Rocket launches aren’t easy to observe in person. Their scheduled launch dates and times are merely starting points for negotiation with the weather and the vehicle itself. They could end up going off at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.—or the whole affair can just slide through the night to the end of the launch window.
Last night, having spent a lifetime trying unsuccessfully to squeeze a launch viewing into my work, family, and travel schedule, the stars looked like they might actually align in my favor. It was a doozy, too—SpaceX’s first nighttime launch of the Falcon Heavy, Elon Musk’s biggest and boldest gambit yet in his quest for reusable, affordable rocketry. It’s a massive, beastly heavy-lift machine capable of lofting 140,000-pound payloads to low-Earth orbit.
When I realized that its launch window opening at Kennedy Space Center coincided with a work trip to West Palm Beach, two hours to the south, it instantly became my obsession, despite the 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. launch window. I bowed out of a dinner last night, snagged a rental car, and headed toward Port Canaveral, where a friend suggested I’d have the best luck getting good photos, given the rocket’s easterly trajectory.
I arrived at 9 p.m., paid $15 to park inside the boundaries of a gated community that had primo views, and sidled up among the hundreds of rocket enthusiasts who convened to see the ground-breaking—and ground-shaking—launch event.
Within minutes of my arrival, SpaceX tweeted out a delay announcement, and the 11:30 launch suddenly turned into a 2:30 event, with no guarantee, of course, that even that would stick. I’d come this far, though, and decided to stick it out. I reclined the seat of my rental Hyundai Veloster—a sporty little coupe that I should have declined in favor of a roomy SUV, in hindsight—and managed to score a legit four hours of sleep.
I woke up at 2 a.m., set up my cameras in a sizable crowd of enthusiasts, and to my endless surprise, the countdown continued without a hitch. Our crowd sat 15 miles away from launch pad 39A, so we couldn’t see the rocket on the pad, but when a gigantic bloom of yellow light filled the sky, we knew it was Falcon flying.
I’d been wanting to grab a long-exposure image of the rocket streaking across the sky. But I wasn’t quite expecting it to be as bright as it was, due to the haze, so my vision for that shot came to a screeching halt right out of the gate.
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Fortunately, I had a camera with a telephoto lens, and I focused on that. Besides, I mostly just wanted the experience. It did not disappoint. We were 15 miles away, so the noise didn’t reach us for a minute and 15 seconds after launch. A great, rumbling roar arrived—actually signifying the moment of ignition over a minute earlier—as the rocket accelerated toward space.
A few minutes later, the two boosters separated in this burst of color and smoke before starting well-aimed free falls back to landing pads at Kennedy. That became my best opportunity for special photos, and the nebula-like blooms proved stunning.
I remembered to take the camera away from my face and just appreciate the spectacle. It all transpired directly above our heads—incredible power and brilliantly orchestrated engineering.
Then it got even better: Watching these spent boosters, which SpaceX recycles for subsequent flights in order to keep costs down, return to their landing pads quickly became one of the best parts of the experience. They first looked like a pair of dim, falling stars amid the real stars behind them. Then they lit up their rockets again to slow their descent and control their landing. The precision was incredible, as though we were watching a cosmic game of lawn darts. Their rockets again filled the hazy sky with a yellow glow as they settled out of sights onto their respective pads.
Just like that, it was over. I didn’t have time right then to bask in the literal glow of otherworldly rocket science, so I grabbed my gear and made off for my car. I needed to sneak out under the traffic crush so I could make it to a 6 a.m. appointment at a defense contractor in West Palm Beach. As I was walking, the sound of the rockets’ ignition, which I forgot would be coming, caught up with me via a huge double-BLAM that set off all the car alarms in the area.
It was a brilliant coda to the overall fantastic bit of public theater that whole thing was—a thoroughly sci-fi experience anyone willing to make the effort and stick it out can relish for a lifetime. Good lord, that was great.