Thoughts After Launch

Randy Pollock
by Randy Pollock
Lead Instrument Systems Engineer

A few hours ago I had the privilege to watch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The creativity, effort and dedication of many, many people were sitting on the launch pad. Many of the people who had worked so hard to get the mission to the pad were in attendance with family and friends there to share in the excitement. The weather was perfect. Cold enough to make the stars seems to be just out of reach, still enough to be pleasant to stand outside waiting for the main event. As it got closer, hundreds of voices followed along the magic of the countdown - “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 - Liftoff!”. The rocket cleared the pad - rising on a column of intense white light. At our distance, it seemed to rise forever before the roar finally reached us. In the dark, clear sky we could watch the various stages burn out, fall back and be replaced by the ignition of the next state. Everything seemed to be going perfectly.

We got on the buses to leave the viewing area, excited by what we witnessed and excited by the mission to come. Both feelings did not last long. Soon text messages and phone calls started to disturb the darkened buses. Within a few minutes, it was clear that the launch had not gone as well as we thought. By the time we got off the buses, it looked grim. In the next couple of hours, it became clear that the rocket failed and we never achieved orbit.

Oddly, hearing that the spacecraft hit the ocean near Antarctica made it worse. I had this vision of the system orbiting the Earth - dead and mute - like a modern day Flying Dutchman. Knowing that the hardware I helped design and build had been destroyed on impact made the loss real.

Artist concept of Orbiting Carbon Observatory
Artist concept of Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

Almost 10 years ago, I was working with a scientist who was also supporting the Mars lander that was lost in 1999. The day after it failed, she told me to always try to enjoy the intellectual challenge of designing a mission and the hardware to make it possible. At the end of the day, that might be all you get. Since then, she has been involved in the incredibly successful Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander. She is working to prepare the Mars Science Laboratory for its 2011 launch.

I hope that her past is my prologue. I hope that the next 10 years bring a productive series of missions to advance our understanding of the carbon cycle - much as the recent Mars missions have advanced our understanding of our solar system’s history.

    8 Responses to “Thoughts After Launch”

  1. Paul Findsen Says:
    February 25th, 2009 at 7:29 am

    I was terribly disappointed to hear of the launch failure. I know it must be a crushing blow to all the fine people who put so many hours of work into such a fine project. Please don’t be too discouraged, I’m sure you’ll get your second chance and that it will sing as loudly and sweetly as Phoenix has.

  2. Fred Says:
    February 25th, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Hello Randy,

    My condolences to you, everyone that worked on the project and the dear OCO that never had a chance to realize itself. Undoubtedly, there will be another observatory in the future and hopefully the building will begin a lot sooner than later. Now is a good time to recall and reflect on the first manned Apollo program mission where Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee all gave their lives for the benefit of all. Everyone reading this blog would be a better person if they now took a few minutes of their time to research the incredible contributions from these kind souls. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Not in Vain” can be applied to all that strive for our goodness.

    If I can stop one heart from breaking,
    I shall not live in vain:
    If I can ease one life the aching,
    Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin
    Unto his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.

    Be proud of your work and keep reaching. You’re blessed to be working for a greater cause.

  3. Scott Ellison Says:
    March 4th, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Randy — It is obviously a tragedy to lose such a spacecraft at this time. My condolences — it must like losing a loved one. Has a decision been made yet either way to replace it? Given its importance, it seems like a replacement is critical and is the obvious answer, but the universe and government works in mysterious ways, so we never know.

  4. NudesGirl Says:
    August 31st, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Really nice comment. I will use RSS for it!
    Thx u It`s was great to reed this

  5. bmw-talk Says:
    December 15th, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Cool post, but just realised you’ve got a new design. It looks awesome man, much better than the old one! Nice one! :D

  6. Vanderlinde Says:
    February 19th, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    cool pics

  7. Bevers Says:
    February 24th, 2010 at 6:36 am

    cool pics

  8. Krzyzanowski Says:
    July 30th, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    cool picxxs

Leave a Reply

Please keep comments on the topic of the post, and avoid using links to external sites. Selected comments will be chosen for posting.