NASA rocket lifts off from Wallops Island, Va., facility on way to moon orbit

September 6, 2013

A spacecraft was launched late Friday night from Virginia to the moon, a first for the state in the history of space exploration.

 The launch from Wallops Island on the Atlantic coast occurred on schedule at 11:27 p.m., and enthusiastic  reports of sightings of the bright  track across the night  sky began streaming onto a NASA Facebook page.

“Great view from Bayville, N.J.,” read one post. “Good job guys.” It was seen from what appeared to be a rooftop in the Bronx.

A brilliant arc above the tops of buildings was photographed in Fairfax.

Sightings were reported from Bethlehem, Pa., from Staunton, Va. and Duck, N.C.

Bill Anderson spotted it from his apartment house on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

He took a photo that showed both the dome of the Capitol and the bright orange streak in the sky above it, produced as the rocket burned its fuel. Someone else saw it from the Key Bridge area. It was seen from Ft. Reno in Northwest.

Those who spotted it often deployed the same or similar adjectives. They called it magnificent, awesome, spectacular. They described it as wonderful and amazing.

People gathered in spots near and far to see the first-of-its-kind  launch. These places included the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the District.

The rocket that launched the spacecraft was a five-stage Minotaur V, provided by Orbital Sciences, a Dulles-based company.

Everything, at least in the initial minutes, appeared to follow plan.“Headed to the moon,” a NASA tweet read. Within a few minutes, another NASA tweet said that the rocket’s fourth stage “is now lit.”

By 11:50 p.m. NASA reported the completion of a vital step: separating the spacecraft from the rocket.

It is only the spacecraft, about the size of a small auto, and a few hundred pounds in weight, that is to go to the moon. The rocket which burned thousands of pounds of solid fuel to lift it will not make the trip

At a 2 a.m. Saturday news briefing a NASA official said some “bugs” in the spacecraft needed to be “ironed out.”

But Pete Worden said NASA was “confident we can do so.”

Meanwhile, he said the spacecraft was indeed on its way to the moon, and on a “perfect trajectory.”And from all that was known on Saturday morning, he said, NASA was confident that the mission “will be” a success.

Plans call for the spacecraft to orbit the moon for 100 days on a science mission which includes collecting data on subjects such as the fragile, tenuous lunar atmosphere.

 Eventually, according to the plans, the spacecraft , its fuel expended, will spiral down to the lunar surface of the moon.

Before it gets to that point, intricate maneuvering is required of the spacecraft..

These begin with its activation and checkout, immediately after it separates from the rocket. Early on, the spacecraft begins to orbit the Earth. On the last of those orbits, its own on-board propulsion system nudges it into position where it will become subject to the pull of the moon’s gravity.

As it approaches the moon, it must perform still another critical maneuver. Its propulsion system must act once again.

This time , the spacecraft is to be delicately inserted into the first of its many orbits around the moon. Then comes a period of following a nearly circular orbit around the moon.

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