SPECIAL CARGO -- A Report from Japan

On a mission to launch a revolutionary new Earth observing satellite, we travelled to Japan on an Air Force C5-M cargo plane. Yowza!

On a mission to launch a revolutionary new Earth observing satellite, we travelled to Japan on an Air Force C5-M cargo plane. Yowza!

The tough mathematics of orbital mechanics describes how satellites fly around a planet. But the alpha-dog engineers who get satellites into orbit are tough orbital mechanics of a different sort. 

Two days out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, I'm traveling with a no-nonsense team of engineers from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on a mission to deliver a billion dollar research satellite to the spaceport that will send it up. If you're thinking that Andrews is an out-of-the-ordinary departure zone you'd be right, but then again this is no ordinary trip. When you're shipping a one-of-a-kind, school-bus sized satellite halfway around the world, you don't simply check it at the counter. That's why the team booked a ride on one of the nation's biggest beasts of the air, the legendary C5-M Galaxy Cargo plane. Way atop the cargo hold, the team tries to settle in to the windowless passenger compartment. Down below, in the airplane's cavernous belly, a massive white box surrounds our spacecraft, clearing the ceiling only by centimeters. A large flat bed truck trailer rides a'foredeck as well, just to make sure the satellite has a comfy ride from the airport to it's next destination.

The mostly middle aged team mixes easily with the young Air Force crew shepherding us. A crewman offers us blankets and pillows at the start. We understand the flight is going to a be cold one, and those who accept the offer are intensely grateful. We also receive earplugs, something that turns out to be more than just a good idea. The C5 rumbles like the inside of a locomotive; it's relentless and exhausting. The cabin temperature has most of us in hats and gloves beneath our blankets, but it's our feet that scream for attention most. Just like road signs that say, "bridge freezes before road surface", the floor loses heat to the vast open cargo space below. No one complains, or at least not much. The galley is stocked with fare far better than any commercial flight, and hungry, frozen team members fill plates with chicken wings, crab cakes, sandwiches, and cheesecake. 

The plan is to partially circumnavigate the globe in about sixteen hours, but nine hours into the trip, we're wheels down in at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, near Anchorage. It was not supposed to go like this, but things change on one-of-a-kind itineraries. An initial plan to refuel in mid-air got scotched because of intense headwinds that threw off range calculations. Now overnight in Alaska, a cascade of logistical complexity has the team grumbling…but not for long. After all, this is a NASA mission through and through, and the "can-do" spirit that made the Space Agency the country's shining star has the team considering options with laser beam focus. Contingency plans are in the works, and the plan is to press on tomorrow for Japan. Traversing a frigid Alaskan parking lot,we find ourselves at the Elmendorf AFB bowling alley, scrounging for supper. 

This morning it's back to the sky.  A team waits for us in Japan; there's an H2-A rocket there waiting for it's payload. After all, scientists can't think about science, let alone orbital mechanics, without orbital mechanics getting their machine up into orbit.

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