Spectators cheered as a rocket carrying two experimental satellites blasted off Saturday in the first launch from the mid-Atlantic region's commercial spaceport, creating a blazing streak across the sky just before sunrise.
The 69-foot (20.7-meter) Minotaur I rocket soared from the launch pad at 7 a.m. ET, after teams spent the week resolving a software problem in one of the satellites. The problem caused officials to scrub a liftoff that had been planned for the previous Monday.
"We can now confirm that both satellites are alive and kicking" in orbit, said U.S. Air Force Col. Samuel McCraw, the mission director. "It's still too early to know how they're doing, but both have woken up and started talking."
The rocket soared over the Atlantic Ocean against a pink-and-orange-streaked morning sky, drawing cheers from about 80 invited guests watching from a viewing site about a mile and a half (2.5 kilometers) from the commercial launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
The crowd cheered again seconds later when the first stage separated from the rest of the rocket.
‘Little piece of history’
Alan Williams said the Minotaur's liftoff was quicker than the space shuttle launches he has watched.
"This is a little piece of history. It's the first time in 20 years they've done what appears to be a successful ground-based satellite launch from Wallops," said Williams, a self-described "rocket geek" from Washington who writes about rockets and makes models of them.
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, a state agency, built the commercial launch pad in 1998 on land leased from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility to try to help bring jobs to the economically depressed Eastern Shore region. Maryland later joined the venture.
"It's been a lot of work, it's been a long road, but today we showed we can do it," Billie Reed, director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, said after the launch. "We're in business for real."
TacSat-2 and GeneSat-1
The rocket carried the Air Force's TacSat-2 satellite, which will test the military's ability to quickly transmit images of enemy targets to battlefield commanders.
Also on board was NASA's GeneSat-1 satellite, which carries a harmless strain of E. coli bacteria as part of an experiment to study the long-term effects of space on living organisms.
The software glitch would have prevented solar panels on the TacSat-2 satellite from rotating to point directly at the sun. That would have meant the satellite's batteries couldn't have charged and the satellite wouldn't have had enough power to run experiments.
Air Force officials announced Friday that the software problem was fixed.
The software-caused launch delay added "a couple hundred thousand dollars" to the $60 million price of the mission, McCraw said Friday. The total includes the cost of the rocket and the two satellites plus $621,000 the Air Force will pay the spaceport.
The rocket was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., which used two stages made from decommissioned Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles and two stages from Pegasus rockets.