Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Launchpad Patrol


A one-of-a-kind perspective on NASA’s shuttle missions


There appears to be a bank of sea fog rolling in off the Atlantic as we're cleared for a predawn takeoff on runway 09 at Titusville's Space Coast Executive Airport in Florida. As we climb through 500 feet we enter the fog, and the tower hands us off to NASA approach control, which then clears us into the restricted area. We're instructed to fly a heading of 090 degrees with a climb to 3,000 feet, and to report our other company aircraft in sight. We had been informed by the crew of our sister ship that the fog didn't extend much beyond the east bank of the Indian River and, as expected, we soon break out into the clear to a sight beneath us of Cape Canaveral's nighttime panorama and the Kennedy Space Center.

Off our nose and perpendicular to our direction of flight is the 15,000-foot shuttle landing strip. Just beyond the runway, even in the dark, we can plainly see the incredibly huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and a couple of miles farther east near the coast, the shuttle Launch Complexes 39A and 39B. As we fly past the VAB, we can see the wide, white, gravel track upon which the crawler transports the fully assembled shuttle to the launch complex. South of the VAB, we can recognize the visitor's center with its "rocket garden." Still farther south is Patrick Air Force Base, and lined up along the east coast, south of the NASA facilities, are the Air Force launch pads.

At Launch Complex 39A, there's a space shuttle in the final hours of launch preparation. Our mission this morning is to provide security over the launch complex and surrounding space center, to ensure that no unauthorized personnel get close enough to pose a danger to themselves or to the shuttle. We work for Airscan, a civilian company contracted by NASA and the Air Force to provide airborne security for space launches. We fly two-hour missions, alternating with our other company aircraft and crews, so that one of us will be on watch constantly until the shuttle mission is either launched or scrubbed.

We're flying an aircraft ideally suited for this type of mission. Vietnam veterans would recognize it as the O2 Bird Dog. Civilians call it the Cessna Skymaster. It not only provides the safety and systems redundancy of twin engines, but unlike most twins, also allows an unobstructed view of the ground for a crew of three. Mounted on a hard point under the left wing is a highly capable, remotely operated camera turret, with high-resolution infrared and color video cameras connected to a microwave downlink transmitter, which allows authorities on the ground to view our video in real time. Another outstanding capability of this aircraft is that it carries enough fuel for a ridiculous eight hours of loiter time.

Approaching 39A, we're in contact with our sister ship as we see them break station and turn west to fly the ILS approach at Titusville. I tell them the fog shouldn't be too much of a problem, and they can expect to see the runway before they reach decision height. As they depart, we descend to 2,500 feet, and enter a one-mile orbit around the launch complex. Out my window, the protective shroud that covers the orbiter has been retracted, and there, in all her glory, stands the space shuttle Columbia.

Although I've flown this mission many times in the past, I'm still awed by the spectacle just below. The entire shuttle assembly, with its orange external tank and twin solid rocket boosters, is bathed in an intense white light from a bank of flood lights surrounding the launch pad. From my point of view, the reflected light from the white surface of the orbiter is so intense it almost appears to be lit from within, like some giant sculpted lightbulb. There's a small plume of white vapor rapidly dissipating as it escapes from somewhere near the top of the external tank, and on the ground at a safe distance within the launch complex perimeter, there's a large yellow flame where excess gas is burned off. The shuttle gives off a very strong impression of being alive, poised and ready, waiting only for the word to go.
The instant the shuttle leaves the pad, you see that the cloud of smoke and steam contains a baby sun that appears to be lifting the shuttle skyward.
When the sun comes up, it becomes apparent that most of the Cape is still semi-wilderness, covered by trees and brush with scattered pockets of swamp. Most of the Cape is in fact a wildlife preserve. We've often seen deer, wild pigs, gators, bald eagles and, once, even a panther with our cameras. Just offshore, I often see large manta rays and dolphins, occasionally a school of sharks and, once, a large pod of whales. The facilities of the Space Center, connected by roads, appear like islands in a sea of brush. If not for our infrared-camera system, the brush could easily provide concealment for a terrorist or saboteur.



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