United Launch Alliance (ULA) is in the final days of preparing to launch their fifth rocket this year, one which will carry a classified payload into orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The mission, designated as NROL-38, is scheduled to launch atop a 19-story tall Atlas-V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 on Monday morning, June 18. This particular Atlas-V rocket will fly in the 401 vehicle configuration with no solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. The launch window lasts 59 minutes, opening at 8:26 a.m. and closing at 9:25 a.m. NROL-38 marks the second of four planned NRO launches for 2012, and the first of three NRO launches in six weeks.
For those interested in witnessing this launch in person, there are several locations along Florida’s Space Coast that offer great vantage points to watch the launch from, but some places are better than others. Cape Canaveral covers a lot of ground, so a location that is good for watching one type of rocket lift off might not necessarily be the best place for watching another.
For those wanting to watch this mission launch in person, Playalinda Beach easily offers the best publicly accessible viewing location. Playalinda offers an unobstructed view of the Atlas rocket on the pad – a front row seat from a distance of about 5 miles. There is a small fee to get into Playalinda Park. The park closes at sunset, which will not be an issue for this launch being that it’s scheduled to lift off in the daylight morning hours. Contact their office at 321-267-1110 for information concerning viewing the Atlas-V NROL-38 launch June 18.
Another popular public viewing location to witness the Atlas rocket take flight is from Port Canaveral. Anywhere along the SR-528 Bennett Causeway or along Route 401 behind the Port will do the job of offering a great view of the rocket’s push to send NROL-38 into orbit. However, at a distance of over 10 miles, the sound isn’t nearly as powerful as a view from Playalinda Beach would offer. Anywhere along HWY-1 in Titusville also presents some fantastic public viewing areas for this launch vehicle, but again the distance of over 10 miles from SLC-41 will present a viewer with a low rumble rather than a powerful concussive sound people associate with a rocket launch.
Another thing to keep in mind, this particular Atlas-V will not use solid rocket boosters to launch, so there will not be any noticeable smoke plume trailing the rocket through its rapid ascent.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is offering guests prime viewing from the Apollo / Saturn-V Center on a first-come, first-serve basis. The location lies roughly the same distance from SLC-41 as Playalinda Beach, and offers the public the best view of the launch other than Playalinda Beach. From Playalinda you would be on the beach, from the Apollo / Saturn-V Center on KSC property you would be seated in the same stands where VIP’s used to watch the space shuttles launch from. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will open at 7:00 a.m. EDT for Monday’s launch, and the launch viewing is included with general admission (there is no additional cost to watch the launch from KSC property). Additional viewing opportunities will be available at the Visitor Complex itself, although that location is not ideal for watching any rocket launch. Call 866-737-5235 for more information.
HOW TO GET TO PLAYALINDA BEACH: Take U.S. HWY-1 through Titusville and turn right at Garden Street / Route 406. Go across the A Max Brewer Parkway bridge and follow the road all the way to its end at Playalinda Beach. There are lots for parking, just take a walk and choose your spot to enjoy the launch.
HOW TO GET TO PORT CANAVERAL: Take SR-528 or the “Beachline” as it is commonly known as from the west, AIA from the east (A1A turns into SR-528 if you’re coming from Cocoa Beach). Take ‘”Exit A North Terminals” and follow the road (Route 401) across the small drawbridge and around the curve which brings you behind the port. On the left side of the road is where you can watch the launch from. Best part? It’s free! Space is limited, so arrive early. you can also skip the port all together and watch the launch from the grassy field areas along the SR-528 Bennett Causeway, just keep an eye out for other people and vehicles parked along the waters edge.
Launch forecasts currently call for an 80% chance of favorable conditions expected at T-0, with the primary concern being a slight chance of violating the cumulous cloud rule over the launch site at the scheduled 8:26 a.m. liftoff time. Forecasts call for much of the same for a second launch attempt June 19, if needed. Having passed a Launch Readiness Review earlier today, the rocket will roll out to its launch pad Saturday morning to begin final preparations for Monday’s launch. Due to the secretive nature of the mission there are no details available concerning the payload or the mission itself. Launch coverage will only be provided through the first few minutes of flight, as is standard for all NRO launches.