Following is a reprint of an article by reporter Charles McMahon which appeared on Seacoastonline.com on Wednesday, April 25th. It is being reprinted here with the permission of the Portsmouth Herald, a member of the Seacoast Media Group.
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — John Jacobs said that the last time he was in Portsmouth, he was just a child and had arrived in town onboard a ferry along with his parents.
Earlier this week, Jacobs made his second visit to the Port City, only this time he arrived onboard the Liberty Star, a special National Aeronautics and Space Administration ship, along with scientists tasked with monitoring a first-of-its-kind space launch.
Jacobs, 43, is captain of the Liberty Star, a 180-foot vessel that arrived Sunday at the Port of New Hampshire with another NASA ship, the Freedom Star.
Crews on both vessels are preparing for a unique mission at sea, during which they will capture high-definition video and thermal imagery of an upcoming launch of a commercial rocket headed to the International Space Station.
The project from SpaceX is the first in which a commercial spacecraft will carry cargo to the space station.
The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon capsule was first scheduled to take place at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Monday, April 30, but has been pushed back to May 7.
Jacobs, who works for United Space Alliance as a contractor hired by NASA, will lead a team of scientists from the Scientifically Calibrated In Flight Imagery team, based at NASA’s Langley Research Center, to a destination a few hundred nautical miles off the coast.
It will be Jacobs’ job, along with Capt. Mike Nicholas of the Freedom Star, to steer the ship as the SCIFLI team attempts to document the launch.
Using thruster capability, Jacobs said he will monitor the radar and then maneuver the ship to get the best positions for the imaging equipment on board.
“It’s one of those one-shot deals,” he’s aid. “The rocket flies over, and you either get it or you miss it. You can’t do it over. There’s actually a lot of pressure on you to get it right, because the data is very important to NASA.”
Monitoring the mission for NASA will be Tom Horvath, principal investigator of the SCIFLI team, and Melinda Cagle, project manager for SCIFLI.
“We will be using very powerful optical systems to monitor the health of the vehicle during its ascent,” Horvath said. “We’ll be monitoring any critical events.”
Before being charged with the upcoming mission, when NASA was still conducting space shuttle flights, Jacobs was responsible for leading a team to recover space shuttle solid rocket boosters following launch.
Having worked as captain of the ship for four years, Jacobs said he has helped recover nearly a dozen rocket boosters.
The Liberty Star will primarily shoot radar and track the SpaceX launch during lift-off. The Freedom Star, which is outfitted with a gyro-stabilized Kineto Tracking Mount called the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System, will take thermal and high-definition visual images of the SpaceX launch.
The equipment onboard both ships will be able to capture the launch at a rate of 30 frames per second, Horvath said. The launch itself will last about eight to 10 minutes.
Horvath said that not only will it be the first time NASA uses a ship to monitor the launch of a commercial spacecraft into space, but it is also the first time the agency has depended upon a commercial company to deliver cargo to the space station.
Humans will also one day be transported via commercial spacecraft, he added.
“This allows us to invest our money to try and go to further destinations outside of the Earth’s orbit,” he said.
Cagle said it has always been part of NASA’s plan to have commercial orbital transport system capabilities. She said the upcoming mission is critical to the advancement of those plans.
“We have to prove it works, and that’s one of the reasons the SCIFLI team is so important,” she said.
It’s unclear how much longer the two NASA ships will remain at the Port of New Hampshire before leaving for the May 7 mission.
Once the launch and recording are complete, Jacobs said, he and Nicholas will lead the SCIFLI teams back to Portsmouth to transmit the data to awaiting NASA officials.
The author, Charles McMahon, may be reach via email at email@example.com.