A bit delayed this morning, but as promised, I spent my Tuesday watching and reporting on the launch of SpaceX’s latest launch vehicle, Falcon Heavy. You can read my actual journalistic effort here. Today’s blog comprises my personal observations/thoughts without wearing my journalist hat.
Reporting on a launch
If you’re curious as to how you get a ringside seat for a launch for Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the answer is simply that you have to be a member of the media, a space public affairs person, a VIP, or perhaps a NASA employee who is awarded a Spaceflight Awareness Award. Individual bloggers who focus on space can often participate in launches via a NASA Social event. This being a purely SpaceX flight, none of the NASA-related outlets were available, so I attended as a member of the media–specifically, my part-time writing gig through Spaceflight Insider.
A week or two prior to the flight, you receive an email with a questionnaire asking a lot of questions about your media affiliation, your contact information, and your intended purpose. The reviewing organization (NASA, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, etc.) will review your credentials and determine if you are who you are and that you’re a legitimate participant.
A couple days before the flight, you’ll start to receive emails detailing the sequence of events for the launch: where you need to go to get your media badge and when, who might be there (NASA/company representatives available for Q&A), and which gate you need to enter to reach your destination. Sometimes the visits include bus tours around the launch pad for close-up photography and more questions.
The Falcon Heavy launch
It’s easy to get jaded about rocket launches if you cover enough of them. I haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I can tell you that sometimes I’ve preferred to watch a launch from my back yard in Orlando rather than drive out to the Space Coast. Some events, however, are more important than others. For me, interplanetary missions and “firsts” are a big deal, so I try to put my hat in the ring for those writing assignments.
I talked about why this launch mattered to me on Monday, so I’ll just share my impressions from the day itself.
First of all, it was a nearly perfect day, weather-wise: sunny, very few clouds, temperature hanging in around 80 degrees (27 degrees for those of you who prefer Celsius). I’ve been to launches that were “nominal” for safe flying but terrible for getting photographs (the launch of Exploration Flight Test One comes to mind). Other times, the weather has been nearly perfect, but other issues have held it up: technical glitches, boats/planes intruding on the flight range, etc. On Tuesday, the big concern was something unseen: upper-level wind shear.
One of the folks in the media annex (they had over 500 journalists and photographers on site so they put some of us in an overflow site) pulled up a website called VentuSky, which showed the differing directions for the winds over the Cape, and they did vary in direction quite a bit (see the images below). That’s a tricky thing for flight software to manage, so the launch time kept shifting from 1:30 p.m. to 2 to 2:20 until, finally, things seemed to calm down enough to set a launch time of 3:45 p.m. Eastern. I was worried that I’d have to drive home and come back the next day, but this time the countdown rolled as planned.
Needless to say, the media centers empty quickly as you get close to launch time. If you wanted to watch the launch on TV, you could do that from home, right? Some things must be seen for oneself, so around ten minutes before liftoff, the Spaceflight Insider troupe headed out toward the area before the big countdown clock to get a good view.
Elon Musk stated that he’d be happy if the rocket cleared the launch tower, so I watched the first few seconds very closely. I snapped a few pictures of the initial smoke billowing out from Launch Complex 39A before the rocket lifted off. Again–I wanted to see this for myself. But up it went. And up. And up. Out over the Atlantic and into space.
The thing that TV cameras can never quite capture is how unbelievably bright the flames pushing these rockets are. I recall Falcon 9 producing a yellow-orange flame (based in part on the kerosene propellant–solid fuels tend to be orange or red, hydrogen is white or nearly transparent). Falcon Heavy, thanks perhaps to its 27 engines vs. the usual nine for Falcon 9 was a great deal brighter–yellow white, like you were looking at a sliver of the Sun.
Another strange thing that isn’t captured on TV is the delay for the spectators. At the media site (three miles away at LC-39A), it’s about three to five seconds between seeing the engines light up and the sound to reach you . Then the sound is everywhere: an unholy racket that shakes the ground and the air with a crackling roar that is unlike anything else in the world. You just know you’re in the presence of some incredible force.
A lot of folks believe that once the rocket is up, up, and away, that’s the end of the excitement. Space people know that the “launch” isn’t really over until the payload is on its proper orbit or trajectory in space. With SpaceX launches, there’s an additional wrinkle: they return their first stage to a landing zone on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station side of the Cape. It’s still strange and thrilling to see a rocket coming down from the sky, tail first, on a smaller pillar of flame than it used when it lifted off.
Falcon Heavy was even stranger, as it was returning two boosters to land (the center booster would later splash down in the ocean down range at too rapid a clip to land). So we got to see these two upside-down candles coming down out of the sky, slowing as they sank, until eventually a pair of thick clouds near the ground indicated that they’d landed safely.
Another freaky thing about first stage returns is that they pass through the sound barrier coming down from the sky. Nearly six seconds after the two first stages landed, we heard a pair of double pa-pooms! more like thunder than the liftoff noise. Those twin sonic booms indicated that SpaceX had, in fact, had one very good day.
My editor quipped, “That’s the most I’ve seen you smile…like, ever.” Okay, yes. I might’ve been a little excited. 🙂
I had to go back inside to review the webcast replay because I missed all of the play-by-play and, of course, the “Starman” dummy “driving” his cherry-red Tesla outward bound from Earth to the music of David Bowie. Really, this is a strange and marvelous time to be in the space business.
After the launch
I read somewhere that something like 500,000 people came out to watch the Falcon Heavy launch in person. I was grateful to have something to write so I could avoid traffic for a couple hours. Much of my article was prewritten–under the assumption that things would go according to plan–so I just needed to go back and fill in the details and note any deviations from the plan. I also tried to cast about for crowd reactions or responses from prominent people in the space business. There was some confusion about when there was to be a post-flight press conference, so I decided to stick with the writing I had, and sent off my version of the first draft of history and speculated on what will come next.
What’s next? Who knows? But you can bet I’ll try to be there, as close as I can. Because someone should be there to write about the history being made.