I’ve probably seen over a hundred rockets launch into orbit and beyond: on video. Starting with the Gemini missions in the 60’s, then Apollo, Skylab, the Shuttle, interplanetary missions like the Mars rovers, and now SpaceX regularly sending their Falcon 9 off into space from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But I have never stood on the ground, a few miles from a launch pad, and watched a launch happen right in front of me.
Yesterday Rosemary and I did just that. And it was totally worth the 550 mile, 30 hour (we stayed overnight) round trip to have the experience!
SpaceX occasionally launches rockets from a pad on the grounds of Vandenburg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, when the launch customer wants to place the payload — typically multiple communications satellites — in a polar orbit because from that launch site the rocket can go south over the ocean and avoid populated areas. Try to do that from Kennedy in Florida and the flight path will be right over Miami. The FAA won’t allow it.
So that is why at noon on June 25th we found ourselves near the corner of Ocean Ave and Renwick Ave just east of Lompoc where at least 2,000 people had gathered to watch a Falcon 9 rocket take 10 Iridium commsats to orbit. The crowd was a diverse mix of young and old, men and women, space geeks, SpaceX employees, tech types, and everything in between all united by a shared enthusiasm for space and exploration. You could walk up to a total stranger and find common ground in seconds. We hung out in the area where members of the Facebook “unofficial” enthusiast group, run by super-fan Bill Carton, had congregated near a black F9 flag. SpaceX mission integration specialist and sometime webcast host Kate Tice was there as well.
The launch pad is almost exactly 4 miles south of where we were standing but you can’t see it directly because of some low hills in the way. A ground-hugging cloud layer was visilble just behind the hills: the launch pad was probably enveloped in fog but we enjoyed sunshine and a cool breeze.
The local cell data network there gets too overloaded to stream the SpaceX live webcast to your phone or tablet so Bill Carton tracked the countdown via an audio call with someone somewhere who was watching the SpaceX live webcast.
As T-zero approached, the crowd got quieter. I heard Bill say “LOX load complete”, then “ignition” and then “the rocket has cleared the pad”. No one spoke. The crowd waited, hushed. (Below: SpaceX photos of the rocket on the fogged in pad at T-17 seconds, and at liftoff)
A low rumbling began, cheers went up, and in a few seconds the Falcon 9 rocket rose out of the low cloud layer to the south of us. The brilliance of the engine exhaust was incredible and the sound was unreal: the deep roar combined with a piercing high-pitched crackling static along with the intense light of the 9 Merlin rocket engines produced a sensory assault unlike anything I had ever experienced.
People were screaming, I was screaming, the rocket sounded like it was screaming as it rapidly accelerated. It started to arc away from us heading south and then the engines were actually pointed at us and for a brief period the sound was even more intense! (Photo below released by the US Air Force)
At T+2:26 we saw MECO (Main Engine Cut Off) and with the first stage engines shut down the rocket almost disappeared from view. The first stage then separated and almost immediately the second stage Merlin Vacuum engine ignited to take the payload to orbit, allowing us to track the tiny dot of light a bit longer. The first stage was now invisible with its engines silent, but then Rosemary saw the boost back burn start and was able to track it for a moment. Somehow I missed it. By then the second stage with its satellite payload was over 60 miles high and traveling at nearly 5,000mph!
What you can see from the ground is over in less than three minutes. A few minutes later at T+7:53 people on their phones reported that the first stage had landed undamaged on the SpaceX ASDS (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) named Just Read the Instructions* positioned way out to sea off Southern California. Here are images from the launch webcast showing the stage just before touchdown (with an image of the second stage engine running on the right) and then a view of the landed stage from the deck of the ASDS. Keep in mind that those landing leg struts are over 30 feet long!
SpaceX is reportedly constructing a first stage landing zone at Vandenburg AFB so that in the near future onlookers will be able to see the stage return to near the launch site, just like SpaceX does for some of the missions launched in Florida. That will make an extraordinary experience even more thrilling.
You can watch a video replay of the mission on the SpaceX website. And if you can, make the trip to see a future launch with your own eyes. Here is a regularly updated listing of planned orbital launches by all governments and private companies or use the SpaceXNow fan-built website which also offers a smartphone app with push notifications so you never miss a launch!
*The ASDS names Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You (used for the Florida launches) come from the Culture sci-fi book series written by Ian Banks. Typical Elon Musk inside jokes, just like the Falcon rocket name comes from Han Solo’s ship Millenium Falcon in Star Wars.