Why I Love Rocket Launches


This has been a “geek week” for me. Since Thursday I’ve been at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) doing on-site reporting for Spaceflight Insider the latest Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) launch to the International Space Station (ISS), CRS-10.

What I’m doing

This launch is a bigger deal than usual because SpaceX is launching its Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A, a site that up until 2011 had only launched NASA vehicles: Apollo-Saturn and the Space Shuttle. Since 2014, SpaceX has had a 20-year lease on the pad, enabling them to retool the site for commercial cargo (and eventually crew) launches to ISS.

Thanks to that lovely media badge, I’ve been part of the on-site herd getting tours and project updates from the KSC Director and some other high muckety-mucks. The picture above is from the tour we got of LC-39B, the launch complex next door to the launch site being used by SpaceX. 39B is still a NASA pad. It is a lot barer than when I visited it in 2009 to support Ares I-X.


Most of the infrastructure–the service structures, which supported Space Shuttle–have been taken down to make for a “clean pad.” NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS–NASA loves acronyms), will have its crew access and umbilical tower attached to its mobile launch pad. The advantage of this clean-pad approach is that other launch providers can use the facility as well–though they’ll have to provide their own launch pad, as the NASA Mobile Launcher is customized for SLS. The downside is that the pad now has a lot less to look at. But what the heck, I got my picture.

Why I love it

But I was going to talk about why I love rocket launches. I’m certain I’ve written about this elsewhere, but what the heck, this is what I do.

Most launches to space consist of about two minutes of fire and smoke from liftoff to the burnout of the rocket’s first stage. After that, the upper stage takes over and usually takes the payload (satellite, spacecraft, whatever) the rest of the way to orbit.

Rocket launches have (literally) lots of moving parts, and not just on the rocket itself. You’ve got the tanks, plumbing, and engines on the rocket itself–Falcon 9 has 9 separate engines–plus the avionics, plus the separation systems and payload. Falcon 9’s first stage does an even better trick: returning to land or landing on a robot barge in the middle of the Atlantic. Try balancing a pen on the tip of your finger, then lifting it off the floor. Then flip it over a couple times and return it–point up–back to the ground in a vertical position. The goal is to make rockets reusable, because for most of the last 60 years of space travel, stages were just dropped into the ocean or onto the steppes of Kazakhstan. SpaceX will refly its first “previously flown” first stage later this year. We live in an age of technological marvels; it’s a beautiful thing.

In addition to the rocket, you’ve got the “range,” that large stretch of ocean east of Florida, which must be made clear of air and ocean traffic in case something does get dropped. Tracking radars keep an eye on where the rocket is going. A Command Destruct system has the ability to initiate the flight termination (self destruct) system on the rocket in case it starts flying toward Nassau, Bahamas, or Daytona Beach, Florida. There are people monitoring the rocket’s fuel tanks, the engines, the control systems, the worldwide tracking and communication systems network, the launch control center, the weather, and the launch director, who has the final authority of saying “Go/No-Go” for launch.

The exciting part for me comes when the launch director does the poll among all of these different organizations, who have the authority to say “Go” or “No Go.” When everyone checks in with “Go,” the Launch Director declares, “We are go for launch,” and then the final or terminal countdown begins. That final “Go” is a commitment to go do something great. Consider the countdown for Apollo 11:

It’s exciting, exhilarating.

Okay, a cargo rocket to the International Space Station isn’t quite as exciting as the first mission to land someone on the Moon. However, the drama of the countdown gets me every time.

So if you get a chance around 10:01 U.S. Eastern Time, take some time to watch the CRS-10 countdown or any other. It gets me every time. (Is it dusty in here?)

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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