On Tuesday, PG&E updated its messaging: The campus and much of the rest of Northern California would lose its power soon, though the question remained of when. “They chose lives over science, which I get,” says Milano. “So then we went into breakneck speed on Plan B.”
The team already had a backup generator outside the building but decided to bring in another. Then scientists had to figure out how much fuel they’d need, given how long they expected to be divorced from the grid. Also they had to find a guy to bring over a truckload of fuel. Beckwith dispatched people to find hundreds of feet of high-gauge extension cords, which they snaked through the hallways of the lab.
The 30-odd people working mission control would themselves need fuel too. SSL prepares for any launch by bringing in catering and snacks from Costco runs, but water could be a problem if they lost power, given the facility is up on a hill and depends on electric water pumps. So in preparation, they filled two 400-gallon tanks on site with water before the supply got cut off. Then to get rid of all that food and water, they secured two portable toilets for the parking lot. To lighten the load on electrical and nutritional resources, Beckwith ordered staff who didn’t need to be on site to work from home for the launch.
“We said, we know we can do this, that this is a finite challenge,” adds Beckwith. “I think by Tuesday evening, we actually felt like we were going to be OK.”
Wednesday came, and PG&E still couldn’t say when the campus might lose power. But a reprieve, of sorts, came from Cape Canaveral: At 11 am Pacific time, Beckwith got word that the launch was scrubbed until the next day due to weather. Perhaps, then, their mission could dodge the outage entirely.
At around 11 pm on Wednesday, Milano was at home, right over the hill from campus, when her power went out. She alerted a colleague, who rushed over to the lab in time to witness … not much at all. “A little blip,” Milano says, “but we maintained power. So that meant the cogen worked.”
When Beckwith arrived at the lab Thursday morning, the cogen power was still on. Their new launch time was set for that evening at 8:31 pm Eastern time. As the Berkeley people stared into screens in two small rooms lined with yellow extension cords, monitoring the temperature of the spacecraft and other vitals, a converted airliner raced down a Cape Canaveral runway carrying a Pegasus rocket, which housed the satellite, and ascended to 39,000 feet.