Being new to Gogo, I was excited and honored when I was asked if I could accompany Trent Welander in Florida to attend OneWeb’s 17th launch for its low-Earth-orbit (LEO) constellation. It was the final launch from North America for OneWeb. I am a space geek at heart, so it took all of a half second for me to respond with an emphatic “YES!"
In the almost four years I've been with Gogo, the company has been on an incredible journey. From nationwide 5G tower installations from mountaintops to swamps and everything in between, to game-changing aircraft antenna designs and next-generation network deployments, the Gogo team continually amazes me and I am very proud to be here. When I was asked to attend the OneWeb launch in Florida, I was a bit in shock... it's been a bucket list item for me. “Of course, I'll go!” I said.
Our morning began in the lobby of our hotel where, after a quick coffee, we departed on two buses with a group of about 100 guests. Today’s launch deployed 40 satellites into OneWeb’s constellation and marks the second to last mission before they complete their Gen 1 constellation of 588 satellites.
The first stop on our tour was the SpaceX launch pad, where we were able to take some pictures — and, actually let’s pause here for a moment to reflect…
You may be thinking: hold on, isn’t SpaceX (and Starlink) a OneWeb competitor? Yes, you are correct: SpaceX and OneWeb are competitors – and yet today, they were partners, with SpaceX providing the Falcon 9 rocket which delivered a payload of 40 OneWeb satellites into orbit. The reason for the unusual partnership, at least to this space nerd, is super interesting and has a lot to do with space history strangely repeating itself.
In July of 1975, the NASA and Russian space programs reached a historic milestone, as the Apollo and Soyuz capsules docked together while in orbit. Millions of people from around the world watched as the Russian and American crews opened the hatches and greeted each other warmly while traveling at 20,000 miles per hour in the weightlessness of space. The moment not only marked an important milestone, breaking tensions between the U.S. and Russia, but also laid the foundation for space cooperation, culminating in the two countries partnering to build the International Space Station.
Until last year, that partnership had been going strong and OneWeb had been launching its satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets. Then the Ukrainian war happened and as a result, OneWeb was left without a launch partner, putting their constellation and business in peril. Luckily for OneWeb (and Gogo) SpaceX allowed OneWeb to purchase three Falcon 9 launches to help complete their constellation. SpaceX didn’t have to do this, though endeavors in space have always been a place where rivals have learned to work together – and just like in 1975 – two competitors came together today for a greater good.
As we pulled into the OSB-II at Kennedy Space Center, you could feel the anticipation growing. Space has a way of turning everyone into a 9-year-old kid, and even among the most subdued of VIPs, you could see the smiles and big eyes as we exited the elevators and walked out onto the sixth-floor balcony that overlooked the swamp at the launch pad. We were about as close as civilians are allowed to go and had a perfect view of the launch.
Mission briefing time. We all gathered in a briefing room to hear from SpaceX and OneWeb, both of whom spoke glowingly of their momentary partnership. SpaceX has built a wonderous launch operation; the Falcon 9 rocket was on its 14th mission, a testament to the engineers and designers who have pioneered re-landing and capturing the first stage booster and fairing components. OneWeb was also beaming. This was the last Florida launch: an incredibly meaningful moment to the OneWeb team, because all their satellites are manufactured at a facility just a few miles north in Coco Beach. It’s humbling to see what man is able to accomplish with technology. Launching a reusable rocket into space to deliver LEO satellites amazes all of us – tech geek or not, the excitement of a tangible future was evident.
It’s almost go-time, so we’ll do our best to put you in our own mindset for the remaining few riveting moments.
The briefing is over, and it’s just a few minutes till launch. The patio is packed with people who all have a critical stake in launch success. Not long before, we just finished lunch with a table of French-speaking engineers who worked on the design and manufacture of the actual satellites. All of us are excited. There are murmurs of anticipation, and there’s an electricity filling the air. This is the moment everyone is here for. This is it.
T-minus 30 seconds and suddenly everyone is quiet. You can hear a pin drop, or a rocket launch. 5... 4... 3... 2... 1… launch! The pad is full of steam in an instant, and then so bright you can’t look directly at it. In no time at all, the rocket is up and moving so, so fast. Before we can fully process and understand what we are seeing, the rocket is nearly out of view and the first stage burn is done. There's a brief moment of realization, leading to relief: SpaceX conducts yet another flawless re-entry of the first stage body and the payload rockets upwards on the second stage to low Earth orbit. Success! And one more HUGE WIN for OneWeb and Gogo.
We are now enjoying a glass of champagne and reflecting on an incredible day. Space exploration has long been a platform that pushes people, businesses, and countries to dream big, to be better, and to make connections. In that spirit, we are proud to be representing the Gogo team here at Kennedy Space Center, and we truly can’t wait to experience the bright future ahead being enabled by the groundbreaking space technologies on display today.
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