Exclusive: LRO scientist recaps launch week

Michael Wyatt, participating scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, offers a firsthand account of the days leading up to the launch of NASA's lunar-bound craft. He's at Cape Canaveral and will provide exclusive updates to Astronomy.com throughout the week.

Readers, we have liftoff!

OK, you already know that by now, but please excuse my lingering excitement days after the successful launch of NASA's return to the Moon. I can't help myself. It was simply amazing to witness the Atlas V rocket roar into the cloudy skies over Cape Canaveral, Florida, and hurtle the LRO spacecraft towards its lunar destination.

For a while there, we didn't think it would happen. That's because the first two launch windows, at 5:12 p.m. and 5:22 p.m., were slammed shut due to stormy weather. But this mission simply would not be denied! So, in the final time slot, at 5:32 p.m., we got the weather break we needed, and, well, the rest is history - or history in the making, if you like.

The LRO/LCROSS spacecraft is now on its way to the Moon, and we all await its arrival at our nearest celestial neighbor early Tuesday morning.

To see the launch, our group — which included graduate students at Brown University, my wife, my parents, and me — had to arrive early. Hours early. In fact, we got to the Banana Creek VIP launch-viewing site near the Saturn V center about 3 hours before launch. Everyone quickly staked out seats in the stands while others began setting up cameras with large telephoto lenses. To bide time and escape the heat, many people visited the Saturn V center. They marvelled at the enormous rocket that took astronauts to the Moon 40 years ago. It's difficult to capture the entire length of the Saturn V in one picture, so I've included a close-up of the five giant engines in the first stage that would easily engulf someone standing inside them.

About a half hour before launch, the stands began to fill up. All attendees had their eyes on the sky, hoping that the clouds in the distance would not spoil our launch party. We were a little disappointed, and anxious, when the first two launch windows were scuttled. But then a message went out over the public address system that the Atlas V rocket was "green" to go. The crowd cheered. About 5 minutes before launch, we rose out of our seats as the Star Spangled Banner played. These are the moments when you feel fortunate to be witnessing history in the making. With about 30 seconds to launch, everyone began counting down to what we all came to see — 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Liftoff!

The Atlas V lifted slowly off the launch pad, and even though we were miles away, we could see the fire and smoke billowing out beneath the rocket. I've included a picture taken by Brown University graduate student Kerri Donaldson Hanna who captured the lift-off.

It was eerily silent for several seconds as we watched the rocket clear the tower. Then came the sound, a thunderous roar that washed over us. Our eyes remained fixed on the rocket as it rose into the sky. And then — certainly too soon because we were all enjoying the show — the rocket shot through the clouds and out of sight.

We could still hear it, but it was above the cloud deck and on its way into space. Just like that. Before we knew it, the buses had started their engines, and we were on our way back to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center. Everything happened so quickly, but it was worth every second of waiting.

Over the next days and weeks, the Diviner group (you can read about our research in my earlier posts.) and the other instrument teams will watch as LRO reaches the Moon and begins to ease into a science-mapping orbit. Everyone is anxiously waiting for the first time the Diviner instrument is turned on and we begin to receive "first light" data. We had a great week of Diviner and LRO/LCROSS science team meetings, and we're ready to start tackling the outstanding lunar science questions that these missions will help answer.

I'd like to thank the entire NASA LRO/LCROSS teams for a great week of science meetings and Astronomy.com for allowing me to share the excitement of launch week. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog, and stay tuned for science updates in the months and years ahead!