as it patrolled the launch area, observing the expansive complex and verifying the security of the pad. It passed behind SLS for only a second, and I was fortunate to time it and a large gust of hydrogen flame in the same shot.

The perfect lighting conditions made for great exposures, and the comparatively cool temperature limited the heat distortion that would soon become a factor shooting over a large body of water in the heat of the sun. At 500mm, even on a shaky metal bleacher that vibrated with every motion of the dozens of people standing on it, and attached to a small carbon-fiber travel tripod that was technically too small for the big lens, I still managed to get clean shots of the rocket using a cable release and very carefully-timed exposures.

Anticipation is always palpable on the day of a launch. Between the updates from NASA TV, and texts from friends in the Control Room, there was information coming in from every angle as we all hoped in unison for the rocket to launch on such an incredible morning. There is no more tangible example of this anticipation than the large Countdown Clock that resides at the North end of the viewing area beneath the waving flags of Florida, the United States, and NASA (from left to right below).

The tanking delay caused by lightning earlier that morning was now cascading into a delayed schedule across the board. Additionally, a persistent leak in the hydrogen quick-disconnect caused additional delays as hydrogen leaks beyond the allowable limit were observed. However, by 05:30 both the oxygen and hydrogen tanks had been filled, and they began filling oxygen into the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

By 06:30, as we enjoyed the Golden Hour, RS-25 Engine #3 wasn’t cooling fast enough to be at the right temperature for ignition within the launch window. The RS-25 engines are pre-cooled by bleeding the incredibly cold liquid hydrogen (approximately -423 degrees Fahrenheit) down through the system to reach the chilled conditioned required for launch. Unfortunately, a problem with the feed lines, coupled with the lightning delay, meant that it was not possible to get the engine down to the required temperature before the launch window closed at 10:33. To the disappointment of everyone involved, at 08:34 EDT Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson officially scrubbed the first launch attempt for Artemis 1.

As the sun rose above the horizon, a portion of the sky was at the right angle to our position for the water droplets in the atmosphere to act as a dispersive prism that split the sun's rays into an arcing, muted spectrum of light.

We were terribly saddened by the scrub and it seemed to immediately amplify the exhaustion we had been ignoring all morning. We knew how hard the teams had worked towards the launch, and how hard they had worked to resolve the launch-day issues, but in the end there were simply too many factors working against a safe and successful launch.

Shortly before the launch was scrubbed, the area was packed with people and dozens of buses.

In a befitting gesture of the type of meteorological malice that had been a daily occurrence on this trip, another storm full of lightning and rain moved quickly up the coast towards our position as the call to scrub was made. I know that getting angry with the weather is a fruitless and counter-productive endeavor, but sometimes you just can't help but feel personally attacked when things pile on.

A little let-down and dejected, we rushed back to our buses for the long, wet ride back to Orlando. After dodging the downpour of rain while exiting the bus, we dragged our tired bodies back into the hotel, showered, and immediately crashed for a few hours before beginning the long process of packing up to leave out very early the next morning.

We knew very well that a launch on the very first attempt of a brand new, very complex space rocket was an unlikely possibility from the start, but it was hard to accept all the same. However, we met so many incredible people along the way, and experienced so many unique and special moments, that we were incredibly thankful to have been given the opportunity. There were still many other opportunities for launch, so we suspected that we would be back sooner than later.

To expand upon what I stated at the beginning of this post: space rockets are an arduous endeavor replete with trials, tribulations, and delays, but the ingenuitive and the persistent will see their aspirations soar when the moment is right. Go Artemis!

© 2017-2022 Shaun C Tarpley

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