WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. – The sound from the first-stage engine took a moment to travel across the miles of marsh Saturday as the rocket rose toward a crescent moon fading in the morning sky.
For 15 seconds, the four-stage Minotaur shot upward in silence on a column of white flame amid scattered pink clouds at daybreak.
Then, as flocks of birds took flight, the rippling thunder of 250,000 pounds of thrust joined the majestic sight of the largest liftoff ever here, a milestone for NASA and the region’s new state-backed commercial spaceport.
Bystanders whooped, rocket executives high-fived, and one official dashed out the door of a blockhouse just after liftoff to hear the rumble as the Minotaur streaked from its oceanside launch pad at 7 a.m.
NASA officials said the liftoff could be seen from the District of Columbia, 150 miles northwest, and there was one report of a sighting from as far away as Raleigh, N.C.
It was the inaugural launch from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, the product of a 10-year crusade by Virginia and Maryland, which funded the project, to create a local commercial space launch business.
The spaceport, whose acronym is MARS, built its own launch pad and heated 12-story rocket gantry for Saturday’s flight on land leased from NASA at the space agency’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. The unmanned Minotaur, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., carried an Air Force tactical surveillance satellite called TacSat-2, and a NASA science payload called GeneSat-1. Both satellites reached orbit and appeared to be performing well, officials said.
It was the first successful orbital liftoff here in more than 20 years. In the previous such launch, in 1995, the rocket self-destructed.
“It was absolutely great,” said Billie Reed, the spaceport director. “It was a great culmination to 10 years. … When you really saw it lighting up the sky, you said, ‘Hallelujah!’ “
“We’re open for business,” he said. “It demonstrates the fact that we are viable, we are real.”
The spaceport is hoping for a resurgence in the private space launch industry, with new business especially from the government as the space shuttles are retired in the next few years, and also from a rising interest in space tourism. “That’s the next step, I think,” Reed said. “Space tourism. And we certainly want to be a part of that.”
Scores of officials and onlookers began gathering before dawn Saturday at a NASA viewing area. The rocket stood bathed in lights several miles off, while loudspeakers blared disembodied voices of controllers stepping through the countdown.
Attended by heavy ground and aerial security, the final countdown began right before 7, and liftoff came after a flame the color of a welding torch appeared at the rocket’s base.
A voice over the loudspeaker announced: “Ignition,” and the rocket took flight, billowing fire and smoke.
In a concrete blockhouse not far from the pad, Rick Baldwin, the spaceport’s on-site manager who helped build the gantry, bolted out the door four seconds after launch. “I wanted to hear it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful sound.”
The roar faded quickly, as the Minotaur zoomed up and curved southeast over the Atlantic toward the coast of Africa.
Two minutes into the flight, the rocket was almost 80 miles up and moving at more than 5,000 mph, fueled by its rubbery propellant, HTPB.
Six minutes later, it was 256 miles high – practically in orbit – traveling at over 11,000 mph, and 1,000 miles down range.