The second reason to see a live rocket launch is the crowd. Their energy is irreproducible. Humanity cares about this. Ten minutes before launch, the cheering at Kennedy Space Center starts in ripples.
We all shuffle around anxiously, fussing over the perfect spot. I pull up google maps and try to triangulate the exact direction it will come from. I get pretty confident. But I know it won’t matter after the first five seconds. From seven miles away, we’re all getting pretty much the same view. I put my phone away.
It’s five minutes away, and John Insprucker comes onto the webcast. I’ve never heard him so happy. He gives a review of the mission, but we know what’s going to happen. We know what we came here to see. Despite the giant screen and the big speakers, he’s just another one of the crowd, here to celebrate with us.
There’s nothing to think about now. I watch the clock and wait. T -1:00. I remember to start the decibel meter on my phone. I put my phone away for the last time. We stare and watch. The crowd can’t handle it anymore; we start to count down.
It gets to zero, and I see nothing. I hear nothing. The trees take the sight of ignition from me, and the distance its rumble. From webcast we can tell that things are fine. We wait long seconds until finally people start to cheer.
“I see it, it see it!”
“There it is!”
“Go baby, go!”
The rumble begins to sweep over the field and the crowd bursts into cheering and applause. I catch my first glimpse of it through a sparse tree. The rocket is a spot of brilliance, climbing slowly through the sky. If it lasts long enough, it will come out the other side.
Videos of the launch will show the flames as a splotch of white pixels, capped out at the brightness of the screen. Here at the Cape I get to learn that the exhaust is a tiny point of blazing light. It’s much brighter than a candle or fire. It has the brightness quality of the sun, but much less so. The closest thing I can think of is when I saw burning magnesium, only this is yellow instead of blue. It’s too far and too bright to see the body of the rocket. I’ll see plenty of that afterwards.
My heart is still; it’s waiting. I don’t know what’s going to happen. This isn’t a movie, and anything could happen. I have to pay attention, because it matters. We are all in this together, humanity, and I need to know whether what we’ve done has worked.
The rocket climbs through a different layer of the atmosphere and starts to make a contrail. I raise my binoculars and follow it from here.
I’ve seen enough live-streamed launches to know what this part looks like. The exhaust plume is widening out like a flower because the atmospheric pressure is dropping. Technically that’s all lost momentum that could have been used to push the rocket forward, but the nozzle is designed to operate optimally at sea level.
The seconds drift by, and it feels unreal. I can tell by the width of the plume that the side boosters are going to drop soon. With the rocket almost lost into the haze of Rayleigh scattering, the webcast calls out BECO; booster engine cutoff. I see the now dim orange flame switch off into white smoke, and little diffuse streams start coming out the sides. The boosters are falling.
At each new event, the webcast call out, and the cheering of the crowd pulses and washes over itself. It never dies down completely. I lose sight of the booster trail through the distance and a cloud. I bring the binoculars down and give my mind a rest. We have a while before anything else will be seen. The center core is too far downrange; all that will come from the webcast. I look around the sky and take in the sight of my first rocket contrail. I remember the decibel meter on my phone. It was never very loud; roaring, rippling, crunching, yes, but less loud than the airplane ride here.
I wander over to get a better view of the screen. They switch to the payload camera. Music begins and builds up, and precisely at the climax, they call out fairing separation, and in a flash of light the Starman in his roadster are visible against the blue earth. Never before have so many cheered for fairing separation, and never before in the 21st century have so many felt represented by a human figure in space.
The artistic peak has been achieved, but the show is not over. We must have missed the boostback burn behind the cloud, but people start to see the boosters now. I squint and shift and follow other people’s pointing. Eventually, I see them. Two specks, bright white, but lit only by the sun. I raise my binoculars.
Have you ever seen a tower falling from the sky? In a sight like no other, these machines drifted through the air, both bizarrely out of place and designed exclusively for this purpose.
The Falcon booster is 16 stories tall. Imagine standing in front of a 16 story tower; now imagine it falling through the air. Through the binoculars I saw two of those, clear as day. Enough to distinguish the charred landing legs from the white body, and writing on the side. These towers are in freefall, and in absolute control of their destination. They fall with confidence, diving like the bird of their namesake, conserving their energy for the last few seconds.
Something will happen between now and those final moments. We know what we hope happens. We have done all we know how to ensure it. And now we must watch.
The giants begin their entry burn, and the retro-thrusting engulfs their bodies in flame. They are blazing points of light in the sky now, those twin birds of fury, and we howl for their return. They sear the sky and the entry burn ends. As they resume freefall toward the horizon, we don’t know whether we will see the final landing burn before they disappear behind the building in front of us.
Just a few degrees above the building, the flames appear once more, and the roar of the crowd follows. They float down in levitation, blink out of view, and the webcast confirms; “The Falcons have landed.”
BA-BOOM. BA-BOOM. As if celebratory fireworks, the pair of double sonic booms returns our celebratory calls. Of course, they weren’t generated on landing; they were generated 30 seconds ago on descent, delayed by as much time as it would have taken the rockets to get to us when the sound was made.
My voice is sore. This part of the mission has been completed to perfection. The rest we will have to learn later. The fate of the center core remains unknown. My mind is left to itself now, amongst the thousands of other witnesses.
The first reason to see a live rocket launch is because it is real.