A group of four scientists from the Gaia team of the Universitat de Barcelona (short GaiaUB) followed the invitation of ESA to watch the launch of the Gaia spacecraft from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. It was a real pleasure to share this event with many other scientists, engineers and journalists from all over Europe. The event started about one our before the launch. The ex-astronaut Thomas Reiter, now ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations, was the first speaker welcoming the audience and giving an overview of the Gaia mission as one important part of the general ESA stategy to support science and development of new technologies. Mark McCaughrean from ESA was giving an enthusiastic talk about the working principle of Gaia and the science that can be done with the data expected to begin to arrive in the next few weeks. The general director of ESA, Jean-Jacques Dordain, was giving a short statement from ESA headquarters in Paris via telecon. Finally, Jean Dauphin from EADS Astrium outlined that it was a pleasure and a challenge to build the Gaia spacecraft.
Then, the launch transmission from Kourou, produced by Arianespace, was beginning. Most likely you have seen the videos already. If not, here is the full transmission: http://youtu.be/jMqZqkOcibw or the short highlight version: http://youtu.be/xDmQvJVJg8Y. We were following step by step of the launch sequence. You could real feel the tension of the entire audience in the air. What a beautiful launch – the most impressive one of a Soyuz from Kourou so far! After several days with rain in Kourou a large gap had opened in the clouds allowing the follow the liftoff even after booster separation!
During the coast phase and the second long burn of the engine of the Fregat upperstage some scientists involved in the mission were expressing their excitement about the launch and the mission at the ESOC stage, among them Sergei Klioner from the Dresden university, Nic Walton from the IoA Cambridge and Uli Bastian from the ARI Heidelberg.
Finally, the successful separation of Gaia from the Fregat upperstage was confirmed from the control room in the building nearby as well as the first radio contact with the satellite after launch. An intensive applause started and you could feel the tension to go down. Gaia was on its way to L2, almost.
Some critical operations needed to be performed first including the deployment of the 11m diameter sunshield. We could watch on monitors the work going on in the control room. About 1.5 hours after liftoff it was announced that the sunshield was opened successfully – Mission ON! What a relief for everybody! Now the celebration was really beginning with champagne and a buffet.
Later on we had the luck to be able to have a look into the mission control room of the Gaia mission. This was another emotional moment knowing that Gaia will be operated from here during the years of operations to come. Many thanks to the person allowing this close look not completely in agreement with the rules set.
I have to express my thankfulness for being allowed to take part in this fantastic event! This is something I will always remember. Thanks to ESA, Arianespace, Astrium and CNES to make this dream come true after all these years of hard work. And many thanks to our Russian friends providing this fantastic Soyuz-Fregat launcher. We have to be thankful to all persons that were helping to make this launcher to work properly, from the last person how touched the Soyuz and back to the person who has constructed the basic version of this launcher in the 1950s – Sergei Korolev. Thank you, merci beaucoup, spasibo!
Update: A series of photos from this event is now available here: https://www.facebook.com/holger.voss.94/media_set?set=a.188171224721342.1073741829.100005853960810&type=1. You will need to be logged in into Facebook to see it. Sorry for this issue!
Update 07/01/2014: The entire launch event at ESOC can now be watched on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhVrNHwtWgo.