I was lucky to attend the first launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral on February 6th, 2018. I have a yearly membership at the Kennedy Space Center, so I get early notification of ticket sales for viewing launches. I got a notification email at 8am, and bought tickets for the “Feel the heat” viewing area immediately. I flew down to Florida the day before the launch, then got up at 6am to drive to Kennedy Space Center.
The line-ups started as soon as I left highway I-95. I was immediately stuck in a large traffic jam, all the way to Kennedy. There was a pretty big line to get into Kennedy, then once within there was a huge, really poorly managed lineup to get on the buses that take you to the “Feel the heat” viewing stands. This long lineup took about 2-3 hours to get through. Really not well planned at all.
The bus to the “Feel the heat” viewing stands took a long route – this was planned to limit crowds – stopping at the Space Shuttle landing runway, a display of an airplane and a helicopter, and finally arriving at the Saturn V display building at about 11:30am. They were serving lunch – but there were only dregs available when I arrived. Hot-plate after hot-plate of empty food.
The launch was due to occur at 1:30pm, but was delayed due to high altitude winds. The launch was repeatedly delayed throughout the afternoon, leading up to a final launch time set for 3:45pm. This meant hours of waiting at the viewing stands. I found an area with some shade (right by a rest room!, and waited there in a folding chair I had bought the day before)
Finally, the countdown went under the 2 hour mark, then 1 hour, and crept closer to zero. I found a seat in an empty section of the viewing stands, in the first row, right in the center of the whole viewing area. The stands were not crowded – plenty of space to find seats, right up to launch.
And then, we were in the final minutes, then seconds until launch. And the clock counted down from 10, 9, 8… Around 6 seconds, we could see a huge cascade of water flowing down to the launch pad. The water is used to cushion the blow, and absorb vibrations. At T-3 the main engines ignited, and huge clouds of billowing white steam could be seen. It seemed like forever, but then, at T-0, the clamps released, and the rocket started to rise. It was a tense moment, because I have seen many launches aborted, even up to this point, but then the rocket started to rise. And it cleared the tower, and kept going. It was incredibly bright. It almost hurt my eyes. But, you can’t look away. The rocket rose, quickly, accelerating, and before long was in the clouds, then behind the clouds. It even disappeared for a while, behind a dense cloud, but then broke free, and continued upwards.
It takes a long time for the sound to cross the 4 miles to the viewing area, but then it does, when the rocket is surprisingly high in its climb. The sound is subtle at first, and then builds into an unearthly sound of shear power. A strong low frequency rumble, and a crackling roar combine into a sound of power. What can only be described as incredible power. And, you feel it. A rumbling in your chest, shaking your very core.
After a few minutes, the side-cores separated from the central core, then boosted back towards the cape. The two flames were easily visible in the bright sky, though hundreds of miles away. And then the side cores disappeared, invisible to the naked eye when there is no flame.
Some time later, the side cores were visible again, as they did their re-entry burn, and then they disappeared again, into the blue sky. And then an exclamation from the crowd of 3000 viewers, and then following hundreds of pointing hands, the side boosters were visible again, plummeting from the sky at 1700 miles per hour. We were lucky to see them falling like that. As they approach the earth, at a surprisingly low altitude, they begin their final landing burn, visible as one, then two points of light. In an extremely lucky coincidence, I happened to be sitting at one of the few seats that had a clear view between the Vehicle Assembly Building, and a building to it’s left, of the two landing zones. The side cores, with engines firing, landed exactly between the two buildings, and touched down.
It’s after they land that you hear the sonic booms – 3 per core, and then you hear the roar of the landing burns. Spectacular. The landing is as amazing as the launch. SpaceX has created a very impressive launch system.
After this excitement, people begin to gather their belongings and head off. They’re serving Champagne behind the stands, and are very picky about one ticket per drink. I just headed back to the Saturn V building, and got into the lineup within the building, under the enormous Saturn V rocket. Another 45 minute lineup to get on a bus, and head back to Kennedy Space Center. And then line ups to get to the car, and out of the lot, and lineups all the way out to I-95 and back home.
Here are some photos I took – not great, but they set the scene. I wanted to experience the launch more than photograph it, so the photos are secondary to me. I also recorded a video of the launch with my iPhone – I’ll upload that soon. [Read more…]