It is not everyday that one gets an invitation to see the launch of a 70 meter rocket into space. Not only that, but the invitation came from the CEO and team of a Singapore-based company called Kacific, which commissioned the launch for carrying their brand new satellite into space. The satellite was built to bring internet connectivity to the Asia Pacific region – from the mountainous Nepal to the Polynesian archipelago. That experience is definitely worth writing some words about.
The launch had been planned several months ahead. The Boeing production plant had made steady progress on the satellite with a few setbacks. When the satellite shipped towards the launch pad, the date firmed up. The meeting was at the Kennedy Space center in Florida. The satellite was mounted on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the payload was shared with a Japanese company called JSAT.
The Kacific-1 Satellite before being loaded into the tip of the rocket. Credit: Kacific
I arrived Monday morning close to the launch site. The whole Kacific leadership had arrived days before, as well as everyone else closely involved with the company : Engineers, Investors, Clients, Contractors, friends, family and space photographers. The energy was palpable. Everyone had flown in from across the world to watch a 6-year project shoot into space and give hundreds of millions of people access to the internet. Since it started in 2013, Kacific had raised 227 million US dollars in a mix of debt and equity financing to manufacture the satellite and pay for the launch.
The nose cone protects the satellite from the extreme atmospheric friction at launch. Credit: SpaceX
Yet we also knew that anything could still go wrong. The SpaceX falcon 9 had flown successfully 77 times in the past and had failed twice. We didn’t dare thinking about the consequences of a blowup – but if it succeeds, Kacific will attempt to launch more in the years to come. We all nervously watched the hours pass by as the 7:10 pm launch time drew closer. We gathered at the viewing site a safe distance away about an hour before. We got word that all pre-checks were passed and that the launch will happen as scheduled. The room was packed and the air was charged with electric anticipation.
At T-30m minutes before the launch, Boeing and SpaceX representatives showed up on a stage and shared with us what’s about to happen. They had just started loading about 163 tons of rocket-grade kerosene into the Falcon 9. At T-2 minutes, all checks were said to be “Go for Launch”. SpaceX started pumping the rocket full with liquid oxygen, which will mix with the kerosene to ignite the engines. At 60 seconds before ignition the computer took control of the countdown. At this moment everyone got silent. I was staring at the night horizon to see the light of the liftoff. I coudn’t stand still. My body was about to jump all over. Then – the 10.. 9 .. 8.. countdown – at 0 i drew my breath and held it.
A sudden powerful light appeared when the rocket ignited. It was surprisingly silent as the light of the blast reached us before its sound. Then, after a long twenty long seconds, I heard a big “woooom”. Before I even blinked, the rocket was already high up in the air. The glow became thinner as it reached a Mt Everest altitude in just over a minute. It first looked like a huge fireball and then faded into a firework that never extinguishes. Seeing the curved trajectory and the distant light persist for long minutes after liftoff made me apprehend the curvature of the earth and the depth of outer space. It was being cast out of the atmosphere, just like the rocket, forgetting my tiny existence and gasping at the vast distance this man-made engine just traveled.
30 minutes after liftoff, deployment of the satellite into space
But it was almost over too soon. It eventually disappeared behind a thin stretch of cloud. I hurried to the viewing screen nearby. Everyone clapped with amazement at the separation of the first from the second stage of the rocket. By losing the lower part of the rocket when it runs out of propellant, the mass of the projectile decreases. This allows the upper rocket to more easily accelerate and adjust the trajectory of the payload into its final position. A short minute later, we could witness the used boosters fly back to earth and land on a floating pad in the Atlantic ocean for future reuse. It was unbelievable. What a feat of precision engineering. Finally, the airborne mission came to its climax when the rocket undocked the satellite and deployed it into space. There were tears and cries of joy. Here it was, the culmination of decades of work, engineering, knowledge, execution and most of all trust. The Kacific satellite was now on its own to get into the right final orbit and deploy its solar wings. It would then start sending signal to dozens of countries and thousands of islands, many we have never heard about. Somewhere out there people’s lives will be changed. Thank you Kacific for the incredible ride you have all taken us on – and inspiring us to believe in our ideas until they shoot to the stars.
The Merlin Engines thrust the Falcon 9 into space. Photo Credit : Michael Baylor.