Artist concept of Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

A few hours ago I had the privilege to watch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The creativity, effort and dedication of many, many people were sitting on the launch pad. Many of the people who had worked so hard to get the mission to the pad were in attendance with family and friends there to share in the excitement. The weather was perfect. Cold enough to make the stars seems to be just out of reach, still enough to be pleasant to stand outside waiting for the main event. As it got closer, hundreds of voices followed along the magic of the countdown - "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 - Liftoff!". The rocket cleared the pad - rising on a column of intense white light. At our distance, it seemed to rise forever before the roar finally reached us. In the dark, clear sky we could watch the various stages burn out, fall back and be replaced by the ignition of the next state. Everything seemed to be going perfectly.

We got on the buses to leave the viewing area, excited by what we witnessed and excited by the mission to come. Both feelings did not last long. Soon text messages and phone calls started to disturb the darkened buses. Within a few minutes, it was clear that the launch had not gone as well as we thought. By the time we got off the buses, it looked grim. In the next couple of hours, it became clear that the rocket failed and we never achieved orbit.

Oddly, hearing that the spacecraft hit the ocean near Antarctica made it worse. I had this vision of the system orbiting the Earth - dead and mute - like a modern day Flying Dutchman. Knowing that the hardware I helped design and build had been destroyed on impact made the loss real.

Almost 10 years ago, I was working with a scientist who was also supporting the Mars lander that was lost in 1999. The day after it failed, she told me to always try to enjoy the intellectual challenge of designing a mission and the hardware to make it possible. At the end of the day, that might be all you get. Since then, she has been involved in the incredibly successful Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander. She is working to prepare the Mars Science Laboratory for its 2011 launch.

I hope that her past is my prologue. I hope that the next 10 years bring a productive series of missions to advance our understanding of the carbon cycle - much as the recent Mars missions have advanced our understanding of our solar system's history.


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