Four Central Intelligence Agency executives gave a talk at SXSW Monday afternoon with an interesting wrinkle: If you resent ubiquitous digital surveillance and want to find ways to defeat it, our agents and assets in hostile countries could use your help.
If Satellite 2023 had not been scheduled on top of SXSW, I could have watched Amazon’s Tuesday-morning keynote in person and filed this post Tuesday afternoon. Instead, I wrote up the company’s news about its upcoming Project Kuiper constellation of low-Earth-orbit broadband satellites after reading Amazon’s blog post and reading press accounts of the talk.
This story started out with my watching a few panels about NASA’s plans for “commercial LEO destinations” at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in early February, spending the next two weeks lining up interviews with most of the companies bidding for this work, having MWC force me to set aside the work for a week, finally filing the story the night before I headed out for SXSW, and then having my editor not look at the piece until after SXSW because he was also busy at the festival.
Tuesday night treated me to the first space launch I’d seen in person–meaning close enough to hear it–since 2018. And unlike the previous three launches that I have been privileged to experience from that close, this one did not require a flight to Florida.
A press pass issued by Rocket Lab granted a much closer view of its “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission, just two miles away from a spare concrete pad next to the Atlantic. At ignition about 40 minutes after sunset, Electron lit up the shore, a brilliant beacon shooting into the sky. The sound rolled out to us about two seconds later–a steady low-frequency roar that might have been an especially loud jet engine, except jets can’t shoot anything into Earth orbit. A clear sky let me track the rocket through first-stage separation, then follow the second stage as its exhaust left a plume dozens of miles up.
If you’re reading this around the D.C. area, you should have multiple chances to experience that, as Rocket Lab plans four to six launches from Wallops this year. Things to know in advance:
• Wireless coverage can get really bad, so you should not bank on being able to Instagram launch photos.
• Don’t expect the same show you’d get at a KSC launch. At liftoff, Electron’s thrust is 43,000 pounds, while at launch Antares (with one launch left this year) is good for 864,000 pounds. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have 1.7 and 5.1 million pounds of sea-level thrust sending them skyward. But while you won’t have the experience of feeling a giant rocket’s sound rush over you like an acoustic avalanche, it is still a kind of magic to see something people made leave the ground and soar into the black, all the way to space.
• If you can’t make the trip, you should still be able to see a Wallops launch from around D.C. That’s more easily done at night, when you don’t have to distinguish one contrail from everything else in the sky; you just have to spot a rocket’s red glare.