Reaching for the stars from 39,000 feet

When most people think of a rocket launch, they think of a launch site along the sandy beaches of Florida’s Space Coast or Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California, however this is not always the case. I recently travelled with Spaceflight Now to VAFB for the launch of an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket carrying the IRIS satellite for NASA.ImageThe Pegasus is your typical rocket, with one major difference, it launches from the belly of a Lockheed L-1011 aircraft from 39,000 ft in the air!ImageThe Pegasus is a 58ft long, three-stage, solid fueled rocket. It is capable of lifting 1,000 pounds into Low Earth Orbit. Pegasus became operational in 1990 and has had a total of 42 launches. The three solid motors are produced by Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the same makers of the now retired space shuttles solid rocket boosters.Image

The carrier aircraft, named Stargazer, is a modified Lockheed L-1011 TriStar aircraft built for Air Canada in 1974 and acquired by Orbital Sciences in the early 1990s. The Pegasus made its first launch from the aircraft in June of 1994 and has had 36 launches since.

The L-1011 is a rare bird in itself, as of December 2012 only 13 remain in service around the world and the Stargazer is the last L-1011 flying in the United States.

The aerial launch platform allows the Pegasus to be launched from locations such as Vandenberg Air Force Base, Kennedy Space Center, the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean or the Kwajalein Range in the Pacific Ocean.

I was able to photograph the Pegasus launch vehicle and L-1011 aircraft two days before launch on the Hot Pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base runway while crews were preparing the vehicle for launch. ImageMy tour started with a walk around the aircraft where I was able to photograph the L-1011 and Pegasus from multiple angles.

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ImageThe Pegasus is attached to the L-1011 by a series of hydraulic hooks.Image

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A view of the aft-end of the Pegasus rocket. The first stage produces 163,000 pounds of thrust. ImageFrom this angle you can clearly make out the carbon composite delta wing designed by Burt Rutan. This wing generates the aerodynamic lift needed to guide the payload into orbit.ImageHere’s a look at the flight deck of the L-1011. This flight was crewed by pilot Don Walter, co-pilot Ebb Harris, who has the duty of releasing the Pegasus by pushing a button on the center console, and flight engineer Bob Taylor. The mission was commanded by Bill Weaver, who piloted all previous L-1011 Pegasus flights and retired following this mission after an incredible career.Image

Weaver, a former Lockheed test pilot, has an interesting story: he ejected from an SR-71 Blackbird at Mach 3.2 as the aircraft broke up around him during a test flight on January 26, 1966. More information on his incredible story can be found HERE.ImageHere’s a look at the Pegasus release button that would be enabled and pushed by co-pilot Ebb Harris during flight. Upon release, the Pegasus free-falls horizontally for five seconds before the first stage rocket is ignited. The total flight time for a typical Pegasus mission into orbit is around 10 minutes.ImageTwo Launch Panel Operators man stations during the flight. They are located in what was formerly the first class section of the aircraft. Jim Stowers monitored the Pegasus systems while Fred Foerst monitored the IRIS payload.Image

The rear of the aircraft is completely stripped of all seats and paneling to conserve weight.

Be sure to “like” my Facebook page devoted to my photography where you can stay up to date on recent shoots.

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