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T-46 seconds.

We could hear the anticipation in the voices crackling over the loudspeaker broadcasting from the control room: a calm voice with its rapid-fire listing of each system, and before the last syllable ended a new eager voice would chime in with “go”.

All systems go for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 launch … until T-46 when a failure in the water system made the voices grow somber. A 30 second launch window doesn’t give a lot of time to fix problems that aren’t found until 46 seconds before it begins, but the voices consulted their manual and started another checklist until time ran out and the crowd deflated.

“What does that mean?” we asked our Vandenberg Air Force Base guide for the day, Chief of Community Relations Larry Hill. “What’s a water system failure?”

He gestured helplessly. “I’m just a trumpet player from Albuquerque.”

He’s more than that, with 24 years of active service behind him, including, yes, playing trumpet in the Air Force Band. But no one had clear answers yet at the public viewing site where our NASA Social participants gathered for the 3 am launch on July 1. Bleary eyed, knowing we’d see little through the fog, knowing a scrub was a possibility but excited to be there, together — our little social media mission with our major access to what many – but not us — would consider a minor launch (as in, unmanned and orbiting Earth rather than sexier Mars).

The fact that many of us had travelled a great distance to attend the pre-launch event and dragged ourselves out of bed to the viewing site in the middle of the night didn’t seem to enter into the decision. We’d even eaten the lucky peanuts and sung a few bars of “The Final Countdown.”

It was later explained as a problem with the Vandenberg launch pad, not the NASA satellite itself or United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rocket that would send it into orbit (US space travel is a cooperative effort between NASA, the air force, and private industry): “The system provides sound suppression to dampen acoustic waves at liftoff and protects a launch pad flame duct.” Right, of course.

“Better a good scrub than a bad launch,” said Stephanie Smith, one of our NASA guides and one of the brains behind NASA’s social media accounts, including Mars Curiosity Rover. And indeed, the disappointment of OCO-2’s one-day delay (it successfully launched 24 hours later) was nothing compared to the devastation of OCO-1’s crash into the ocean shortly after launch in 2009.

A small number of our group – those with more flexible itineraries — stayed for the next day’s liftoff and saw not even the promised red glow through the heavy fog. But we all cheered that launch success, and the continuing news that OCO-2 is operating as expected so far.


It’s personal

This is our mission too, now. Faced with a disinterested media, budget cuts and questionable political support, NASA has turned to Twitter in particular to build an army of social media advocates. Their NASA Social events gather select social media users to get a crash course on a particular mission or project and maybe to witness a launch first-hand (preferably with no crash included).

The day leading up to that early morning, we had been given incredible access to the people behind the machines, from the mission scientists and engineers to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. They were human beings to us now, and we felt their disappointment more keenly than our own.


When Project Architect Randy Pollock started on the original Orbiting Carbon Observatory project – the one that made a bottom-of-the-ocean synchronous orbit — his son was in kindergarten; now he’s an intern at NASA JPL. That’s’ 13 years of Pollock’s life invested in a mission that was lucky to get a second chance. I suppose more important than our need to see the rocket’s red glare was their need to have a long-awaited success.


At the launch pad site we asked questions of NASA Administrator Bolden, who boldly stated that we’ll send humans to Mars by 2030, and encouraged us to share our excitement about our OCO-2 experience widely. The undercurrent, of course, is that future missions are in jeopardy due to current funding cuts.

One measure of our enthusiasm (apart from the number of selfies taken with the rocket) was our eagerness to see the launch from a prime vantage point. One of our group asked what would happen if we witnessed it from this very spot, metres away. Before enumerating the disastrous physical effects of standing too close, former shuttle astronaut Bolden said “I’ve never been this close before. Well actually I have; I’ve been on it.”

When pressed at the social media briefing earlier in the day what one message they’d like to convey, the OCO-2 team said “Science is fun.” They aren’t just words to NASA – they instill a spirit of fun and awe into their social media advocacy.

All that and a purpose too


OCO-2’s mission isn’t to prove climate change, nor to prove the human contribution to greenhouse gases. NASA’s earth scientists have moved on and call those questions a false debate. Scientists are able to accurately measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the key driver of climate change — both today and in the past, and see our impact.

“Climate change is real. Period. We have all the data to show it’s happening; we don’t have all the data to know how to address it,” said Annmarie Eldering, OCO-2’s Deputy Project Scientist.

OCO-2 will gather that data about where all the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere comes from and how the various natural “sinks” – oceans and forests – absorb and later release carbon back into the atmosphere. Eldering knows more data won’t convince skeptics, but believes the more we understand and can measure, the more informed our actions and policies can be.

When people found out I was going to see a rocket launch, a common question was “NASAs still does that?” With the demise of the shuttle and the US ability to send man into space, the media and public’s attention has wandered.

Seeing a satellite-bearing rocket head into space, meeting the people who made it happen, and knowing the importance of the mission and the consequences of failure — both in launch and in societal acceptance of climate change — made it personal all right. I’ll be cheering OCO-2 on as it makes its way into its orbit and starts collecting and transmitting its crucial data.

Originally published on Because Geeks