The early morning hours of August 11th, 2018 were full with emotion hanging in the air. Dozens of photographers and reporters stood anxiously in the dewey grass of the Launch Complex 37 Press Site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We were all desperately awaiting the pre-dawn sky to ignite with the fury of the mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket. The final Go/No Go poll sequence was in the process of being conducted when a “Hold. Hold. Hold.” directive was given and the historic mission was scrubbed for the day. The photographers, reporters, launch teams, and invited guests were directed to return in 24 hours for an attempted launch recycle. We all broke down our equipment quickly and boarded the bus back to our vehicles. We would be seeing eachother again in, what seemed like, a long 24 hours.
The historic mission was a combined effort between National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and United Launch Alliance (ULA) with support provided by Northrop Grumman to deliver the first ever mission to the Sun.
This mission had specific importance because it was the culmination of almost sixty years of work conducted by Dr. Eugene Parker’s study of heliophysics and solar winds. In the 1990’s the idea of a solar probe originated in the Outer Planets/Solar Probe program of NASA, but was essentially scrapped during 2003.
Following the original mission scrap, the idea was revisited and once again brought to life in 2012 with a targeted launch sometime in 2018. In 2017, ahead of the mission launch, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, contacted Dr. Eugene Parker and asked if he would like for NASA to name the Solar Probe after him, to which he responded “Well sure, I think that would be OK.” This was a deviation in the typical NASA mission naming process as no mission had previously donned the name of a living individual.
Dr. Eugene Parker was chosen for such an honor because of his continued devotion to the study of heliophysics including the heliosphere and more specifically, solar winds. He faced many doubters and obstacles throughout his career, but refused to listen to the naysayers. Eventually, after decades of research and dedication, he became a recognized and leading expert in his field.
Parker Solar Probe was tasked with the job of studying solar wind and how it can affect not only the Earth, but all of space weather in our solar system, a concept which Dr. Parker has advocated for the majority of his career. Along with its primary mission directive, it was packed with many more instruments to study something that humankind had never had the opportunity to study up close in the past. There were instruments included to collect information and data on magnetic fields, plasma, energetic particles, and a white light imager to be used to observe at the Sun’s corona more in-depth than ever before.
The instrument suits are briefly described below. If you would like further detail of each instrument, the NASA press kit for the Parker Solar Probe and launch is linked at the bottom of this article.
FIELDS - “Surveyor of the invisible forces”
WISPR - “Wide FIeld Imager” responsible for collecting the white light images of the sun’s corona
SWEAP - “Count the most abundant particles in the solar wind...and measure properties” (electrons, protons, and helium ions)
ISOIS - “measure particles across a wide range of energies”
Parker Solar Probe is unique in that its final destination is actually a 7 year orbit around Venus. The Probe will use the planet’s orbit to help edge itself closer with every pass. The probe will conduct 24 flybys of the sun with 7 gravity assist passes around Venus. This will allow it to slow down enough to pass the sun. Eventually it will pass the sun at 430,000 mph, making it the fastest human made object. At its closest range it will get within 3.8 million miles of the sun, also making it the closest human made object to the sun.
To ensure that the Parker Solar Probe would make it to its final destination, the Sun, NASA had to pick the correct tool for the job. In this case, the only logical option to get the job done was the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy. This powerhouse of a rocket was chosen specifically for it’s capability to house a third stage booster to help propel Parker Solar Probe into its final elliptical orbit around Venus edging ever so closer to the Sun.
The core and strap on boosters were provided by ULA. The third stage propulsion system, which was mission critical to Parker Solar Probe’s success, was provided by Northrop Grumman. The probe was, of course, provided by NASA. All three companies had to work together seamlessly to compose an orchestra of science that played in perfect harmony to get Parker Solar Probe where it needed to go.
The journalists, photographers, and invited guests all reconvened 24 hours after the initial launch attempt. Most were donning long sleeves, long pants, and a ton of mosquito repellant to witness the history that was about to occur before their eyes. The second launch attempt had a completely different atmosphere than the previous morning. Everyone that morning seemed to be well rested, in a good mood, and simply enjoying the moment. I can recall the calming music of Bob Marley playing over the press site loudspeakers and everyone around me singing along. By the end of a long couple of days of media coverage and two very early morning launch attempts, everyone had become great friends.
When the music over the loudspeaker faded out and the voices of the ULA commentators came on everyone’s attention turned to the weather and range report, provided by the 45th Space Wing, and the Go/No Go poll. We got word that the weather possibility for violation had dramatically decreased from a 40% chance to a 5% chance. Hearing that the Delta IV Heavy and the Parker Solar Probe had a 95% weather clearance rate struck a whole new level of excitement with the spectators. Then it came down to the final Go/No Go poll check, which the second time around received all Go’s with no holds reported from telemetry, weather/range, or the vehicle itself. We were officially on for 3:31a.m. launch of the mighty Delta IV Heavy carrying the Parker Solar Probe. Everyone in the press site cheered with excitement because we all knew what we were about to experience.
Suddenly, the count down was on and everyone became dead silent. That is, until the mighty Aerojet RS-68A engines roared to life with a fiery breath. There were celebrations abound accompanied by hundreds of shutter clicks from the surrounding media cameras. There is no replicating the joy one experiences while watching a rocket lift off, that is, until the sound hits you. I mean, physically hits you. With a Delta IV Heavy launching from the ground with 2.1 million pounds of thrust, you actually physically experience the earth quake and the sound reverberate in your chest. Experiencing a rocket launch is an indescribable experience, but experiencing a Heavy class rocket launch is something else entirely.
This launch was extra special to some because just days before there was an opportunity for the press to meet Dr. Eugene Parker. It was at this event that he disclosed that he had never witnessed a rocket launch in person, ever. The rocket launch that was delivering a piece of science dedicated to his life’s work would be his first, and easily most memorable.
Everyone in attendance felt honored to be a part of something so historic. There are multiple people, laboratories, and corporations that worked seamlessly together to make this whole event a once in a lifetime experience. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough words or space to express gratitude to all of those that deserve to be recognized, but just know this, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for you. Journalists, photographers, engineers, teachers, space enthusiasts and all others experienced a moment of history that we will simply never forget.
We all look forward to what Parker Solar will be delivering back home to us in the near future.
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