X-37B OTV 3 (Atlas V)
11 December 2012
I had the wonderful opportunity of watching from the old Space Shuttle V.I.P. launch viewing area the liftoff of the US Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-3 mission aboard an Atlas V on 11 December 2012. The viewing area is inside Kennedy Space Center but the launch took place next door at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Space Launch Complex 41 just south of the old Space Shuttle Launch Complex 39 A & B.
Not knowing what to expect nor how much equipment I'd be able to bring in I settled for a camera with a zoom lens combination that I could handhold. Upon arriving I found out I could have brought much more substantial equipment including a tripod. Hopefully, next time. The Vehicle Assembly Building and the mobile launch gantry under construction for the planned Space Launch System are nearby the viewing area.
This view shows the surprisingly small crowd to my left taken about ten minutes before the launch.
A view to my right of the crowd taken about ten minutes before the launch. One could get food onsite while listening to the launch commentary over the public address system or ask questions directly to several onsite experts.
A cloud of liquid oxygen can be seen venting from the Atlas V rocket minutes before launch.
Liftoff occurred on time at the start of the launch window at 1:03 p.m.
Atmospheric conditions and our closeness to the pad made for an intensely loud launch and the feeling of a vibration in the air.
Note the extra large fairing encapsulating the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). The OTV is the Air Force's reusable mini-space shuttle that, so far, has flown only on covert missions without the Air Force giving out any details about what the OTV does in space nor what its cargo is. This is the second flight for the OTV that first flew back on 22 April 2010 and the third flight overall for the program. The OTV does not carry any people but it does land on a runway like the Space Shuttle; its first two landings taking place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force is considering attempting to land the vehicle on this flight on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at Kennedy Space Center. In the image above at right the Atlas is obscured by thin clouds.
The exhaust cloud drifts away from the pad.
Two Air Force security helicopters joined up after the launch to fly back in formation to Patrick Air Force Base just south of Cape Canaveral.
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