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Va. Commercial Space Industry Poised for Takeoff

Rick Baldwin has been working toward next month's rocket launch for 10 years but may spend the liftoff in a windowless bunker.
Rick Baldwin has been working toward next month's rocket launch for 10 years but may spend the liftoff in a windowless bunker. (Ricky Carioti - Twp)

Meanwhile, the Air Force satellite and the Minotaur's lower two stages -- former Minuteman ballistic missile engines -- arrived at Wallops Island last week. The upper stages -- two Orbital Sciences Pegasus motors -- and the NASA satellite arrived earlier.

The launch window is between 7 and 10 a.m. Dec. 11 through Dec. 20. Baldwin said the flight to orbit will take 10 minutes. "After 10 years of work, from the time they light it, 10 minutes later, it's done," he said. "In seven minutes it's over Africa and on its way."

NASA said a viewing area on Assateague Island, Va., just north of here, will open at 6 a.m. daily for the launch attempts.

On the morning of the launch, Brown, the NASA test director, will be at his console on a raised platform in the big control room that is filled with computers and banks of video screens.

In the glass-doored range safety room next door, Patterson, the NASA safety officer, will sit poised at the abort switches. "I'm the guy on the buttons," he said. "If it doesn't go the right way, we have the authority to blow up the rocket."

He has done so before, to mixed reviews from colleagues. Sometimes the need "is obvious, and they say, 'Good job,' " he said. "Sometimes they go, 'Couldn't you give it another second?' " His answer: "No."

It takes pressing both buttons ("arm" prepares the explosives to be activated, and "destruct" finishes the job) because "you don't want to accidentally push a wrong button," he said. It's a decision he hopes he won't have to make. "The safest mission is a successful mission," he said.

One day this month, Baldwin, the spaceport manager, bustled through some last-minute details in his cluttered office next to the Wallops credit union.

The walls were decorated with, among other things, a picture of Albert Einstein, a pink Styrofoam rocket and a large writing board bearing the legend: "Truth and technology will triumph over bull . . . and bureaucracy."

"This has not been easy," Baldwin said. There were many obstacles and naysayers, and there still are.

For the launch, he and a few others are assigned to the launch control point, in the blockhouse near the pad. "It's designed to take a direct hit if the vehicle were to go errant," he said. But the blockhouse has no windows, and Baldwin is seeking a better vantage point.

He said the mission requires a few people stationed outside during launch to act as spotters and report whether the rocket is actually on course.

After 10 years of work to bring MARS to life, Baldwin would rather not attend the first launch in a bunker. So he is volunteering for spotter duty, he said, "so we can actually see this thing go."

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