You know that feeling of awe and wonder you had when you were a kid and you saw something huge and amazing? My blackened heart hasn’t felt it in years. Turns out all it needed was going to see an historic rocket launch. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch last week was an exhilarating combination of suspense, bureaucracy and childlike delight at seeing a giant fiery rocket make a big noise.
Chances are you haven’t been to a rocket launch. I’m sure some of you have — especially those who live on the Florida coast — but it really isn’t that common. I sure hadn’t been before this week, and nor had any of the others from the site who joined me to cover the event.
The only thing I can think of that’s comparable is when I went to see the total solar eclipse last summer. That, to be clear, was a more intense, almost religious experience that caused me to temporarily devolve into a cave person, howling at an unknowable and sublime cosmos.
The launch was considerably less transformative, but more regenerative. It evoked a mixture of glee and pride I can see being addictive. Glee because it’s been so long since I saw something truly new happening in the real world, and pride because it demonstrated the capacity of humans to reach for the stars — and actually get them.
Before we drove in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cape Canaveral, or specifically Cocoa Beach, where we stayed. Surely, I thought, this would be a sort of astronaut playground, filled with space-age buildings, museums dedicated to various aspects of the space race, and so on.
Not so much.
To my surprise, it was really just your average suburban oceanside town. Upholstery shops, gas stations, chain hotels and the occasional gator or manatee habitat.
All around, marshy dikes and shallow streams swarmed with naked-necked turkey vultures and meticulous long-legged waterfowl, and the vegetation seemed as likely to harbor grazing dinosaurs as rocket scientists.
Yet rocket scientists and other space-related people there were, although not in the forest, exactly. Several times during our stay we ended up sitting next to veteran launch photographers, engineers who worked on the Space Shuttle and others whom you would be amazed to meet anywhere but a couple miles (as the rocket flies) from the launchpad where Apollo took flight.
The base itself, Kennedy Space Center, was secured in what seemed to me a lax way — a guard or two at entrances on public roads, with cones or a simple bar blocking them late at night. For some reason I expected more. Our bags weren’t searched, nor were our IDs checked — our SpaceX-issued badges and assorted stickers on them (denoting access to this or that area or event) were all we required.
I don’t want to make this seem like some Mickey Mouse operation (that would be Disney World, not far away); bomb dogs certainly sniffed my bag more than once, and police and NASA folks were all over the place. Suspicious activity would have been noticed, yet I can’t help but feel that I could have snuck off into the sticks, built myself a shelter of palm leaves and reeds and lived in it for weeks before being discovered. (Watch for my upcoming feature!)
Obviously the many secure buildings — the towering Vehicle Assembly Building, SpaceX’s giant shed by pad 39A, the adjacent Blue Origin facility — would be impossible to access without real credentials. The empty expanses of wildness that make up most of the base don’t harbor any secrets worth the risk to discover.
Our inexperience in this field was evident from the first; for one thing, we were strangers among a group of space press who have known each other for years. I have the same experience at CES and at our own events, checking in with friends in other outlets, sharing tips and complaining about this and that. But here I felt like the intruder, a pitiable tech writer riding along with the people who actually know what they’re doing. Well, you have to learn sometime. (And of course everyone was very friendly and professional.)
On the day before launch we were allowed on base to go to various locations near the launch site to set up remote cameras (of which we had none) and b-roll (of the stationary rocket). I was delighted at the variety of hardware people used: cameras old and new, big and small, with enclosures ranging from obviously pro jobs to actual garbage bags secured with electrician’s tape. One was an actual mailbox.
The size of a rocket like the Falcon Heavy can’t adequately be conveyed by pictures or video. Sure, a wide-angle shot will show the people moving like ants around it, and a telephoto lets you pan up its great height to show the details. But as with so many monumental objects, it’s not enough. It was only when we were closest, actually within the launch pad’s fenced area on the “mounds” set up for staging cameras, lighting and other things, that the size really struck me.
It’s a building. And not a small one — 14 stories high, gleaming in the sun (we were fortunate to have some beautiful weather), towering over you in that way that at first it feels like a trick of perspective, but then your mind works things out and you just kind of stand there, jaw dropped, thinking, really? This building is going to fly into space?
There was a similar moment when I fully cottoned to why the VAB is as big as it is, and the reason for the wide swaths of jumbo gravel that I thought were some kind of landscaping feature. No, that’s the titanic road they made so they can move the rocket-buildings around.
It was at these moments that I truly felt like a child. Because these things were so big. Because they were so amazing. And because I felt like I was learning just by being around them.
I wanted to talk about our experience for two reasons. First, because really, SpaceX can tell the story of the actual launch much better than I can, no matter how I try. And second, because, as I mentioned before, it seems unlikely that many of our readers have been to a launch, let alone gotten to be up close and personal with the rocket.
Like me they may have thought about it in the past abstractly, or seen it on video and thought it was the same. But I assure you that launches fall under the class of experiences that must be had in person to get the full effect. Especially if you want to feel a sonic boom (or four).
