Watching a Morpheus Lander Free Flight at KSC

February 11, 2014 at 12:21 pm Leave a comment

I’ve been scouting for the best place to watch a Morpheus Lander Free Flight. These notes are from FF7 on February 10, 2014. That flight ascended to 467 feet.

Locating the Launch Site on Google Earth

Search for 28.635984, -80.708661 in Google Earth. You should see the launch pad and the hazard field built to simulate the moon surface. You can zoom in on the hazard field and see craters and rocks. Note that the March 2013 image currently on Google Earth does not yet include the small Flame Trench built in late 2013.

Detail of Launch & Landing

If you don’t have Google Earth or a map that accepts coordinates, search for Kennedy Space Center and look for the large features like Launch Complex 39, the VAB, and the Shuttle Landing Strip. Zoom in on the north end of the Shuttle Landing Strip to find Morpheus test site.

Overview of KSC

There are not currently any official viewing galleries open to the public on NASA property. You are trying to get as close to the launch site with a view unobstructed by trees and low scrub.

Getting to the Area

From US1 in Titusville, turn east on the A Max Brewer Memorial Pkwy (Route 402). You will go over a large causeway (30mph and heavily patrolled). After 2.9 miles, the road forks. Follow the right fork to stay on Route 402 / Max Brewer / Playalinda Beach Rd. Note: On some launch days, there is an electric sign here advising that the road is closed ahead and urging you to turn left. While this is great advise for someone going all the way to the beach, you should ignore it as you can get to the Morpheus Viewing Site before the road closure. Travel another 2.1 miles to pass the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Visitor Information Center. Note: the visitor center has restrooms and sells water and soda. If you arrive early, have driven the road looking for better angles, and want to do something other than bake in the Florida sun, stop here.

Specific Turns

Slow down after you pass the entrance to the MINWR Visitor Center drive. In a half mile, another driveway on the right goes to the MINWR Headquarters. Go past this driveway. Within 50 yards, there is a small dirt road to the right. A sign at the street says “Waterfowl Hunting Access”. Turn south onto this dirt road. A small green street sign indicates you are now on Peacock Pocket Road. Drive a short distance and you will see the maintenance buildings over the water to your right. Look for the maintenance pavilion that is closest to the road. You want to stop and park close to that building.


Cautionary Note About Peacock Pocket Road: Beyond the Morpheus Viewing Site, this road turns into a very narrow road that winds for 10 miles through the park. In every case, you have a dropoff on the left with a large alligator-filled body of water and a dropoff on the right with a smaller alligator-filled body of water. If you continue on this road looking for a good place to turn around, you will never find one, until you arrive back on Max Brewer after 45 minutes and (approximately) 372 switchbacks. This baby makes the Road to Hana look like a 6-lane interstate. It is great fun once you know what you are in for, but don’t just casually decide to go for a five minute drive beyond the Morpheus Viewing Site (hereinafter MVS), because it will be difficult to get out. Just past the MVS, you can execute a 5-point turn and get turned around. That is the best place to turn around. Drive further south and you will be doing 7-point or 9-point turns with alligators waiting for you to screw up.

What You Will See and Hear

At the MVS, you are 6707 feet from the Morpheus Launch Site. The noise from the launch and entire flight is loud and hits you right away. If you’ve watched an Atlas/Delta/Falcon rocket launch, you are 5-11 miles away from the launch pad. Sound travels at 5 seconds per mile, so you don’t hear the rocket until 50 seconds after the launch. With Morpheus, you are hearing it 6 seconds after it happens, so it is right there, right now. By the time you hear the launch, Morpheus will have cleared any trees and you can see a small silver reflection and see the jet stream from under the lander. The sound is much more impressive than the view. But it is still cool and worth the trip. (My father, a 91-year old WWII vet has failing vision and could not make out the lander. But even with his failing hearing, he could definitely hear it and enjoyed the trip.)

In the Morpheus Free Flights so far, the lander ascends quickly and then drifts down during the horizontal maneuvering. Once they are above the landing area, they will descend quickly. From this MVS on Peacock Pocket Road, the lander is traveling from right to left, so you can easily track the slow descent, horizontal movement, and then faster descent to land in the hazard field. I felt like I could see the lander until within about second of it’s landing. Free Flight 8 scheduled for February 13, 2014 should be a similar test. After this, Morpheus will be fitted with the hazard avoidance technology, so they may not be going as high and might be doing more testing and maneuvering closer to the ground.

What You Will Not See

You won’t see Morpheus on the ground. There is low scrub blocking the view of the Morpheus Launch Area. You also don’t have the typical hallmarks of a launch pad. With a regular pad, your eyes can scan for the towers surrounding the pad. You don’t have that here, so you are not even sure where to start watching. We were parked next to the maintenance pavilion, near the end, but not past the building. The launch happened immediately to the right of this unusual tree.

