Cluster Project Manager looks back to a perfect launch
1 August 2000Two weeks after the first pair of Cluster spacecraft lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Project Manager John Ellwood looked back contentedly on the successful completion of the first act in this two-part launch drama.
"On the way to the launch pad on 15 July, there was a severe thunderstorm and we could see lightning striking some of the overhead power lines. This lasted until about > hour before the launch was due to start, but we weren't worried about the storm because the pad is protected by lightning conductors and there are back-up generators available in case of power cuts to vital systems. We also knew that Starsem and the Russians have strict rules about not launching into a lightning storm.
Everything was looking good until, with about one minute to go, something in Russian came over the loudspeaker and our translator told us that the launch had been cancelled. Our concern about the condition of the spacecraft was soon overcome when the communications umbilical was reconnected and they were shown to be working perfectly.
The Russian State Commission looked at the problem that night and agreed that the launch could resume the next day after some technical actions at the pad. It was all very professionally done and increased our confidence even more in the Soyuz system.
The 16th was a beautiful day with clear blue sky and a temperature in the thirties. There was some worry about the fairly strong surface wind, but we were assured that it was much less at high altitude. We got to the launch cell under the viewing stand about one hour before lift-off time. From there we had communications with the pad bunker and with ESOC (the European Space Operations Centre in Germany).
After the umbilical withdrew at about T - 2 minutes, we came out onto the viewing area. We were only about 1 km from the pad, so we had a spectacular view. There was crackling roar as the vehicle was held down for 20 seconds while its engines went to half thrust - it almost looked as if it was struggling to escape.
Lift-off was quite slow, but it accelerated very quickly. At first it seemed to rise vertically, but then it turned as it headed into the distance. Through our binoculars we could see it for several minutes, and we were able to see the side boosters fall away.
We were still in contact with the Starsem people in the bunker and they gave us a 'countdown' on how things were going every 10 seconds - every time it was absolutely nominal. It was a major relief once we knew that the first Fregat burn had gone OK and the satellites were in orbit.
There was then a communications blackout for about an hour. We went to Building 51, not far from the viewing area, and watched a real-time computer simulation of the next events on a large screen. The second firing took place over West Africa, so we only knew about the success of the second Fregat burn when the first Russian ground station acquired the spacecraft signal. It was an amazing relief.
Then we got onto communications with ESOC and heard that a signal from one spacecraft had been acquired straight away by the ground station at Kiruna (Sweden). There was a slight pause before we got the second one. An antenna had deployed automatically on the top of the spacecraft, so we had information on their spin rate and solar aspect, and knew that the computers and power were OK.
Once we knew everything was safe, we went to join our Russian colleagues - who had already started to celebrate - and congratulated them.
The orbital injection was so perfect that we have plenty of fuel left, so we should easily be able to complete our two year mission and possibly more. Everything has gone beautifully since then. We've already removed the covers on two of the experiments to allow them to outgas.
Everyone on the ground has done a fantastic job. It has been a very hard working environment, with a lot of working even on Sundays. It is largely due to the tremendous efforts of the ESA team and the industrial consortium led by Astrium GmbH that we are in this excellent position today.
Mind you, it's not over yet! We are now looking forward to the second launch being as perfect as the first!"