Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Inside stories by the wazee: Adrian Grimwood (Nation 7)

Adrian Grimwood
SUNDAY NATION, November 12, 1972:
Blast Off! 'Coastline' from Adrian Grimwood

IT ALL happens so quickly.

The last 30 seconds 'countdown', 'contact', 'ignition', a cloud of steam and grey smoke, and then . . . 'lift off'. Just as the pencil-like sliver of silver rises out of the fumes you hear the roar of “blastoff” (something similar to a drawn out roll of thunder), see the thin projectile soar up into the sky at an increasingly acute angle and possibly 70 seconds later observe the successful first-stage burn-out.
From then onwards its mainly guess-work.

You’re looking up into a blue sky thinking you’re looking at something . . . but you know it is probably out of sight by now. There’s just silence and the crazy weaving of smoke trails high up in the blue.
The upper winds blowing strange figures with the white fume fingers.
This then, is the scene 17 miles north of Malindi at Kenya’s Ngwana Bay rocket range, where next Thursday the latest weather observation satellite will be fired off into the heavens hopefully scoring another success for the joint US-Italian-Kenyan “San Marco” Upper Space Research programme.

To date technical difficulties have postponed next week’s proposed launching by almost a month — the previous tentative launch date was November 02.

These small hitches included a malfunction in the four-stage American “Scout” rocket’s gyroscope (it had to be replaced with a spare at the last moment) and then the satellite’s telemetry encoder developed operating problems (it had to be airfreighted to the States for repairs). The reason mention is made of these technical traumas is that occasionally even the San Marco projects do foul up, but in fact, the five-year programme is now being acknowledged around the scientific world as an invaluable, if modest, contributor to man’s limited knowledge of his outer environment.

What is the San Marco programme?
Basically, it’s American science, Italian know-how and Kenyan facilities to launch scientific satellites into equatorial orbit around the Earth. What visitors see out at Ngwana Bay are two skeletal offshore platforms standing 90 feet out of the sea and situated a little less than three miles from the Ngomeni headland. The southern platform is a long rectangle sitting on the seabed with its 20 steel legs embedded in the sand. A 120-foot shelter covers much of this space and houses the dormant rocket during pre-launch check-outs.

Inside the air-conditioned shelter is the satellite itself, joined to the rocket head several days before launch. Surrounding the space vehicle is a scientific array of instruments and controls.

A large pit on the launch platform’s western end is left open to the sea and designed to absorb the rocket exhaust of the Scout’s first-stage motor. Reaching out from this platform, known as the “San Marco” are 23 cables that link into the main control platform, the “Santa Rita” similarly standing in the seabed some 620 yards north.
Some ideas of the operation’s complexity can be gained from the fact that there are more than 3,000 connections of various kinds linking the two platforms — there are even independent generators producing different electrical voltages to meet scientific equipment requirements.

It is from the “Santa Rita” that the count-down procedure is run off and the initial tracking undertaken, but the main communications, supply, mess, housing facilities and other logistical support is located at the shore-side Ngomeni Base Camp. That is something of the range’s physical appearance, but a rather less definable substance is the incredible atmosphere of tension that develops in this tiny corner of the Republic when a launch is about to take place.

The 200 scientists, technicians and administrators at the launch operations are predominantly Italian personnel working with the Universtty of Rome’s aerospace research centre (Centho Ricerche Aerospazial Dell' Universita Degli Studi di Roma) or CRA for short.
Observing the rituals shouted out in Latinised-American are a smaller number of U.S. service personnel attached to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre (who build and test the US satellites), and a smaller number of visiting journalists and cameramen. . . and then Malindi District Officer Evan Kinguru, his retinue of administration assistants and a handful of Pokomo fishermen from the nearby village.
Everyone is aware of what is supposed to happen — even the village children know how to count-down from ten in English — but it rarely goes according to schedule. The count-down very often goes something like this:

“Nine minutes 43 seconds,
“Nine minutes 42 seconds,
“Nine minutes 41 seconds ...
“We are holding on nine minutes 41 seconds
“Still holding on nine minutes 41 seconds”.
On a particularly unlucky day you can be left “holding on nine minutes 41 seconds” for anything up to two hours.
Eventually the count-down really gets into the nitty-gritty Nineties:
“99 seconds, 98 seconds, 97 seconds, 96 seconds
“holding on 96 seconds ...
“We are still holding on 96 seconds ...”
And so it goes until the launch controller might go right through a further 50 seconds and then:
“23 seconds, 22 seconds ...
“Holding on 22 seconds.”

Another unbelievably long pause (it’s only five seconds) and the count resumes.

“21 seconds, 20 seconds ...”

Everyone is at their cameras: a last check at the light meters, a quick wipe across the lens: and ...

Concentration, thunder, silence: followed by exuberant cheers, shouts, dancing on table-tops, a little hesitation from the more senior scientists awaiting confirmation that the second, third and eventually fourth stages of the rocket motor have fired properly, and then they, too, join in the celebrations.

Thursday’s launch will be for a 410 lb. SAS-B projectile (Small Astronomy Satellite series B) which will eventually orbit some 345 miles around the earth’s equatorial belt.

That’s pretty much how it all should go … whether it does has yet to be seen:

We could all have been “left holding . . ."

Italian San Marco Rocket Launch Platform, Ngwana Bay, Malindi, Kenya. The second picture is of the actual launch
- Photos: Goddard Space Flight Center NASA

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