A reluctant rocket launch

Photo shows a sign headlined "CONTROLLED ACCESS AREA" on a fence closing off Rocket Lab's LC-2 pad at Wallops Island, with an Electron rocket on its side pointing toward the viewer in the background.

Friday evening was supposed to treat me to the sight of an Electron rocket lighting up the sky above Wallops Island, Va. Instead, it served up a sea of brake lights at the end of a long drive home from Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

But that’s a known risk of trying to schedule a trip to see a rocket launch. The fiendishly complex machinery needed to get a launch vehicle to defy gravity’s pull and then accelerate its cargo to 17,500 miles can fail pre-launch tests, weather conditions can violate launch commit criteria, and a single boat or plane in the wrong spot will cause a range-safety violation. And those are just day-of-launch dealbreakers!

Rocket Lab’s attempt to launch Electron from the U.S. for the first time succumbed to a more mundane obstacle: NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration were still “working to close out final documentation required for launch,” per a Thursday-night tweet from Rocket Lab, which forced a delay to Dec. 18.

Originally, Rocket Lab’s work to open a U.S. launch facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (yes, MARS) on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility was set to advance with a launch of Electron Dec. 7, as announced Nov. 9.

But on Nov. 30, this “Virginia is For Launch Lovers” mission to deploy three Earth-observation satellites then got pushed back to Dec. 9 to “allow time for final pre-launch preparations.”

On Dec. 7, however, a forecast calling for “an incoming weather front bringing strong upper-level winds and unsettled conditions” led Rocket Lab to move the date back to Dec. 13.

Alas, on Dec. 11 an unspecified issue securing clearance of nearby airspace forced a two-day slip to Dec. 15–when itself got got ruled out on the 12th because of bad forecast weather and replaced with the Dec. 16 date than then suffered the aforementioned documentation veto.

That last bit of news arrived as I was already on the road to the Eastern Shore, too late to cancel the hotel booking I had waited to make until that evening after canceling four earlier reservations at the same Hampton Inn in Chincoteague. Fortunately, Rocket Lab went ahead with a tour of their Wallops facilities, including a visit to the pad to see Electron snuggled under a thermal protective blanket.

And because Wallops is only a three-plus hour drive away, my cost to not see a launch remains trivial compared to the airfare, hotel and car-rental expenses I racked up before I finally saw Endeavour fly–an experience that was worth every one of those tens of thousands of pennies.

So what about that Dec. 18 date? It remains theoretically doable, in part because a journalist friend of mine is already planning on driving to Wallops and back Sunday and offered a lift. But I’m going to wait to see if the rest of Saturday brings any new “Rocket Lab update” e-mails.

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