Catching a NASA Live Launch – a GRAIL Weekend

The GRAIL is launched! Photo taken by Peter Noerdlinger, 9/10/2011

It sounded pretty straightforward – get an invitation or buy a Kennedy Space Center launch ticket, show up, and watch a spectacular liftoff. Actually, it’s a bit more exciting than that: one needs sustained enthusiasm, optimism, and tolerance for uncertainties and … mosquitoes.

Our GRAIL liftoff watch took three days of waking up at around a 5:00 A.M. and driving to KSC to catch a bus, that would then take us to the NASA Causeway viewing site.

Day 1: Upper level winds caused the launch on September 8 to be postponed, initially to the next day, and finally to September 10.  It turns out that rocket engineers have yet to make weather-proof  rockets and spacecraft.

Day 2:  After driving through torrential rains without any major incident, we were resigned to leaving Cape Canaveral without the live launch experience. We told ourselves that we had a wonderful trip: the KSC tour was great, we had dinner with our dear friends in the area, and MIT Professor Maria Zuber, the mission’s principal investigator, had answered our questions.

Day 3: The 60% chance of favorable weather conditions encouraged us to head back to the launch site. There was a festive air and a much smaller crowd, which was no less enthusiastic and interesting than the crowd two days ago. A British gentleman read off from his Kindle a minute by minute update of the launch status; A NASA employee went around with a moon rock we could touch; a young couple, with whom we shared a picnic table while shooting the breeze, gave an inspiring account of their graduate school life in Germany  and of many other stories and ideas.

Finally, at 9:08 EDT, the Delta II 7920-10 rocket launched GRAIL from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mission managers allocated 42 days from September 8 to October 19, 2011 for the launch period. Interestingly, the distance travelled by GRAIL from launch to the lunar orbit insertion will have been considerably shorter by ~ 0.6 billion kilometers had the liftoff occurred in October 19, 2011.

GRAIL or  Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory consists of a twin spacecraft – GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B, each the size and shape of a washing machine. GRAIL-A is expected to reach the Moon’s orbit on December 31, 2011 – a day before GRAIL-B reaches lunar orbit on New Year’s day. Through its capabilities to create a highly precise gravitational map of the Moon,  GRAIL will allow scientists to deduce the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core, as well as gain better understanding of the thermal evolution of the Moon. (See MIT website and launch press kit. ) With an enhanced understanding of the Moon’s gravity, scientists expect to gain better knowledge of the evolution of the other rocky planets in the inner solar system – i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Engineers are also expected to benefit from the mission, particularly in creating better navigational aids for future lunar spacecraft.

Fifth to 8th grade students in the U.S. have the chance to participate in lunar exploration activities of GRAIL through MoonKam as part of the mission’s education and public outreach. This exciting interactive web-based feature will be available by February 2012 for ~80 days of MoonKam mission.

The GRAIL mission has a lifecycle price tag of $496.2 M . This budget covers spacecraft development, science instruments, launch services, mission operations, and science processing and relay support. Over 300 scientists, engineers, and other experienced professionals from various disciplines participate in this program. In addition to Dr. Maria Zuber of MIT, other major players of GRAIL include Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colorado, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, United Launch Alliance, and Sally Ride Science.

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