WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.—The massive moon rocket was off like a shot. The five-stage Minotaur V rocket didn't rise majestically and gather speed like those liquid-fueled rockets you see on television. Instead, the rocket leaped into the sky with an urgency that made your skin tingle with excitement.
This was the first deep-space mission from NASA's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located in this tiny community on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The spaceport is just across an inlet from the far better known Chincoteague Island, home of "Misty" and thousands of other wild ponies. But despite its new prominence, the Wallops Island facility is hardly new. The first rocket launched from this island 67 years ago.
The reason for the rapid launch is because the Minotaur V rocket is based on an older ICBM. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences has repurposed decommissioned Peacekeeper missiles for use as launch vehicles. The solid rocket boosters on these rockets have a lot of thrust, enough to reach orbit in what seems to be an instant, and enough to place a space vehicle the size of a compact car on a direct course to the moon.
The rocket carried the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) into a highly elliptical orbit with a perigee that reaches nearly to the moon at 238,000 miles. By the third orbit, LADEE will be captured by the moon's gravity and be drawn into an elliptical orbit around the moon.
The spacecraft will slowly thrust itself into a nearly circular orbit, at which point it will begin 100 days of science data collection. The lunar orbit will vary in altitude between 20 to 150 kilometers. Once it has completed the data-collection period and its maneuvering fuel is nearly exhausted, the LADEE spacecraft will be decommissioned and will crash into the lunar surface.
The launch, as quick as it was, still afforded time to watch as the rocket soared overhead, producing a red flash as the first stage separated from the rest of the launch vehicle. The second stage burst into action, still clearly visible as it burned its way into the sky downrange. By the time the Minotaur V was overhead, the roar of the launch reached the viewing area and resonated within the very soul of observers. A spontaneous cheer erupted as the rocket gained altitude.
The launch of LADEE was the first lunar mission from the Wallops Island facility. According to NASA's Keith Koehler, the MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) will be seeing a lot more major launches as this facility takes advantage of newly upgraded launch pads.