On Tuesday morning, NASA, in conjunction with United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK, launched an Atlas V rocket carrying a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with more than 7,600 pounds worth of scientific equipment, crew supplies, and hardware destined for the International Space Station orbiting some 249 miles overhead.
The launch was uneventful as we’ve come to expect out of NASA, though even that is a misleading way to think of it. With North Korea repeatedly struggling to put a medium range ballistic missile where it intends to, (a mere four hundred miles away) and big-budget private ventures like Space-X suffering sporadic launch failures, the lack of drama at the vast majority of NASA’s launches has actually done the organization a considerable disservice.
For programs like NASA, public interest is paramount. At just about one percent of your tax bill, NASA’s main priority is consistently convincing Congress and the president that they’re worth the money (and if possible, more of it). The general public often tends to think that NASA’s budget is huge – but the reality of the matter is that they’ve been making “boring” miracles happen at not pennies on the dollar, but literally, a penny on the dollar, for decades now.
When SpaceX is about to launch a new rocket, people pay attention because it’s ground breaking, new, and admittedly, because there feels like a chance that something awful could happen. Like a NASCAR race, some folks will tune in for the chance to witness the carnage wrought by a mistake – and if there is one, it dominates the news cycle for days thereafter.
NASA, on the other hand, offers awkward press conferences about the exciting discovery of hydrogen on a moon you may not have heard of. Sure, space nerds clamor for these sorts of indications that life could be supported elsewhere in our solar system, but they lack the dynamic excitement offered by SpaceX selling trips around the moon, or the visceral reaction an exploding thirty foot rocket on the news can produce.
Tuesday’s launch was a complete success – going so well that each stage of the launch and stage separations took place within less than a two-second variance when compared to pre-launch estimates, and the cargo it carried, while important, wasn’t very sexy either – but NASA seems to be developing a better sense of self-awareness when it comes to being marketable (and therefore fundable) in the minds of John Q. Public. As a result, this launch did offer something never seen before: a full 360-degree view.
NASA broadcasted the launch on YouTube using a software platform that allows computer users to drag their view around using their mouse, and mobile users to actually just look around by moving their phones – offering the first ever chance to see a rocket launch from the perspective of being right next to the rocket as it launches. Viewers with virtual reality headgear could even take it one step further, and simply look around to see what goes on as the rocket lifts off, accompanied by the audio overlay provided by NASA’s team communicating as they work.
You can watch the launch (and look around) all you want below:
This launch, and the publicity the new viewing methods provided, could truly be the beginning of a NASA that is more intent on engaging the American people with what the program provides. For years now, space has been featured prominently in popular science fiction, but ignored for the most part in the news. NASA now seems to hope to bridge that gap by bringing space directly to you, instead of to the media for distribution – and if nothing else, that promises to make YouTube a bit more fun.
Image courtesy of NASA