November 2, 2023
My eyes flew open in the dark. I glanced at the digital clock on my bedside table — 3:30 in the morning, nearly two hours before my alarm was set to go off. Knowing there was no way I could fall back asleep, I crept out of bed, trying my best not to wake Joseph as he slumbered peacefully beside me, his dreams unfettered by tornados and broken cold gas thrusters and getting speeding tickets on the way to work.
I dressed in the dark, donning blue jeans and my brand-new purple polo, the words “Psyche Launch Team” embroidered proudly below my left shoulder. I complemented the attire with my gold rocket ship earrings — if there was ever a time to wear them, it was today.
I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get to the control room this morning. The team would have been there since midnight, but the real excitement wouldn’t start for several hours. I wasn’t actually required to be in today; if we had launched yesterday, I would have sat in the Command chair, monitoring Psyche’s telemetry as it waited patiently in the nose of the Falcon Heavy. But the wind, rain, and clouds dominating the usually clear Florida skies yesterday had made launching risky, and management had decided to delay a day. I had planned to take the opportunity to watch from the Saturn V viewing center with my family, but after a last-minute change of heart last night I decided I wanted to be with my team instead.
By the time I was ready to leave it was still only 4:15 a.m., so I wandered out of my apartment and onto the deserted beach. The sun was still three hours from rising, and the stars were the only sources of light in the otherwise inky black sky. I gazed up at them as I walked, feeling the cold sand between my toes, and imagined Psyche out amongst them, the Earth nothing more than a blue-tinted twinkle of light growing ever dimmer in the distance.
When I had drunk my fill of the starry view, I turned back, rinsed the sand off my feet, and drove to Astrotech, where Psyche had spent most of the past year. We had moved the spacecraft there from Kennedy Space Center after last year’s thirteen-month launch slip and had only recently shipped it to launchpad 39A — the same launchpad from which the Apollo missions had taken flight sixty years ago.
I thought back to the launch vehicle integration procedure we had run the week prior, taking voltage and resistance measurements in the SpaceX hangar directly beneath the belly of the gargantuan Falcon Heavy rocket. One of the SpaceX engineers had laughed at the expression on my face when entered the hangar for the first time, unable to hide my awe at the sight of the incredible machine. Seventy meters long and lying on its side, the Heavy loomed over us like a slumbering dragon. I eyed the Merlin engines at the end, imagining fiery plumes blasting out to generate the five million pounds of thrust needed to launch Psyche into its interplanetary trajectory. The center booster was single-use, brand-new and pristine white, while the two side boosters were weathered veterans, boasting battle scars of ash and soot from past launches. They would be returning gracefully to Earth after delivering Psyche to the stars.When I arrived at Astrotech’s control room at 5:30 a.m., the team greeted me with tired but excited smiles; Matt peeped over his monitor from the Test Conductor station at the back of the room, Will waved from the Command chair with his head propped casually up on one fist, and Annalise smiled from where she lounged near the System’s desk. Next to her, our lead, Jonny, grinned at me as I fidgeted with my headset. The headset would tie me into the VOCA, the voice net that we used to communicate with each other and with our comrades back at JPL in California.
More of the team filed in over the next half hour as the shift handover approached, all dressed in identical purple Launch Team polos; Kaelan and Jeffrey, who would be taking over Systems and Command, and Julia, who would be the Test Conductor. Justin and Wes from my own on-console team also showed up — it appeared I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to stay away. The ATLO manager, Luis, and his deputy, Ken, followed soon after.
At 6:00 a.m., Matt stood up and conducted our very last shift handover, summarizing his team’s activities over the past six hours and passing on relevant information to the incoming Test Conductor. I watched Kaelan and Jeffrey take their places at their stations and felt a twinge of envy. Wanting to feel useful, I meandered to a respectful distance behind Jeffrey’s shoulder, following along with the countdown procedure as Julia meticulously stepped through each command and telemetry check. Set the safety relay, verify device primeness, make sure no fault protection monitors had tripped… it was a procedure we had all become intimately familiar with during the many launch rehearsals we had conducted over the past year.
As the countdown procedure progressed nominally, I began thinking of my family out in the sunshine, overlooking Banana Creek and the glorious launchpad across it. I wandered back to where Annalise was now sitting with Wes, monitoring telemetry from the station in the corner of the room. “I’m debating going over to the viewing center after all,” I admitted.
“The Saturn V viewing center is really neat, and you have a really incredible view of the pad” Wes said animatedly.
“How long after launch until initial acquisition?” I asked him, referring to the first time our ground data system would receive a signal from Psyche in outer space.
“After launch, it’ll have about an hour of flight time” Wes told us, “and then it’ll take anywhere from five minutes to three hours to get a signal, depending on what our separation attitude is.”
Annalise’s eyes flickered between me and the colorful telemetry on the monitors. “Should we go?”
I wavered. “Do you think we could make it back to Astrotech in time for initial acquisition?” I asked.
“If you got on one of the first buses back to the visitor center I bet you could,” Wes said.
