What it's Like to Cover a Rocket Launch from NASA Wallops
This reflective article will complete the four article series that covers NG-11, and explore what it is like to cover a rocket launch from NASA Wallops and MARS in Virginia as accredited media. Despite having written about my experiences as part of the NASA Social for NG-10, there are certain elements of the media experience that are different. In addition, each launch and mission have their own unique flavor and feeling, and NG-11’s will be explored in this piece.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, commonly called “Delmarva” as an amalgam of the three states the peninsula contains, is a unique and sparsely-populated place quietly tucked away into the Atlantic on the “other” side of Chesapeake Bay. If you live on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, you have flown over it before, maybe even driven through it. If so, your primary recollection could be just that: passing by. However, Delmarva has a bit more to offer. Having now visited the region twice, I’ve discovered that it’s a splendid place to view a rocket launch, and a quiet vacation destination to enjoy some peace by the seaside. In particular, I speak of Chincoteague Island, Virginia.
Just on the border with Maryland next to the sea, Chincoteague Island (pronounced “shin-co-teeg”) does not have any beaches, but is instead a picturesque Chesapeake Bay seaside town, with Virginian and mid-Atlantic style houses, plenty of quaint BnBs, sailboats and fishing boats, and a cool breeze, all offering a refreshing charm. The beach itself, as well as the famed Chincoteague ponies, are actually a few minutes away on the neighboring Assateague Island, the true barrier island with sandy beaches, also a nature preserve touched only by a lighthouse and a paved road. For those reasons, you will find a small amount of tourists on Chincoteague, few bustling attractions, and just a couple chain hotels. The island does become busy, however, when one of the biannual rocket launches happens from Wallops Island, just a few kilometers away over the water.
Aerospace technology and rurality make a strange dichotomy that doesn’t seem to add up until remembering that rocket launches are meant to happen from remote places. Back when Cape Canaveral was chosen to be the site of crewed launches, that section of Florida’s coast was essentially wilderness, with just a few hamlets and towns in Brevard County. It was only because of the national attention garnered by the space race, as well as the massive workforce required, that Space Coast became the popular destination it is today. When I try to imagine what the Cape was like back then, the scenery and size of NASA Wallops comes to mind.
We begin on Tuesday morning, L-1, 24 hours before launch. The first thing I do upon waking up is check my email for the next weather report the media receives from NASA. Compared to the last report, forecasted weather conditions have improved! It looks like unless there is a technical issue, NG-11 will probably leave Earth on time tomorrow. This also means that questions we may have about the weather will no longer be necessary at the press briefings today. Before the briefings, however, I have to pick up my media credentials.
The media building at Wallops is a 20 minute drive from my accommodation on Chincoteague. Upon proving my identity, I receive a neat media badge with my name and the logos of NASA, Wallops Flight Facility, and NG-11. In the press kit, there is the traditional mission patch accredited media receives for attending the launch, along with the more important informational documents and packets on the launch, spacecraft, and facility. Northrop Grumman usually includes some kind of nifty, photogenic gift as well. For NG-10, it was a plush swan wearing a red scarf, representing the Cygnus spacecraft. For NG-11, it is a baseball cap made of a PVC-like material fashioned to look like Cygnus with its solar panels deployed.
Getting the media badge is the moment it becomes real. Since I was a kid, I had always dreamed of getting to be involved in spaceflight. For spirit week in school, when we dressed up for career day, I made my own little NASA badge and dressed as a rocket scientist. Now, 12 years later, I have a real NASA badge with my name on it, even if it’s only valid until the post-launch press briefing!
From the media building, I go to the Wallops visitor center, the location of the conference room. My first time here, during the NASA Social for NG-10, I was slightly envious of my friends who had NASA and media badges; and yet, as I stand here now, I am slightly envious of the NASA Social group, for they get to have a more in-depth tour of Wallops than the media does! Earlier in the day, the media got to go inside the HIF (Horizontal Integration Facility). Later in the day, those who have remote cameras will visit the launchpad to set them up for tomorrow. The Social, however, gets to see more places, such as the aircraft hangar, range control center, the sounding rocket assembly facility, or weather balloon facility.
