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Countdown Begins As 'Planet Money's' Satellite Gets Placed On Rocket


For the last eight months, our Planet Money team has been following the building of a small satellite. These days, it is cheap and easy to get into the space business, but a lot can go wrong during the final step. NPR's Robert Smith and Stacey Vanek Smith went out to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for a rocket launch.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: I kind of thought that since Planet Money's satellite was on top of the rocket, we'd get to watch the launch from up close.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: But of course the rocket people made us stand miles away.

SMITH: It makes sense. They took us on this old converted school bus down a little dirt road.


SMITH: And then they let us out in the middle of nowhere. It's a field of scrub brush. The Pacific Ocean is off in the distance. The only sign of civilization is a couple of blue Porta Potties just in case. There are a few VIPs out here, someone from our satellite partner, Planet, and John Steinmeyer from the rocket company Orbital ATK. He helps us decode the chatter on the walkie-talkie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: LC vehicle - FTS internal voltage and current are nominal.

JOHN STEINMEYER: Nominal is...

VANEK SMITH: What's nominal mean?

STEINMEYER: ...Our favorite word.

VANEK SMITH: What does nominal mean?

STEINMEYER: Means everything is OK.

VANEK SMITH: Nominal (laughter)?


VANEK SMITH: If there's a word that is calmer than nominal, I've never heard it.

SMITH: So if someone says it is non-nominal...

STEINMEYER: Probably off-nominal.

SMITH: ...It means run.

STEINMEYER: It means it's not nominal (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: T-minus 30 seconds.

VANEK SMITH: I think he said T-minus.

SMITH: I don't know why everyone's whispering.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five, four, three, two, one - we have ignition.

SMITH: I don't hear anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Vehicle has cleared the tower. Umbies (ph) are disconnected.

SMITH: Whoa, whoa, whoa, it's so bright.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh.

SMITH: Oh, it's shooting up so fast. Oh, you can barely stare at it.

VANEK SMITH: There's, like, a flame behind it. Whoa.

SMITH: Oh, my God.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. It's hard to look at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Attitude remains nominal as the Castor 120 stage zero motor propels the 104-foot-tall Minotaur-C vehicle away from Vandenberg Air Force base.

VANEK SMITH: Did that look successful?

SMITH: I don't know.

VANEK SMITH: This was a really strange moment. I mean, I was standing there, holding a bottle of champagne. We just watched a rocket shoot into the sky. It seemed like everything had gone well. But everyone is standing around the walkie-talkie, staring at the ground, looking, like, deadly serious, like, heart attack serious.

SMITH: Because it's not about the rocket. Everyone's waiting to hear about the satellites. That's what everyone here paid for. It's the most crucial part of the mission. And it's about to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stage one TVA has been pressurized.

SMITH: So we're following along with this, trying to sort of picture what is happening right now in space. And then that calm voice says something pretty terrifying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: NROC, ROC, this is V (ph) calling countdown one. We have negative telemetry in the center here, building 836. I was just hoping you could confirm the track of the vehicle via radar.

SMITH: That means they've lost contact with it, I think.

VANEK SMITH: Negative telemetry. So we can't see the rocket anymore. It's gone through the clouds. It's up in the atmosphere somewhere. And apparently it has stopped sending data back to mission control. It's not communicating with mission control anymore. It has stopped sending data back to Earth. They don't know what's going on.

SMITH: And I - for some reason I just keep looking up to the sky like I'm going to see something before they do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And once again, we have negative telemetry in the center.

VANEK SMITH: It is so quiet. And you can feel the tension in the air.

SMITH: And then...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is V calling countdown one. We have recovered telemetry in the center. We are now 230 seconds into the flight.

SMITH: That's good.

VANEK SMITH: Are we in the clear (laughter)?


SMITH: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I literally thought I was going to throw up while that was happening.

SMITH: At this point we're just listening for any mention of the Planet Money satellite, Pod-1. The nickname on the launch chatter is Dove Three. And so the greatest moment in Planet Money history almost just goes by us. It's so quick.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Expect a deployment of doves One and Three.

SMITH: That's it. It's done.


SMITH: Other people paid the money. Other people did the work. But we, we did the reporting. Cheers.


So we gather up our microphones and the plastic champagne glasses.

SMITH: And our goodie bags and our newfound knowledge of space lingo.

VANEK SMITH: It's been a nominal day.

SMITH: Extremely nominal day.

And we walk back to the school bus and head home.

KELLY: Having way too much fun there Robert Smith and Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.