3-2-1 . . . Countdown can be a pressure cooker
On launch day, the LOB is a hive of activity as the KTF team focuses on the highly complex work of launching a target missile for a missile defense test.
Out on a launch pad a thousand feet away sits a rocket containing high explosives and thousands of pounds of rocket fuel. Safety is job one. But there are other priorities.
The world is watching. Generals, legislators, critics, the president, and the world’s bad guys all have a stake in the outcome of the work that takes place here today.
The roster of people allowed to remain on-site has been pared down to 55 people for safety reasons. The 55 includes VIPs who are here to observe the test.
A 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. launch window, defined in part by the fly-by schedules of orbiting satellites, provides a finite deadline for getting the job done.
The test’s international profile, high safety standards, and unforgiving schedule add up to a great deal of stress for the KTF launch team, says Jerry McDowell, Director of Aerospace Systems Development Center 15400.
"I can’t say enough about the professionalism of the Sandia KTF team," he says. "They are remarkably adept at balancing the needs and demands of customers with responsible management of one of Sandia’s most valuable assets, all in the midst of a fishbowl of oversight and intrusive requirements."
"Somehow, they always manage to keep one eye on the customer’s wish list and the other on being good stewards of Sandia people and property and good neighbors to the Navy," he says. "They can be counted on to execute safely, securely, and responsibly."
At the helm — a console atop a raised floor at the back of the LOB’s control room — sit Dean Manning, Steve Lautenschleger, and Al Lopez.
Dean serves as the intra-range test director, communicating with KTF personnel and verifying completion of a torrent of on-screen launch tasks.
Steve serves as the supervisor of test operations (STO), the inter-range point of contact who communicates KTF’s progress to the PMRF launch team stationed in a similar control room two miles south. PMRF is the lead test range for this launch.
Al assumes the role of troubleshooter, moving about the LOB helping solve problems and readying contingencies in case something goes wrong.
Accumulation of problems
At T-minus 3:30:00, launch operations are suspended for an hour because a cargo freighter wanders into the impact zone. PMRF tries to hail the captain.
PMRF pushes back the launch time by an hour, then two as the Navy realizes that because of the delay, two of its observatory aircraft will need to land and refuel.
Then Orbital has a problem — it can’t talk to the target missile’s navigation system. Could be an electronics problem or a cable connection. Orbital’s engineers pull out the circuit designs. Someone needs to visit the pad to check the connection. Orbital program manager Joe Dimaggio lets go one of his trademark incendiary outbursts.
Later something, perhaps rogue radio traffic, is interfering with KTF range communications. "Somebody’s walking all over us," says Dave Salguero.
A few minutes later Orbital overcomes the electrical problem, but KTF’s countdown computers lock up. Another setback could scrub the launch for today. What’s worse — it could be KTF’s fault.
Dave, Wilson Brooks, and Kenny Abigania (15419) work some magic, and the computers are up. The cable connection is fixed, the radios are working, and the freighter is gone. But KTF is 20 minutes behind PMRF’s count.
"If the coffee doesn’t wake you up, some red on your computer screen will," says Dean. Red highlighting denotes launch tasks that haven’t been completed on schedule.
"No problem," he says. "We practiced this. We can catch up."
Steve is stoic, but Dean’s feet do a nervous tap dance under his chair.
The two speak quickly and clearly into their headsets as they plow through the count list, checking off tasks, gaining ground. At T-minus 40 minutes the red is gone and KTF is back on schedule.
Here at last
Al smiles. "There’s an old rocketeer’s superstition," he says. "The ones that beat you up the worst are the ones that fly the straightest."
"Range is green, sensors green, ship is green," reports PMRF over the radio.
Finally, at 1:30 p.m., the final count . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . .1 . . . .
From where I now sit, one mile south of the launch pad next to a tracking telescope operated by Hovey Corbin (15419), I see white smoke engulf the lower half of the rocket. Then the missile slowly rises, picks up speed. Blue pieces of Styrofoam from an external cooling chamber slough off and slalom down.
The roar reaches us.
The white contrail curls like a gift ribbon against a clear blue sky, and the missile is out of sight.
The radio crackles: "Target away . . . telemetry good . . . radar good . . . TM track good . . . trajectory is nominal . . . cross range is nominal. . . motor pressure nominal . . . we have target burnout." Then more silence. It’s T+60 seconds.
"We have a good target," reports Steve’s voice over the radio.
"Roger that. Good target," reports PMRF. That’s the signal: KTF has accomplished its part of the mission. Now the KTF team sits back and listens.
Hovey switches to auto track, and the telescope robotically follows the rocket’s expected trajectory, still shooting video and pulling film at 100 frames per second. He doubts we will be able to see the intercept — too far away — but you never know.
"If something goes wrong, we’d like to document what happened," says Hovey.
Another countdown . . . 3 . . . 2. . . 1 . . . and we’re told the interceptor is away from the Navy cruiser 250 miles downrange.
Thirty seconds later a third countdown marks the anticipated intercept.
Then silence. Hovey and Diana Helgesen exchange looks. We should have heard "Mark India" — the official designation for an intercept. We didn’t.
Something went wrong. No intercept.
Good news and bad
Back at Pad 1, the smell of rocket propellant hangs in the air like 1,000 just-popped firecrackers. People are picking up debris. Some are pocketing small pieces as souvenirs. The faces tell the story. There is relief, but no one is smiling.
Sandia provided as good a target as possible. But there’s disappointment the overall mission did not succeed.
Getting ready for the next launch
At this point, no one knows for sure what happened up there. That will come later, after a lot of study of the data, much of it provided by KTF, perhaps. The good news is that the customer will learn something from the test.
The ceremony is brief. Already trucks and people are moving toward Pad 15, where the
FM-5 backup rocket, identical to the one just launched, sits under a tent. The KTF team will move it indoors and prepare it to be the primary target for the next mission, FM-6, scheduled for December.
It is the continuation of a cycle that has continued for 30-plus years at KTF, that has resulted in the launches of more than 350 rockets, and that has involved many hundreds of Sandians.