I don’t know how else to say it. This morning, about 4:10, I was standing in the middle of a storm cloud. Literally.
Last night United Launch Alliance and the Air Force tried for a second launch attempt of the Atlas V 401 rocket carrying the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory‘s Radiation Belt Storm Probes from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Thursday night (Friday morning 4am) the first attempt was scrubbed with the vehicle still on the launch pad due to weather violations on the eastern range.
This morning, in the peak of the summer storm season in the lightning capital of the US with Tropical Storm Isaac only a couple days from hitting us as a projected category 2 hurricane, we were gearing up for the scheduled second attempt of the launch after a 24 hour recycle keeping the same 0407-0427 launch window. Launches have happened in worse weather, all it takes is a tiny hole in the clouds
Many of the reporters who cover Kennedy Space Center travel from all around the country and world to be here and could not stay for the second attempt. NASA had been holding a Tweetup all week and many of them had to leave as well. With less than half of the reporters from the previous night and less than a quarter of the social media, we all packed into one bus and went to the roof of the VAB for launch. This marks either the first or second time in history that non-media or essential/NASA personnel have ever been allowed up there (there may have been one during the Apollo days.)
Around midnight a major storm was brewing to the southeast but with the launch still officially on we went back up on the roof of the VAB where we all set up our cameras & video and watched the lightning storm rolling in. 42 flights up (525ft) on the roof of the tallest one-story building in the world the view is amazing. The building is so massive it is well known to have its own weather system including lenticular cloud formations that engulf the top. This morning, as we entered phase 1 lightning (severe warning) the pictures just kept getting better but the weather was heading straight at us.
The storm clouds were just off in the distance as we kept shooting, then shortly after we entered Phase 1 we entered Phase 2 (no one is allowed to be outside.) The lightning clouds were literally on top of us just barely out of reach. As the last few of us were packing our gear, a few low hanging clouds passed through and for just a minute we were standing inside a storm cloud!!! (Just a couple minutes after the pic below)
A few minutes before the launch window closed, just as we were getting back to the press site across the street from the VAB, the launch attempt was scrubbed and reset for a 24 hour recycle (same launch time tomorrow.) At 6am mission managers met to debate the merits of the 24 hour recycle vs waiting to let the storm suck the energy out of the atmosphere and launching after. They released the following statement
“With the unfavorable weather forecast as a result of Tropical Storm Isaac approaching Florida, the leadership team for launching NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission has decided to roll the Atlas V rocket off the launch pad and back to the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. This will ensure the launch vehicle and twin RBSP spacecraft are secured and protected from inclement weather. Pending approval from the U.S. Air Force’s Eastern Range, RBSP’s launch is rescheduled for Thursday, Aug. 30 at 4:05 a.m. EDT.”
The strangest part of the entire story is that just a week or so ago I was standing in my front yard watching planes fly through clouds and wondering what it would be like to fly through the clouds like a bird. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever do and most of the rest of that list also happened here at Kennedy Space Center too!