Use this Tree as a Guide

A Note on Cell Phone Signal and the UStream Live Stream of the Launch

I can barely get a signal on my Verizon iPhone in the Wildlife Refuge. I have much better luck with my 4G Verizon MiFi Jet Pack. Using the Jet Pack, I can get an internet signal and watch the uStream on the iPad. However, for both Morpheus and the last Atlas launch, I’ve noticed a 30-40 second time lag between the stream and actual events. Listening to the stream, you hear the poll and everyone says go. The FM gives his speech and says TC you are go to test. You then hear the TC from here on out. “Operator – Enable OA High”, “Stop APU Cooling”, “Operator, stop ACS Chill”, “Operator Activate Control Standby”, “Advance to Engine Ignition 1”, “Operator, SV105(?)” longer pause, “Operator Set <?> Flight”, “Set Control”, “Resync UPP”. At this point, before they’ve gotten to the count down on the stream, you can hear Morpheus live. If you are waiting for the countdown on the stream, the launch happens way before that.

Can You Get Closer?

The closest that you can legally get is the parking lot for the Palm Hammock Trail, located 3800 feet from the launch site. An armed NASA guard arrives here at 11:50 AM and begins blocking the road promptly at noon. While the park advises that the road is closed from Noon to 4PM, the NASA guard reveals that he will stay there until 45 minutes after the launch. As people are heading east towards the beach, he has them turn around in the Palm Hammock trail parking lot and head back to the west. He will let you stay in the parking lot and walk up to the road. Although Google Earth indicates there is not a lot of trees between this parking lot and the launch site, some low scrub trees just south of the road could block your view. Right now, Morpheus is flying 90% as high as the VAB. (While I understand the following statement shows I did not completely pay attention in Trig class), if you can’t see the VAB because of the trees, you might not be able to see Morpheus (see the footnote for the trig). Get there early enough and drive 402/Max Brewer/Playalinda Beach looking for any signs of Morpheus. Most of the view along this road is blocked by trees.

What about the Other Roads Visible on Google Earth?

Several NASA roads go closer to the launch site. All are secured by locked gates that prevent you driving down those roads. While a pedestrian could easily walk past the gate, you are trespassing on NASA territory if you do that. In the photo below, red X represent locked gates. The red Y is a NASA badging station on Route 3. You need a NASA badge to get past this point. The green Z is a broken gate, but for a long-since abandoned road that is overgrown and impassable.

Locked Gates

How About Along 402/Max Brewer, Between Peacocks Pocket and Palm Hammock Trail?

There might be a good spot along here, but there might not. In this image, the green areas are dense trees. The yellow areas are low scrub. Trees near the road are bad. Trees further away are not so bad. After trying to draw a straight line from the launch pad to any road, the red line at 6700 feet is the only straight line I could find. But there might be others. (click the image to enlarge it)


What About Route 3, Just North of the Badging Station?

If you get to the area before the NASA guard closes the road, you could drive up to Route 3 and turn south towards the NASA Badging Station. This would get you 4800 feet from the launch pad, but again, heavy trees to the west of this road prevent a view of the pad. If you want to see for yourself, do it early. The worst thing would be to get caught on Route 3 at 11:59 AM, only to find your roadway back to Peacocks Pocket road is closed.

View from Route 3

On the @MorpheusLander twitter feed, they hinted at the possibility of better viewing spots in the future. However, for FF8, this point on Peacocks Pocket road will give you a good view and great audio of the entire flight. We’ll be there, in the off-white Ford Escape.

Footnote: the Trig of Hammock Trail Parking Lot

Say that you are a 6′ tall person standing at the Hammock Trail Parking lot. 150′ away from you, trees of unknown height are blocking your view of the VAB. The VAB is 29209 feet away and 525 feet tall. We aren’t really sure if the trees are blocking just to the roof of the VAB or a lot higher. In Excel, use =DEGREES(TAN(519/29209)) to learn that the angle of inclination of the VAB is 1.01 degrees on the horizon. For the apex of the Morpheus flight, use =DEGREES(TAN(467/3800)) to see that the apex of Morpheus requires you to be able to see 7.04 degrees above the horizon. (But that is only to see Morpheus for the 1 second it is at the apex… you want to see much more).

A near tree, height of 60′ at a distance of 150′ will block 22.9 degrees of view, or all of Morpheus.

A far tree, height of 60′ at a distance of 2000′ will block 1.718 degrees of view, allowing you to see much of Morpheus.

Doing the same trig from Peacocks Pocket, the VAB is blocked by a .95 degree obstruction. Morpheus will rise to 3.93 degrees. Even if you went a bit to far south on Peacocks Pocket and had to contend with the stand of trees 1384 feet away, you would still see Morpheus.



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