The 138-foot (42 meter) Antares rocket rises into the dark sky after blasting from Wallops Island in Virginia
Kurt Eberly has almost no hair and continues to lose more. Its job is to launch, twice per year, a metal cylinder packed with several tons of supply, at high speed towards the International Space Station, 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.
Eberly heads the Antares rocket program at Northrop Grumman, a US aerospace company that shares with SpaceX, a high-value client: NASA.
Saturday at four o'clock in the morning on Wallops Island in Virginia, Eberly was in NASA's control room, which was dedicated to smaller rocket launches than those taking off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Countdown, three, two, one. Then at the right moment, the Antares rocket as high as 138 feet (42 meters) rose into the dark sky, exploding in the roar of hell.
At the top of the rocket there is a capsule called Cygnus, which was made in Italy and loaded with 7,400 pounds (3,350 kilograms) of equipment, including food, clothing for astronaut crew, technical equipment, and about two dozen scientific experiments.
Kurt Eberly heads the Antares rocket program at Northrop Grumman, a US aerospace company that shares with SpaceX, a high-value client: NASA
After three and a half minutes of flying, the first stage – after burning all the fuel – is released and falls into the Atlantic Ocean.
The second stage machine takes over. At T + 9 minutes, the rocket was 212 kilometers high, somewhere northeast of Puerto Rico, when the launch conductor announced, in a soft monotone: "And we have a load division of Cygnus."
The spacecraft is separated at a speed of 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) per second.
On Monday, the spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station, attached to 7:31 (1231 GMT) and marked the Cygnus 10 mission so far.
– Explosion in 2014 –
It takes six months and 40 people to assemble the Antares rocket
"Each of these launches, you know, really makes your heart pump and I have about three heart attacks every backward launch," Eberly told AFP a few weeks earlier in the clean room where Cygnus was prepared for flights, not far from the launch pad.
"It's still very stressful just to know how much energy is collected into this rocket and that all must be released in the right way."
On Saturday, after a successful launch, he raised his estimated heart pressure.
"I think it's five, five heart attacks. I lost more hair. But now it's a great feeling of relief and happiness."
This unmanned cargo launch has become so ordinary they are almost shallow. This year, the ISS will be re-supplied by Russian spacecraft three times, one-time Japanese ships and US cargo ships five times, between SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
But space is still a dangerous business.
The most recent reminder was the failure of the Soyuz rocket on October 11 on its way to the orbiting outpost, forcing the two men to accelerate after launch. No one was hurt.
In 2014, an unmanned rocket carrying a third Cygnus mission exploded a few seconds after takeoff, and the cloud of smoke created was visible for miles.
"It's like a blow to the intestine," Eberly said.
This year, the ISS will be re-supplied by Russian spacecraft three times, one-time Japanese ships and US cargo ships five times, between SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
It took another two years to launch another Antares.
Whether carrying people or goods, rockets run at extreme speeds, said Rick Mastracchio, a former NASA astronaut and senior operations director at Northrop Grumman's commercial supply service program.
"You move faster than a real bullet, you might travel 10 times faster than a bullet that goes fast, five miles per second after you reach orbit," he said.
"There are extreme temperatures from cryogenic all the way up to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit that materials and machinery need to operate below," he added.
"So it might look routine, but it's not a very simple thing to do. Spaceflight is difficult."
It takes six months and 40 people to assemble the Antares rocket. Each Cygnus mission costs NASA around $ 263 million on average.
– Removal of garbage –
Whether carrying people or goods, rockets move at extreme speeds
Cargo ships remain in the space station for one to six months. Emptying them and refilling them depends on the crew of astronauts and cosmonauts, who are tasked with doing everything from conducting science experiments to basic cleaning and maintenance on orbiting outposts.
"The best day in orbit is when Cygnus arrives. But it's also a nice day when Cygnus leaves, why? Because he took garbage," said Mastracchio.
"As a crew member, you lived with this trash for months and months when Cygnus picked up trash, the space station was a better place."
Few people on Earth might think of such details when contemplating rocket launches.
In the audience on Saturday the launch was a family of Bolivian immigrants. They drove a few hours from North Carolina to watch the launch.
A Cygnus cargo ship attaches to the International Space Station before its release
"We come from a very poor country. We have never been able to see this kind of event. I am very happy to be here," said his mother, Marlene Ancalli.
"This is my dream," he said, when the rocket disappeared in the sky.
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