I debated for a moment. Every time I had envisioned the launch, I had pictured myself sitting on-console, monitoring the spacecraft’s health and giving my go-ahead over the VOCA during each poll. Now that I had a choice, I found myself wishing someone else would just tell me what to do. If I stayed, would I regret missing my chance to see a launch up-close? If I left, would I regret leaving my team?
I pictured what the launch would be like here, experiencing first-hand what was going on behind the scenes, embracing my fellow engineers as we watched that pinprick of light in the distance grow smaller. Then I imagined watching the launch from the viewing center, a stone’s throw away from the launchpad, with the fanfare of hundreds of animated visitors in the bleachers all counting down together.
“I think we should go,” I finally said. “As long as we get back in time for initial ack.”
“Okay,” Annalise said, still sounding uncertain.
Wes reassured us with a warm “you’ll have a great time!” I just smiled back — deep down, I still wasn’t sure if I was making the right choice.
My family was easy to spot when we arrived at the viewing center and disembarked from the large bus with the other guests. Hundreds of visitors wandered the huge complex, many dressed in Psyche t-shirts or flaunting the flamboyant pink, orange, and purple colors of our mission badge, admiring the gigantic Saturn V rocket suspended above them. My mom, aunt, and stepmom were dressed in identical NASA t-shirts, sheltering their faces from the hot Florida sun with wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. I laughed at the look of surprise and subsequent joy on my mom’s face when she spotted me and let her embrace me in a huge hug.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I changed my mind,” I admitted sheepishly.
We found a place to sit beneath the Saturn V to enjoy some egg-salad sandwiches and banana nut muffins for breakfast. Annalise didn’t stay seated for long, however.
“Actually I think I’m going to go back…” she said, checking her phone. “I’ll come back and get you right after launch though!”
I shook my head, chuckling, as she dashed off, and pulled out my phone to call into the voice net so I could follow along with the countdown procedure. I tried to muffle the tiny voice in the back of my that wondered if I should follow her, anxious that I had made the wrong choice in abandoning the team. Fifteen minutes later, however, my phone pinged with a message from her. “Actually never mind, I’m coming back,” she texted, and I laughed at her indecisiveness — though to be honest, it was reassuring to know I wasn’t the only one feeling restless.
At 10:09 a.m., with only ten minutes to go, we made our way to the bleachers. Annalise, having finally returned, sat on the first row with Julia’s family, and I stood next to her as we both listened to the final part of the countdown procedure on the VOCA. Julia had commanded the downlink rate to a very low bandwidth, and the team was waiting for the telemetry to update. Under nominal testing circumstances, telemetry updated every five seconds, but during launch it was only expected to update once every two minutes or so.
Two minutes came and went. “TC, we’re still not seeing the SCLK update,” Jeffrey’s voice said, referring to the telemetered spacecraft clock value. Annalise and I waited, listening intently, wishing we could see Psyche’s telemetry and hear the side conversations that must be happening in the control room. After another few tense minutes, we heard Jeffrey’s voice again, now laced with relief, report that the SCLK value had changed. I let out a sigh of relief.
The team reported that TZ had been disabled, thus cutting off all communication we had with Psyche. I logged off of the VOCA and made my way to where my own family was sitting high in the bleachers, waving to team members who had flown in from California whom I hadn’t seen in months. I sat in front of my family, next to Joseph, and accepted my mom’s binoculars to peer across the river at the massive rocket.
“Thirty seconds to go!” said the announcer, and adrenaline flooded my system. Five years of work, all leading up to this moment. I stared intently at the nose of the launch vehicle, picturing our spacecraft tightly swaddled in the faring, ready to begin its long journey through deep space.
“Ten! Nine! Eight!” the crowd chanted. I wanted to add my voice to theirs, but I couldn’t find it. “Seven! Six! Five!” I gripped Joseph’s hand tightly. “Four! Three! Two!” This moment felt impossible — it was the kind of moment you envision and look forward to before it happens, and the kind you remember forever after it’s gone, yet somehow, right now I was experiencing it. Wasn’t time a funny thing?
“One! LIFTOFF!” The crowd roared, but I still couldn’t find my voice. Feelings of awe, gratitude, pride, abashment, envy, relief, and excitement all competed for dominance as I watched the mighty Falcon lift into the sky, impossibly fast. A tear slid down my check, and then another and another, and I found myself choking out a sob. Joseph put his arm around me, and I clutched at it. We watched as the rocket and its precious cargo grew smaller and smaller into the sky, leaving a trail of smoke behind it.A few minutes later, two more smoke trails appeared — the boosters, returning to Earth. The viewscreen showed footage of them nimbly touching down with impeccable balance that seemed impossible for something of their size. Two sonic booms followed moments later.
The announcer gave a few closing remarks, and the crowd started filing out. I looked at Joseph. “Gotta get back for initial acquisition?” he asked. I nodded. “Better get going then.” I gave him a grateful smile and dashed off the bleachers.
