Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Watching Phoenix

As Ralph posted yesterday minutes after the launch, the Mars Phoenix lander departed the earth yesterday on its voyage to land on the Martian north polar regions.

Yesterday morning at launch time on Merritt Island, it was dark and well before sunrise when I left my residence. Stepping outside to drive for a good view of the launch the first thing I noticed was that the mid-summer Florida are was thick humid and uncomfortable even just after 5AM. I walked to my car and drove it away from the trees to a place where I could safely pull over and get a good look at the eastern horizon.

The Phoenix launched right on schedule, as the blackness of the night sky was fully illuminated with a dull orange glow that grew from a small flush to a fully developed sense that a fast artificial sunrise was in progress. But within seconds, the brilliant orange sky was defined by a bright white spot that rose above the tree tops and streaked skyward toward the blackness of the sky, intent on piercing the canopy of stars. The Delta II rocket’s first full minute of life unfolded in perfect silence, the rocket’s light was far faster than its sound.

The flames of the rockets were hard to distinguish against the brilliant, almost blinding light of its tail as it rose and climbed away toward space with a G-loading on the Marsship far greater than any human astronaut could have endured safely. The rocket’s trajectory bent immediately as it sought out its preprogrammed trajectory, threading that invisible needle like corridor that represented its path outward to the Red Planet.

Soon enough, the nine small solid rocket boosters burned out and they were ejected, shedding weight and adding inertial energy to the streaking interplanetary ship. They fell away and down toward the ocean slowly like so many disorganized fireflies sparkling in their tiny tumbling individual dances back to earth.

About this moment, the sound pf the rocket began to roll and rumble. All launches are slightly different when it comes to their sound as it is fully defined by the weather and the way the Florida atmosphere blankets the island. But this launch was not going to disappoint – its roar and rubble was full and intense and literally rattled the world all around me.

As the ship rose higher and higher toward space, the atmosphere’s grip lessened to the point that it could no longer hold the engine’s fire together even in its hypersonic velocity. It caused the plume of the rocket to widen more and more as it rose. For us on the ground, this was a special treat, increasing our now distant view of the ship as it rose, accelerating away from us at more than ten thousand miles per hour.

Then not too long after that, the first stage shut down. For just a fraction of a second, the ships light faded. But then it was followed with a bright plume of fire and then by only a single point of bright, white light. The plumes were gone as the Aerojet rocket engine sprang to life burning propellants that were brilliantly white against the blackness of space, streaking away now like a slow star headed east north east away from me. I watched it until it was no longer visible. Eventually there was no way to tell the Phoenix from the other stars and now all of them were being swallowed up by the barely discernable glow of twilight just beginning to change the eastern horizon.

I sighed with awe and wonder. Here I had again witnessed yet another voyage to Mars, now regularly scheduled every other summer. It still impresses me and I know it always will. Mankind has found his way to another world as much like ours in our solar system as we are ever going to find. Just to watch it and to be there to see the magnificence of mankind’s daring and his dreams is just a wonder.

As I settled back into my car and turned on the light for the drive back, I had to pinch myself again. I had just witnessed another departure for Mars. I pray that I will never, ever get over that awesome wonder as long as I live. It is not just amazing. It is not just a wonder. It is a miracle and I wouldn’t miss for anything.