Hundreds of spectators from near and far gathered at the Lompoc Airport observatory site Monday morning to witness the Earth-monitoring Landsat 9 satellite lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base aboard United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.

"This was great," said Michael Feria, a staff engineer with Northrop Grumman, the aerospace and defense company responsible for the design and manufacture of the Landsat 9 spacecraft.

Feria, who witnessed the hazy launch with his wife and children from the large airport field, said watching its successful ascension was a proud moment.

"I've been working on this for the last five years," Feria said.

Despite an untimely layer of fog, the joint-agency mission conducted by NASA and the United States Geological Survey successfully blasted off on schedule from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 3 at 11:12 a.m., and was placed into a near-polar, sun-synchronous orbit, according to Col. Robert Long, the launch decision authority.

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Jordan Marks, of Ball Aerospace, left, uses a model of the Operational Land Imager 2, one of the two main instruments on Landsat 9, to explain the mission to Hankui Zhang, a professor at South Dakota State University. They were talking during a Landsat 9 watch event Monday at the Lompoc Airport.

In an announcement, Long said, “It is the entire team today and those across six decades that we celebrate as we achieve this milestone. What’s more, we’re crossing this monumental threshold with two great mission partners, NASA and ULA — both with their own long histories of success!”

The $885 million Landsat 9 mission marks the satellite program's 50th anniversary and ULA's 2,000th launch from the Western Range. The new satellite will eventually replace the Landsat 7 satellite, which has been in orbit since 1999, and will provide greater detail of Earth’s land surface from space, according to officials.

"It was pretty nice," said 15-year-old Harley Feria, Michael Feria's daughter. The family drove eight hours from the greater Phoenix area to Lompoc to watch the launch.

Feria's wife, Lia Feria, said it was "amazing" and that her family in Indonesia was enjoying the launch videos she had been capturing and sending.

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Oliver Chen, 5, of Sierra Madre, gives thumbs-up to the launch of the Landsat 9 observatory Monday from Vandenberg Space Force Base. He watched with his family at the Lompoc Airport.

In addition to the Landsat 9 satellite, Michael Feria explained that he had also worked on the Iridium NEXT constellation in 2019, a launch that he and his family also drove out to see. 

"There was not as much cloud cover [during the Iridium launch] so we got to see more," he said.

Leading up to the Landsat launch, children converged on the launch site activity tent that featured an oversized floor jigsaw puzzle, a pixelated-sticker art station and numerous educational stations managed by Landsat mission personnel who showcased satellite models and topographic posters, and also handed out space swag to members of the public.

Oliver Chen, 5, from Sierra Madre, who showed up dressed for the occasion decked out in a miniature spacesuit and helmet, tackled the floor jigsaw puzzle while his family looked on.

Also busy were a small group of Lompoc middle schoolers who honed in on the sticker art project, which quickly came into focus as they added small, square stickers to give life to a developing satellite picture. 

Lisa Wirth, a program manager with America View, a K-12 educational outreach company that partnered with NASA and USGA to organize the community event, stood at her station ready to answer science questions and engage learners of all ages.

Wirth held up a packaged poster and board game co-designed by her company that showcases a grouping of satellite images as captured by the Landsat from space.

"Every year we put together a poster, and this is the front, and on the back side is a game," she explained, unfolding the colorful poster. "My daughter is 10 and we played this game, and she loved it."

Recent transplant to Lompoc, Kathy Pidgen, whose children work at Vandenberg Space Force Base, said by no means was this her first time witnessing a launch. However, participating in the multiple community activities hosted over the weekend by NASA and USGS, in partnership with Explore Lompoc, was a first, she said.

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Erin Hestir, a mechanical engineering professor at UC Merced, reacts as she livestreams the Landsat 9 launch to her students Monday.

"We've only seen stuff like this at Disneyland," said Pidgen, also a former educator, watching her grandchildren engage with science.

"Because it's cloudy and you can't see, this is kind of fun," she added. "Having the kids hands-on, watching them doing puzzles and coloring — and being engaged is great. The kids are getting a lot out of it."

Base officials said the launch, which was managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy Space Center, is a milestone and represented a momentous occasion, highlighting the Western Range’s unwavering commitment to improving internal processes that resulted in "unprecedented results."

“All of our mission partners, in government and industry, are integral to our success," Long said. "Not only do they provide unique capabilities needed to modernize range infrastructure, they challenge us to seek new and innovative ways to launch and test above the rest."

Lisa André covers lifestyle and local news for Santa Ynez Valley News and Lompoc Record, both products of the Santa Maria Times.

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