I jumped onto the wet grass to avoid the congested crowds on the sidewalk, then sprinted past hundreds of men, women, and children making their way leisurely back to the visitor center. I stumbled into the Saturn V complex, darted out through the gift shop, and scampered through the dirt and shrubs around the families making their way along the winding sidewalks. “Paige!” I heard from somewhere in front of me. I whipped my head around to see Annalise walking with the rest of the line toward the busses and dipped under the rope to join her.
“Thanks,” I panted, happy to see that we’d be able to get on one of the first buses back.
Annalise nodded. “I can’t believe she’s gone…” she said, sounding a little shook up.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And she’s only getting farther and farther away from now on.”
We rode the bus back mostly in silence. When it dropped us off, we hurried through the visitor center to the parking lot, and Annalise drove us back to Astrotech. When we entered the control room the team greeted us with a cheer.
“How was it?” I asked, embracing Kaelan.
“Tense,” she said through a chuckle. “That telemetry outage had us worried for a minute. But it turned out to be totally fine.”
“We couldn’t see much of the launch from here,” Jeffrey chimed in. “We could briefly see it in the distance, but we didn’t hear the sonic boom at all.”
We crowded around the display monitor showing live coverage. A camera on the rocket’s second stage pointed toward our spacecraft, showing Psyche against a breathtaking backdrop of the curvature of the Earth and the black, starry space beyond it. As we watched, the launch vehicle separated from Psyche, and we cheered as she began drifting gracefully away. As she grew smaller and smaller, I found myself reaching my hand toward the monitor as if I could touch her. Too soon, she disappeared below the bottom of screen, never to be seen by human eyes again.The spacecraft now gone from view, we turned our attention to the display of the telecom telemetry, waiting for ground to lock on to Psyche’s signal. Minutes later the plots showed a spike on the correct frequency as it locked on. We cheered again, and after a moment a few telemetry messages started filtering in — Psyche talking to us from outer space for the very first time.
We sat and watched the messages arriving, telling us Psyche was detumbling using her cold gas thrusters, deploying her solar arrays, and searching for the sun. They were messages I had seen hundreds of times testing dozens of scenarios in the testbeds, and with a jolt I realized that this was the first and only time they would ever reflect real events, and not just a simulation in software.
The flight director thanked the ATLO team and excused us from the net — the spacecraft was in the hands of the operations team now. After two years of being responsible for the state of the flight vehicle, it felt strange to hand the authority over to a different team. Was this what it felt like to send your child off to kindergarten, entrusting her welfare to a teacher you barely knew?
One by one, the on-console team signed off the net and packed up their belongings. Julia waved as she slung her pack over her shoulder. “See everyone back in Cocoa Beach in a bit!” she exclaimed jovially as she walked out the door. The rest of my coworkers gradually followed.
Ken was the last to leave. “Paige,” he said, turning my attention from the plot of spacecraft body rates I had pulled up from the Systems console. “Don’t stay too long.”
“Okay,” was all I could manage in response.
As soon as the door shut behind him and I was alone with the telemetry still filtering in, I felt the tears I had been holding back start to leak out. My feelings were a tangled mess of pride, elation, and grief — I hadn’t expected to feel sad today, but found that I was, in a way, mourning Psyche’s departure. I had spent so many early mornings and late nights with her peeking at me through the high bay windows while ran our plethora of tests over the last few years.
I felt grateful for the minutes I had alone in the control room, reflecting on my experiences the last five years, the people I had met, the skills I had learned, and the impact I had made on this incredible machine that was already farther away from me than anything else I had ever touched.
As the telemetry informed me that Psyche had achieved sun point and was now hanging happily with her solar arrays drinking in the sunlight, the door opened again and Luis walked in. “Hey Paige,” he said, and I quickly ducked behind the computer monitor to wipe my eyes, “did you have any office supplies to put in the truck?”
“Yeah,” I said, hoping my voice sounded steady, “I’ll go grab them now.”
I shoved my laptop into my backpack and headed for the door, but Luis stopped me before I got there. “And hey,” he said, catching my eye and holding out an arm for a hug, “good job. Really.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, accepting his embrace gratefully.
With one last look at Psyche’s onscreen telemetry — her voice echoing from the vastness of space — I left the control room to find my team and celebrate.
Big thanks to my friend and teammate Will for his thoughtful feedback.
 Wall, Mike. “SpaceX Fires up Falcon Heavy Rocket Ahead of Psyche Asteroid Mission Launch.” Space.Com, Space, 2 Oct. 2023, www.space.com/spacex-falcon-heavy-static-fire-psyche-asteroid-mission.
 Clark, Stephen. “NASA Just Launched the Psyche Mission-No One Knows What It Will Find.” Ars Technica, 13 Oct. 2023, arstechnica.com/space/2023/10/nasa-is-about-to-launch-a-mission-of-pure-discovery-to-a-metal-asteroid/.
 Zafar, Ramish. “SpaceX Lands Two Rockets Simultaneously during NASA’s Asteroid Launch.” Wccftech, WCCF TECH INC, 13 Oct. 2023, wccftech.com/spacex-lands-two-rockets-simultaneously-during-nasas-asteroid-launch/.