The sonic booms were on launch day, of course. After being stuck in traffic on a single road for half an hour, we managed to get to Kennedy only a handful of minutes later than the appointed time — 11:30, so we could leave to our various locations from which to shoot the launch.
It turned out, of course, that we need not have hurried. Unceasing winds caused first a half-hour delay, then an hour, then two hours — and meanwhile, we sat on these tour buses, waiting for the green light so they could trundle off and put us where we needed to be.
Here the veterans of a dozen launches and more showed their realism. My friend Alan Boyle, who wrote up the launch for GeekWire, said he had a bad feeling from the start — which was nearly correct. A more conservative person than Elon Musk might have delayed and then scrubbed the launch entirely when the winds didn’t die down. They did seem, however, to change direction, and perhaps dipped down from risky to reasonable, though never disappeared entirely.
Others with whom we chatted in the bus, the press room and the various little outcroppings and branded shacks with fraying signage (CBS News’s was utterly in tatters, but the team looked undeterred), felt sure it would be delayed. An hour, no problem. Two hours, you’re losing your window. Three hours? Might as well wait until tomorrow.
Fortunately this was not a high-precision launch with some complex trajectory, and delays were more tolerable. So we were pleasantly surprised when the 3:45 time was locked in and the bus began moving. I say bus because apparently, the other bus ran out of gas from idling and running the A/C for so long. (Incidentally, I’d like to thank the person who ordered up a bunch of BBQ to feed us during the long delay — I didn’t at the time.)
A lucky contingent of wire photographers, VIPs and those who know people were sent to the roof of the VAB; I tried desperately to join them but was rebuffed multiple times. Instead, Veanne and I went to the Causeway, a well-known viewing area to which the public can buy tickets and on which we had a nice, cordoned-off area to spread out our gear.
I feel like I missed a big piece of the launch here; though a warm Florida afternoon spent on a beach watching rockets was pleasant, the cheers from the far end of the Causeway indicated that there was a social aspect that we were not a part of. The true fans, locals, sightseers and former (but actually lifetime) rocketeers were gathered there to experience the launch together the way my friends and I traveled to the totality zone of the eclipse and shared in that particular madness.
Because of a cut-out in the countdown, during which I scrambled to find a signal to catch it again on my phone, we were surprised by a cheer — I wasn’t even looking in the right direction at the moment of ignition. We managed to snatch footage anyway, but I felt like a fool — if a rocket is going to launch roughly in the next two minutes, why would you do anything but stare at it with all your eyes?
It rose slowly, occasionally leaving a contrail, and I was again reminded of its immense size, and tried to comprehend that the plumes of fire on which it stood were similarly building-sized. The rumble, growing slowly and receding only as it gained altitude, was volcanic.
I was all anxiety, thinking that surely the next second would be the one where it would explode and the sound of the crowd wailing in sympathy would precede the sound of the fireball by six or seven seconds. It was already so loud that I was unsure whether I should cover my ears or not if that happened. But it didn’t.
We knew that the boosters would come down, if all went well, somewhere on the body of land toward the other end of the Causeway. But the timing was unclear, and due to my confusion at the moment of launch I had failed to start a timer to keep up with the projected timeline.
So when the boosters appeared, there was a moment of confusion, like I was seeing something I didn’t quite believe in or thought would never happen — ICBMs about to to strike or a UFO flying in. I wasn’t fast enough to start recording before their landing retros ignited, and even if I had been, the shot would have been compromised by my startlement when we were struck by the sonic booms.
There were 4, in close succession, one for each end of each booster, though I couldn’t tell you which was which, since the two rockets landed within seconds of each other. By the time the boom reached us they were both on the ground and a plume of smoke had obscured one; at first, I thought the first to land had tipped over and blown up in a staccato series of detonations.
And with that it was over, the ending as sudden as the beginning had been interminable. We packed up our gear, hopped on the bus, went back to the main complex.
Well, it was almost over for me. I moved on to the press auditorium, where we were told there would soon be a press conference. After going in at 5:30 or so, we were told at 6 that the earliest it would start was 6:45, but what were we going to do? Journos from various outlets bargained for energy bars, traded anecdotes, wrote up pieces like this one (though probably shorter).
Eventually, a little after the appointed time, Musk walked in to answer questions for half an hour or so. Elon is an entertaining guy, and it was nice to see him so relaxed. I wasn’t lucky enough to land a pre-launch interview but I’m imagining him being a bit distracted. He spoke in his trademark candid-yet-guarded manner, explaining the next steps for the launch platform and what else was to come in what could be an extremely big year for SpaceX.
When he walked out the door, it was like a spell was broken — not because he had beguiled us, but because suddenly it was clear that the whole event had come to a close. There was nothing left but to drive back to our pink motel and start editing and writing.
But there’s a lingering buzz, even nearly a week later, from the whole thing. I can see now why people brave hours of traffic and line up in scorching weather to see these things. I feel I understand a little more what astronauts mean when they talk about the nearly indescribable feeling they get when they leave the Earth and look down on it from above — a feeling of unity and potential, of a rose-tinted futurity.
I saw a rocket go to space. You should try it.