By Chuck RobertsMarch 22, 2018
When Rocket Lab became the first private company to launch satellites into space from the Southern Hemisphere on May 2017, the milestone included flight safety officers and engineers from White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
When the Electron Launch Vehicle lifted off on Jan. 21, 2018, for its first orbital flight from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, flight safety officers Marcus Chavez and Billy Johnson could feel the rumbling of the rocket from the launch support site more than a mile away.
About eight minutes later, the Electron Launch Vehicle deposited three small satellites into low Earth orbit: a Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging satellite and two Lemur-2 satellites for the weather and ship tracking company Spire.
Chavez and Johnson are part of a White Sands team contracted by Rocket Lab to provide support for the development and certification of the flight termination system, to review flight safety documentation, and to participate in dry runs and live launches for the Electron Launch Vehicle program.
Chavez and Johnson are joined on the team by flight safety engineers John Lopez and Carmelite Aragon-Torres, and flight safety branch chief Doug Hamilton, from the White Sands Test Center Range Operations Directorate.
White Sands has provided similar support to companies in the past, but this is believed to be the first time that a team from White Sands helped put a rocket into orbit.
The team reviewed and verified Rocket Lab data, analysis and flight safety plans that included sending out warning notices for air and sea traffic during a launch, and reviewing and implementing the flight termination system, which enables the flight safety officer to terminate flight should the vehicle go off course or be otherwise deemed unsafe.
During a mission, an instantaneous prediction is made of where pieces of the vehicle would impact in the rare case of an anomaly, assisting the flight safety officer in making the decision of whether and when to terminate the flight.
Thousands of computer test simulations are part of the flight termination system analysis process to predict and prevent a rocket from going off course. But mistakes can still happen, and the White Sands team was monitoring an Electron test flight on May 24, 2017, when they terminated the rocket four minutes into its flight when, despite the vehicle following a safe and nominal trajectory, some of the ground telemetry tracking equipment they were monitoring lost contact with the rocket.
During the subsequent launch on Jan. 21, however, events went as planned with the vehicle reaching orbit and deploying its payloads. Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck called the launch an important step in democratizing access to space to empower humanity.
"Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that," said Beck according to a Rocket Lab news release.
Putting the successful launch into a historical perspective, Chavez gives credit to decades of research and development by NASA and other agencies dating back to a time when engineers relied on slide rules rather than digital computers.
Thanks to their heavy lifting, said Chavez, a vast trove of information is now readily accessible and is helping lead space travel in a new direction.
"It will be nice to see space become less exclusive."