Despite the differences in tour access, all of us get to be part of something extraordinary: being the conduit through which the public will learn about this event. As media, our first priority is to accurately, adequately, and responsibly create content that quickly informs and spreads the word to the public about what is happening. Only after this job is complete should we revel in our apt, personal excitement in being here; and even then, only from within a reasonable and respectful boundary.
So, for example, when the conference begins and you see the room and your friends on NASA TV, you must sit and look professional, instead of waving to Mom and wanting to ask a billion questions! After all, the whole world is able to watch NASA TV, so we hold a small part of NASA’s image in our hands during the broadcasts.
The first conference of the day, “What’s On Board,” covers a selection of the 3,500kg of scientific experiments and equipment going to the International Space Station aboard NG-11. One experiment that excites my inner nerd is Astrobee, three autonomous flying drones that can perform tasks and locate objects inside the ISS. Similar to other modern technology, the Astrobees are reminiscent of a Star Trek device called an “Excomp,” from an episode of TNG called “The Quality of Life.”
Seeing and hearing scientists present and answer questions about their work, sometimes years in the making, is one of the greatest highlights of a mission. It comes with the understanding that this isn’t just about resupplying the space station, it is valuing and making use of remarkable work by brilliant, dedicated people. A launch is the visible and sensory event indicating years of focus and work paying off. Of course, the true accomplishment is getting the data and results from the experiments! Just about all of these experiments will improve life for everyone here on Earth.
The next and final conference of the day is the pre-launch briefing, in which officials from NASA and Northrop Grumman review and present key points of the mission like new procedures, key data points, and the various states of their completion. It is a crucial conference to gather important information for our media content, and usually has the most attendance of the Cygnus/Antares press conferences at Wallops.
After the conferences, the media are welcome to ask some more questions of the officials, and then those with remote cameras head out to the launchpad on the NASA bus. The rest of us begin creating our content with the information we’ve just received. I head back to Chincoteague, where a popular ice cream café is my favorite spot for getting work done on the island. A few hours later, with papers spread all over the table and a handful of people asking me about the launch, my social media posts and first two articles are drafted! I schedule the articles to post in the morning after some more work later that night.
Night falls upon Delmarva and the mid-Atlantic, and the cooler weather is enjoyable coming from Florida’s relentless heat. I decide to walk to the southern tip of the island, where a small jetty over the water provides a clear view of Wallops Island and the launchpad. These pre-launch vigils are something I greatly enjoy. It feels like it’s just you and the rocket. Even at the Cape, where the hum of population is in your ears, it’s a nice, tranquil moment to slow down and remember the depth of what it all means. Tomorrow, that rocket and the spacecraft will go to space - a nice vibe to fall asleep to.
An even nicer vibe is waking to learn that all is still GO for launch! The buses typically get us to the press site at around T-2 hours, so our departure time is 2:00pm for the 4:46pm launch. I drive over to the media building and get in line with everyone. Security measures are thorough and efficient, and NASA Security permits us to board the bus so they can escort us to the press site. I find a group of friends to sit with and we spend the drive contrasting Wallops and KSC’s characteristics, as well as issuing some good-natured teasing of a friend and legendary photographer for having a little nap on the bus while stuck in traffic! Everyone is in great spirits. A launch is always exciting no matter how many you’ve seen.
Arriving at the press site, a remarkably close 3km (2 mi) from Pad 0A, some of us do a double take. Many haven’t been here in daylight since the recent handful of launches were at night, and though it is the same field with a tent, bleachers, and tracking equipment, it feels new and different.
As the launch and mission control chatter is broadcast over the loudspeakers, photographers rush down to the water to claim their tripod territory and prepare equipment in the hour that’s left before T-0. Since I’m a writer and require no tripod territory, I wander about and observe the various happenings of the press site. In the tent, I speak with the caterer who has brought water and snacks for everybody. He has been here for all 11 Cygnus/Antares launches at Wallops doing this job. NASA personnel from HQ in Washington sit at a round table, coordinating social media, NASA TV, and nasa.gov coverage of the launch. I chat with Liz Warren of ISS National Lab about some of the experiments onboard, the feeling of seeing them finally take flight, and other work being done down at NASA Johnson in Houston. Students and guests come in and out, some of whom are involved in the experiments. Mostly, however, everyone is down by the water preparing photographic goodies. There are some 360º cameras, very long lenses, small and high tech cameras, and other technology that looks unfamiliar to me.
