Even as a fledgling engineer at the NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, Virginia I was privileged to play a small part in a pretty important research project. The project was initiated to study the heating effects on spacecrafts entering the earth’s atmosphere at high velocities. The launch vehicle was a five-stage solid-propellant rocket system that would be launched from Wallops Island Virginia, and a conical-shaped spacecraft mounted on the front end of the last stage of the vehicle would be coated with materials to help absorb the heat generated during reentry. The spacecraft would enter the earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate into a spectacular shower of fiery debris over an area off the coast of Bermuda.
Now, to explain how my small part in this project led to some anxious moments. One of the many conditions or restrictions for launching the vehicle from Wallops Island was that the reentry area at Bermuda had to be in complete darkness at the predicted time of reentry. This meant that the sun and moon must both be below the horizon at those predicted times at all points within a specified geographical area at Bermuda. That’s because ballistic cameras were set up to make photos of the fiery debris during reentry. My job was to analyze available ephemeris predictions and calculate the precise periods of times for every day of a potential launch period during which the sun and moon were below the horizon over the entire potential reentry area.
One night about a week into scrubbed (cancelled) launch attempts – caused mostly by snow and rain at Wallops, word came through that all conditions for launch looked favorable at both Wallops Island and Bermuda. I was in the operations trailer at Bermuda and I could hear the communications between the Bermuda Operations Manager and the Project Manager at Wallops. They were discussing whether they would have time to complete a countdown and launch and still have sufficient time for the spacecraft to reenter before the next moonrise at the reentry area at Bermuda. Then I heard the Bermuda Operations Manager say, let’s ask Bill Weaver how confident he is of his calculations for the time of the next moonrise; he’s right here. I took the mike someone handed me, gritted my teeth and directly addressed Andy Swanson who was the Project manager and my supervisor. “Andy, I stand by my calculations which are published in my report to you.” He replied, “Okay, Bill” and then gave the order to shut down launch operations for the night.
As I mounted my motor bike, I estimated that the moon should rise when I was about half-way back to my hotel. The time seemed to drag as I anxiously watched the horizon for some sign of the moon. And then, Suddenly, a tiny portion of the moon’s disk slipped out of a black Atlantic Ocean. It was only then that I realized I was traveling at a dangerous speed on the narrow winding road along the coastline. I slowed down for the remainder of my ride, and when I arrived at my hotel in the light of a full orange-yellow moon I suddenly remembered I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so I went directly to the bar and drank a hardy dinner. Two weeks later the vehicle was launched from Wallops Island and the fiery reentry at Bermuda was even more brilliant than I had imagined.