Failure to launch

By Fink Densford

A few UK students have learned firsthand just how hard it can be to make it into space.

The UK Space Systems Laboratory is looking to the future after their satellite, KySat-1, failed to reach orbit Friday with NASA’s Glory mission.

Students had gathered together to watch the launch, which, in addition to the $424 million NASA satellite, contained the small satellite designed and built by UK students.

“There was a sense of excitement and nervousness in the room,” Daniel Erb, the student director of the SSL, said. “We had done it before, up to the T-minus seven minute mark.”

The previous launch attempt a week earlier had been scrubbed at seven minutes due to a simple computer glitch, and the launch had to be rescheduled.

The students were hopeful, but nervous, about this launch as liftoff approached, Erb said.

Six minutes after liftoff, however, NASA announced that the vehicle’s velocity was underperforming, and that it would not make orbit.

The fairing, a clamshell enclosure that separates the satellites from the rocket, did not separate, and left the rocket too heavy to make orbit.

After the announcement, Twyman Clements, a graduate student with SSL, said there were about five minutes of dead silence in the room.

“It was like watching part of your family die.  They still had video on the rocket going, we could still see it, but you knew it wouldn’t happen,” Clements said.

NASA reported that the rocket and its payload crashed somewhere in the southern Pacific Ocean.

“My stomach dropped, I basically had to leave the room,” Erb said. “We knew at that point.”

The same fairing separation problem had plagued an earlier launch in 2009, but NASA investigated and fixed the failure at the time.

“It just underscores how hard it is to put something in space,” James Lumpp, associate professor and director of the SSL, said. “Even the best engineers in the world can have problems.”

The crew stepped outside and watched the sun rise together, trying to focus on the future of the lab, and realized it was just another day,  Lumpp said.

“We all just kind of went outside, watched the sun rise,” Erb said. “We did some primal yelling, you know, to release some stress. Then we tried to relax.”

“It was nice, we were all family,” Clements said. “We all went through that together.”

The SSL wasn’t only invested in the satellite, however.  The lab also has designed and actively supports equipment on the International Space Station, which they continue to work on and improve, Clements said.

“For the engineering students to design the satellite, to build it, to get it on the pad for the rocket — that was 95 percent of the educational experience,” Lumpp said.

The SSL still has an engineering model of the satellite and hopes to have it running and ready for a future launch with NASA.

“We’ll still get there,” Lumpp said, “this is just a setback.”