I decide to view the launch from just up the hill, closer to the launch chatter and farther away from the sound of camera shutters, which could spoil the video I intend to film. At this point, you have one ear tuned to launch control listening for pertinent information. As previously stated, we have a job to do, especially those of us in social media/new media providing real-time updates to our followers. As the clock reaches T-20 minutes, I am drafting some posts with incremental updates at various milestones, such as when the vehicle is on internal power, when the team is polled, and when the range is clear, as well as share NASA content like the link to NASA TV’s online livestream.
Finally, with everything is looking good at T-2 minutes, everyone gets a bit quiet. It’s time for work. I film some test videos to make sure the exposure is good, then start filming for real. One skill I have been learning is to hold the camera at chest-level, not in front of my face. Too many times have I missed important events because my phone was blocking the view! Ultimately I have one other thing to learn - shielding the microphone from the wind, which ended up whooshing much too loudly this time.
One thing I did accomplish this time, however, is filming for some time before liftoff, highlighting a fascinating characteristic of launch viewing. A launch has almost no buildup in tension for the casual observer. I’ve spoken about this in previous articles. For hours, we stand and stare at this pencil-looking thing that’s kilometers away. Most of the time, it isn’t dynamic - there it is, just sitting on the pad. You know what’s about to happen, having seen dozens of these before, but up until those engines spew fire out of the rocket’s tail, part of you still doesn’t grasp the enormity of it. Astronauts discuss this concept as well, except from the more immediately impactful perspective of sitting atop that controlled explosion waiting to happen.
As usual, launch is an awesome event. Being this close in distance adds to the effect in a powerful way. Even though Antares is considered to be just a medium-size rocket, it feels the same as a Falcon or Atlas. As the vehicle goes up and away, curving over and setting course for the ISS, you remember all the excellent work and close dedication of the engineers, technicians, and scientists is coming to fruition in such a memorable way. Personally, I remember standing just meters away from this rocket inside the HIF last November.
The vehicle fades out of sight up there in space, successfully hitting orbit, and everybody packs up and returns to the buses. We triumphantly drive back to the media building and prepare for the post-launch press briefing happening that evening. First, though, we must wait out an unusual amount of traffic that came to see this launch - many cars with northeast license plates like Maryland, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey.
The post-launch press briefing is the last link in the daisy chain for media activities. Once the panel reports on the spacecraft’s condition and rendezvous schedule, the future of Cygnus, Northrop Grumman, and NASA are presented with media questions facilitating the discussion. Being present while future plans are announced carries an exciting, cutting-edge feeling, especially since Northrop Grumman has diverse and ambitious plans for Cygnus and the CRS contract with NASA. All this information will go into the post-launch article describing the events of the day.
The conference ends, congratulations go around the room, and many of us head over to Chincoteague for the unofficial post-launch event: the afterparty. When we arrive, a restaurant/bar is already packed with space personnel celebrating the end of a good week. These get-togethers are always a lovely sight. It brings down to Earth that these smart and talented workers aren’t just genius rocket scientists hidden behind the scenes, but very real and young people who celebrate just the same as anyone. The night comes to an early end as the locals begin their karaoke night, and everyone dissipates until the next launch. The region comes to mind again, as one friend is driving back to New York in the same evening. In fact, the next day, I have a day trip to one of my favorite towns in the country, Annapolis, to enjoy Maryland’s culture before going back to Florida.
Even after all this, launches from Delmarva are still surreal to me, especially coming from Space Coast. Wallops is even more rural, there are almost no tourist attractions, the weather isn’t burning hot, there isn’t as much personnel or procedure, and it’s all within a day of driving from the northeast. It is laid back compared to KSC; and yet, it is clearly a crucial and fruitful part of this region’s economy. It’s an experience that all interested in spaceflight should consider having; and if you live on the Eastern Seaboard, it means you don’t have to come all the way down to Florida to see a rocket launch up-close.
Images and videos courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover image - A tracking camera operator waves to the author at the press site before launch.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009.
Shankar, Naren, and L.J. Scott, writers. "The Quality of Life." In Star Trek: The Next Generation, directed by Jonathan Frakes. CBS. November 16, 1992.