WISE launches!

WISE Launch

Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News

I’ve been working on a satellite called WISE (Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer) for the past several years. My husband and I were given the opportunity to attend the launch as guests. I figured that I might never get the chance to see another launch, so we decided to go. On the day we bought our plane tickets, the launch was scheduled for Friday, December 11th from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, California.

We flew to California on Wednesday the 9th, and Thursday went to some presentations and briefings, and learned more about the instrument (my company only built the satellite) and the mission science.

We also learned that the launch was delayed, so the big decision – stay another 3 days, or cut our losses and go back home?

My husband had the brilliant idea of driving to San Bernadino to visit my uncle and aunt. They were game to have us come for the weekend. That saved us two nights at the expensive hotel, and they are always great to spend time with. It turned out that Saturday was their annual cookie decorating day (at my cousin’s house this year), so we tripled our sugar intake for the good cause of family unity:

Oh, when we left Colorado it was -4F. When we arrived in California, every single person we encountered (rental car, airport people, hotel people) commented on how cold it was. Since it was over 50 degrees warmer than Colorado, we weren’t too unhappy. As we drove up to my cousin’s house in Running Springs (up, up, up in the mountains), my uncle was watching the temperature drop by degrees, swearing that if it got down to 34 we were turning around. Luckily, despite the foot of snow on either side of the road, it just rained, and he didn’t have to make good on his threat.

Another cool thing about visiting my uncle and aunt – my uncle worked in construction, and it turns out he spent several years at Vandenberg AFB rebuilding SLC-6 for the shuttle in the early 70s. He hauled out photos of the construction and told us all sorts of stories – incredible!

Sunday afternoon we drove back up to Santa Barbara, and spent our last night at the Motel 6 just down the street from the previous hotel ($50 instead of $150!). We woke up at 3:30 am (wake-up call and two cell phone alarms set, to make sure we really got up) and walked up the street to where the buses were.

My husband was amazed – there were about 10 tour buses, and about 600 people milling around the lobby of the Marriott. “Where did all these people come from? Do they all work for Ball?” No, so many companies contributed to the mission, and a lot of them are in California, so a lot of people must have gotten up at midnight (or stayed up all night) to drive to SB for the launch.

(I know this picture is impossible to make out, but the horizontal line of lights is the lights of all the buses lined up in front of the Marriott.)

All of the buses were those American Star Trailways buses, except for one, the SPECIAL BUS! About six bus drivers pounced on me when we rolled up – they had a bus with a lift, and they were so pleased with themselves, and of course we were, too.

The buses finally got underway at about 10 of 5 (so much for “The bus leaves promptly at 4:30 am”!). We drove through the foggy dark for almost an hour, and pulled up at the Vandenberg AFB golf course. A tent was set up in a parking lot. There were several TV screens in the tent, and more outside it. There were floodlights. There were (excellent) loudspeakers. There was breakfast catered by the California Pizza Kitchen. We got there at 5:39, half an hour before launch. Through a chain link fence, about two miles away, in the fog, I could just make out the red light at the top of the gantry (my husband says he could see the rocket, but I don’t believe him). We milled around and listened to the NASA announcer. A guy very nicely kept people from standing in front of me as I peered through the chain link fence. At T-30 seconds, suddenly all the TV monitors and floodlights went dark.

And the sky lit up like day! You could hear the rocket blast and feel the rumble. It was like a new sun in the sky, rising up, up, up. We could see the light of the rocket until it was a pinpoint directly over head, maybe for a minute and a half. The TVs and floods came back on, we milled around a little longer, and then we loaded up the buses and went back to town. The hazy white clouds in the second photo below are the rocket contrails.

We drove back to Santa Barbara, stopping at the beach for a few minutes (after all, here we were in Southern California! Find the surfer in one of these pictures.).

And then we flew home.

More launch photos:

More about WISE:



  1. wheelchairdancer

    Congratulations!!! How thrilling.


  2. stargzrblog

    Oh my, I also worked on WISE (for about 3 years)! Small world, eh? Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the launch, and regret having missed out on all the fun. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, which was a completely serendipitous discovery. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Katja

    Awesome! So glad you left a comment.

    I’m currently at Goddard working Landsat 8 (we built the OLI instrument), so it’s deja vu all over again.


Leave a Reply to Katja Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *