July 14, 2014
Today, I attended the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This launch carried six Orbcomm Generation 2 communication satellites into orbit. So far, in Project Habu, I’ve only covered aircraft and spacecraft which are firmly attached to the ground in museum static displays. This is the first article that I’ve shared which actually displays an object in flight. I thought this was appropriate, because SpaceX rockets are truly paving the way for modern spaceflight systems and are certainly not destined for museum duty any time soon.
This marked the 10th launch of the Falcon 9 system, but the first launch for me. Before this, I’d never seen a launch. Things hadn’t timed out quite right until now. But finally, here I was. The event was spectacular. Perfect.
I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center facility early in the morning, and traveled to the Banana Creek Viewing Site, positioned 6.3 miles away from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40. After a brief delay, the countdown progressed, and our rocket took flight. I was caught up in the emotions of the moment, but I remember every thought that came during the launch sequence.
First, I remember seeing the steam cloud generated by the water deluge system erupting away from the pad as the rockets ignited. Then, a bright plume appeared under the rocket as it crept away from the pad. The rocket seemed to move slowly at first; almost too slowly. I wanted to urge it forward.
Eventually, she rose above the launch tower, and the full exhaust plume was visible, which doubled the length of the rocket. Still, while witnessing all this drama, there was no sound. The rocket rose, and followed a precise path, as if riding invisible rails, quickly accelerating.
As the rocket rose further, she disappeared behind a large cloud. I took the opportunity to double-check camera settings, and expose for this different angle, pointed nearly directly toward the sun. As the rocket emerged from behind the cloud, we saw that she had finally started producing a beautiful contrail. Then, 30 seconds after liftoff, the sound finally hit us. The deep, thunderous growl shook my body, and suddenly this all became real. I was watching a rocket launch. This brought a tear to my eye, but there was no time to waste. I had to keep shooting photos.
While the contrail was crossing in front of the sun, I looked down at the launch complex, which was shrouded in the quickly dispersing steam cloud produced during the early moments of liftoff. Eventually, I saw the contrail pass through the sun, and continue on. The contrail was much smaller at this point, which gave a wonderful perspective of how far away the rocket was now.
The sound remained long after the launch vehicle was out of sight. I just stood and gazed toward the water, listening to that growl fade into the sky, taking it all in. So much, in such little time. This is what it was like to live a dream, to finally see a launch, like I’d wanted since before I remember.