05 December 2008

Armageddon or Just a Rocket Test?

The story, from the SpaceX /Media website began:

Significant Milestone Achieved as SpaceX Prepares to Demonstrate U.S. Transport to the International Space Station

HAWTHORNE, CA – November 23, 2008 – Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) successfully conducted a full mission-length firing of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle's first stage at its McGregor Test Facility in Texas, on November 22. For the static test firing, the first stage remains firmly secured to the massive vertical test stand, where it fired for 178 seconds or nearly three minutes — simulating the climb of the giant rocket from the surface of the Earth towards orbit.

But let’s go back to Saturday, November 22. Imagine you are travelling in the car with us – I’m in the passenger seat, my husband driving, my stepdaughter (who had just had a grueling day at the mercy of Southwest Airlines coping valiantly with a half-day’s fog in San Diego, of all places, which delayed flights until nearly noon). We are travelling north along highway 317, and it’s about 10.30. I’ve given up playing with the MP3 player, connected to the car’s audio system, and I’m letting it play whatever it wants. I can’t stop yawning, as our day started at about 6 a.m., feeding eight horses and two donkeys. After chores and other things that needed doing, we drove from just the other side of Valley Mills, Texas, to Belton, and then Austin, to meet her at the airport. Now we’re going home. Yay!

During the day this drive is uneventful. My husband likes to go this way to Austin, as it avoids much of I-35, full of large trucks exceeding the speed limit and probably dosing limits on chemical stimulants. The way is dotted by the occasional stone or brick home, few trees, pastures with a few cattle and little towns like Moody and McGregor. I’m a newcomer to Texas and know very little about McGregor, the town we are approaching. My husband and I always say the name of the town with heavy, fake Scots accents. But now, at 10.30, it’s dark and even more uneventful. I wish I were at home, in bed.

Suddenly, the sky is alight with a bright yellow-orange glow just to our left, the west. The arc of the glow lights up the night sky like, oh damn … the first thing that pops into my head, being a Baby Boomer, is a nuclear explosion. I find I’m waiting for the nuclear wind. It doesn’t happen. I’m not dematerializing.

About 20 years ago, when I lived in central Arkansas, a warhead in a missile silo was accidentally detonated, and the ground shook for tens of miles around. I had just returned to university studies after having two babies and getting them into daycare. A classmate turned to me in my American Lit class and bewailed, “I thought it was The Rapture and I’d been left behind!” The great fear then was that the warhead had been nuclear, as the explosion thrust the warhead out of the silo and it landed several hundred yards away. Why you’d need a nuclear warhead to blow a Russian missile out of the sky, I don’t know. But there were some nervous moments.

But back to Highway 317: A very large cloud of smoke rises into the brilliantly lit night sky. Whew! It’s not mushroom-shaped. We all noticed it at the same time, of course. There’s no missing this event. We keep saying aloud, “What is it? What is it?” We speculate that it might be a gas pipeline fire, as there are many around central Texas, and the fire is so bright. My stepdaughter says several times, “Shouldn’t we call someone?” Finally my husband suggests that I phone 911. I dig my mobile phone out of my purse. Aha! Electronics still work. Definitely not a nuclear explosion. Whew!

The 911 operator asked what my emergency was. “We are travelling north on highway 317, just south of McGregor (I abandoned the fake Scots accent) and we are seeing a huge glow, perhaps a fire, maybe a gas line to the west.”

There was a pause. “Let me refer you to DPS.” Why would she transfer my emergency call to the Department of Public Safety? Why not call the fire department? The National Guard? The Department of Homeland Security? “This is Sergeant [mumble]. Can I help you?” I repeat my emergency. You should call 911."

“But I just did and she transferred me to you,” I replied.

“Are you pretty close to McGregor?”

“Yes. We’re just a few miles south of the city limits.” Suddenly, as quickly as it started, the glow vanished, and the night sky returned to normal with its twinkling stars and waxing moon somewhere above the cloud cover.

“Oh,” he seemed relieved. “There is a rocket testing facility there. They always test fire rockets there. That’s probably it.”

I said something banal like, “Oh, okay” and thanked him and hung up.

Then I turned to my husband and relayed the information. “Did you know there was a rocket testing facility here?!” No. “Why wouldn’t they have a sign or something … ‘Warning! We often scare the pants off of passing motorists.’” He began a similar rant. We were outraged for a few more minutes and then lapsed back into our road weary stupor.

At full power, the rocket generated 855,000 pounds of force at sea level. In vacuum, the thrust increases to approximately one million pounds or four times the maximum thrust of a 747 aircraft. The test consumed over half a million pounds of propellant. All nine engines fired for 160 seconds, then two engines were shut down to limit the acceleration and the remaining seven engines continued firing for 18 more seconds, as would occur in a typical climb to orbit.
Full Falcon 9 Test 11.22.08 Courtesy SpaceX
Sunday night, my husband really wanted to go to bed when I informed him that the local news had a teaser about the rockets test outside McGregor, and we had to stay up to watch the news item. We joked that perhaps there’d be film of our car driving past, with me on the mobile phone. The talking head related that a company named SpaceX had been in McGregor for some time and regularly conducted rocket tests. They gave information similar to what one can find on their website, about pounds of force and the length of the test burn and how it lit up the night sky. There was a sidebar on the weather report, which informed viewers that vibrations could be felt as far away as Waco and Gatesville because of a temperature inversion that caused sound and shock waves to echo back to Earth. Some young, blond thing, a spokesperson for SpaceX bubbled an apparently memorized blurb about how regular this is, even though it was the first night test, ever. She didn’t strike me as a rocket scientist.

The next night, there was another news item about how the mayor of McGregor was upset, as were his constituents. The news reader explained that in the future SpaceX would inform area emergency services and media when a test was planned. Then a video of the young, blond public affairs SpaceX person showed her saying that SpaceX did not plan to conduct a night test “ever again.” The news reader was careful to balance his report of the mayor being justifiably concerned and of citizens (in this post-911 world) being scared spitless (not his exact words).

Another blogger from Discover Magazine: Bad Astronomy had this to say:

Evidently SpaceX notified some officials, but not everybody got the news. I can imagine being terrified of something like this happening even 25 miles away — it must have looked like Armageddon. I feel kinda bad for the local folks, but on the other hand SpaceX is pumping quite a bit of money into the area, so I hope they can forgive.

That’s typical, of course: as long as someone pumps enough money into a location, an organization, a movement, you name it – there are those who believe the financier should be forgiven anything. Granted, the atmospheric conditions that night were most likely to blame for the rocket test’s wide-ranging effects. And it is an impressive sight on the video (see link above). However, these people aren’t backyard amateurs; merely posting a sign on the surrounding highways would alert motorists to the facility’s existence, so if one should drive into what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be Armageddon, one does not soil the car seat. Alerts sent to local emergency switchboards – 911, fire, DPS, police, and so on, would permit the operator at the other end of the call to immediately reassure the caller that it was a legitimate, scheduled rocket test and not some terrorist follow-up to September 11. Alerting the media, who could run stories before the event, rather than all the silly stories afterward, could educate locals (except those who refuse to read the newspaper, watch television news or listen to radio news) to expect a 178-second shake, rattle, roll and glow at 10.30 at night.

Of course, I spent nearly five years in the U.S. Navy as a journalist in public affairs offices, so I know how a well-placed story can alleviate fear and panic. Perhaps the folks at SpaceX didn’t know that. Too bad – after all, good public relations isn’t rocket science.