GRAIL Launch

I went to the Kennedy Space Center this morning to watch the launch of the GRAIL mission.

GRAIL, or Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory, is a mission involving placing two spacecraft into the same orbit around the Moon. The two spacecraft will fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity. Some of these variations in gravity are caused by visible features such as mountains and craters while others are caused by masses hidden beneath the lunar surface. As the two craft move slightly toward and away from each other, measurements will be taken so as to produce a high-resolution map of the Moon's gravitational field.

GRAIL will be launched aboard a Delta rocket - a family of rockets that has been used since 1960 when a Delta launched ECHO into earth orbit. The launch vehicle for GRAIL will be a Delta II Heavy.

I had wondered if I would be able to see the launch of a Delta II Heavy from my backyard, but the timing of this launch allowed me to travel from the Gulf side of Florida to the space center to see the launch up close.

After leaving the launch viewing area, I enjoyed some time at the Visitor Complex, where I was able to meet Charlie Duke, an astronaut from Apollo 16 who walked on the moon in 1972.

Unfortunately, the launch was scrubbed.

It was still a pleasant day. I happened to meet Cecilia Barnbaum, astronomy professor at Valdosta State University. We sat together and chatted while waiting for the launch that would not happen as planned.

After leaving the launch viewing area, I enjoyed some time at the Visitor Complex, where I was able to meet Charlie Duke, an astronaut from Apollo 16 who walked on the moon in 1972.

Duke is a fascinating man, and very personable and approachable. He is full of fascinating stories about his trip to the moon. I asked him how the trip the moon impacted his spirituality. "I did not view the trip to the Moon as a spiritual experience," he said. "To me it was an adventure, and a great adventure. However, I did have a tremendous spiritual awakening after I returned from the moon." I have not read the book, but he says the last chapters deal with how this spiritual awakening came about and changed his life.

"Do you think America's commitment to space is waning," I asked.

"Not at all. People are still very interested in space travel. America will continue to lead the way into space. It is frustrating right now because there is a lot of uncertainty, but it is time for us to move out of the low earth orbit that the Space Shuttle had bound us. The GRAIL mission is one of many great robotic missions in NASA, and human space flight will always be part of NASA's mission."

I had Charlie Duke sign his autobiography, which he inscribed with the words, "To Pastor Maynard, aim high, Charlie Duke."

It just so happens that I viewed the launch of Apollo 16 from the area around the VAB.

Me and Mom at the launch of Apollo 16

Charlie Duke told me that at the moment of the launch, he was concerned that something was very wrong. "There was so much vibration from side to side. I looked at John Young, who had already flown atop a Saturn V and he was quite calm. I asked the flight surgeon about my heart rate at launch and he said it was 144. He told me, 'you seemed to be a little excited.' John's was a mere 70."

I saw Apollo 8, 11, 16 and 17 launches in person - and except for Apollo 8 I viewed them in the restricted area near the VAB. The launch of Apollo 16 was the quietest of the launches - I suspect it had to do with the direction of the wind, but I'm not sure.

Today also happens to be the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series on television, and there is a special, temporary exhibit about Star Trek at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. There are lots of props, costumes, and even a replica of the bridge of the original Enterprise. Here I am in the Captain's chair, wondering why nothing happened when I pushed the button, "Battle Stations."

As for GRAIL, it will be launched later - but I'll be seeing it from my backyard on the other side of Florida (or from television).

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