- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

ATLANTIC, Va. — Spectators cheered as a rocket carrying two experimental satellites blasted off yesterday in the first launch from the mid-Atlantic region’s commercial spaceport.

The 69-foot Minotaur I rocket left the launch pad at 7 a.m., after teams fixed a software problem in one of the satellites that canceled the scheduled Dec. 11 liftoff.

“We can now confirm that both satellites are alive and kicking” in orbit, said Air Force Col. Samuel McCraw, the mission director. “It’s still too early to know how they’re doing, but both have woken up and started talking.”

The rocket soared over the Atlantic Ocean against a pink-and-orange-streaked sky, drawing cheers from about 80 invited guests, gathered about a mile and a half from the commercial launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

The crowd also cheered seconds later when the first stage separated from the rest of the rocket.

Alan Williams said the Minotaur’s liftoff was quicker than the space shuttle launches he has watched.

“This is a little piece of history,” said Mr. Williams, a self-described “rocket geek” from the District who writes about rockets and makes models of them. “It’s the first time in 20 years they’ve done what appears to be a successful ground-based satellite launch from Wallops.”

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, a state agency, built the commercial launch pad in 1998 on land leased from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to help bring jobs to the economically depressed Eastern Shore. Maryland later joined the venture.

“It’s been a lot of work; it’s been a long road, but today we showed we can do it,” said Billie Reed, director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. “We’re in business for real.”

The rocket carried the Air Force’s TacSat-2 satellite, which will test the military’s ability to quickly transmit images of enemy targets to battlefield commanders.

Also on board was NASA’s GeneSat-1 satellite, which carries a harmless strain of E. coli bacteria, part of an experiment to study the long-term affects of space on living organisms.

The software glitch would have prevented solar panels on the TacSat-2 satellite from rotating to point directly at the sun. That would have meant the satellite’s batteries couldn’t charge, and the satellite wouldn’t have had enough power to run experiments.

Air Force officials announced Friday the software problem had been fixed.

The delay added “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to the $60 million mission, Col. McCraw said. The total includes the cost of the rocket, the two satellites and $621,000 the Air Force will pay the spaceport.

The rocket was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, which used two stages made from decommissioned Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles and two stages from Pegasus rockets.

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