The glory of a rocket launch: Arianespace’s VA237 takes flight


A pre-launch tour of the site incldues a great view of the Ariane 5 rocket

A rocket launch event is a spectacle. It is highly orchestrated, with even the tiniest detail not left to chance. It is easy to assume that there is no variability in the process. Sitting at the Toucan observation platform in Kourou as a guest of Eutelsat and Arianespace some 5 kilometers away from an Ariane 5 rocket a few weeks back (and that’s about as close as one gets anywhere in the world) while watching live and simulcast on TV in multiple languages it was easy to forget just how special such an event is, particularly as launches are more frequent and more reliable than ever.

And, yet.

With that first hint of orange light peeking out the launch transforms from theoretical to real
With that first hint of orange light peeking out the launch transforms from theoretical to real

Something magical happens the moment the clock hits zero. It is visible, of course, especially during a night launch. The dark horizon comes alive with light and steam billows out. All that energy is released but nothing appears to move. For one incredibly brief moment there’s a question of whether any of it is really happening at all; time appears to have slowed down to almost a standstill. And then, just as quickly as things slowed, they pick up again with gusto.

In the first few seconds after ignition the engine releases a blinding amount of light as the Ariane 5 rocket begins to move towards the sky

Five seconds after ignition the rocket clears the tower. It is lumbering, not racing, skyward. But it is moving and the power of the engines becomes abundantly clear.

The launch pad is bathed in the bright light of the Ariane 5 engine. Soon the whole sky will see a similar effect.
The launch pad is bathed in the bright light of the Ariane 5 engine. Soon the whole sky will see a similar effect.

Just 30 seconds into the flight sequence it is no longer the horizon that has turned from night into day. The entire sky is aglow with light from the engines lifting 10,000kg of satellite cargo (and far more than that in fuel and rocket weight) into orbit, now traveling spectacularly quickly.

A literal fireball ascending through the sky, the Ariane 5 rocket lights up the Toucan viewing platform and the rest of the Arianespace facility in Kourou, French Guiana
A literal fireball ascending through the sky, the Ariane 5 rocket lights up the Toucan viewing platform and the rest of the Arianespace facility in Kourou, French Guiana

Right around now is also when the noise changes. Conversations pause at ignition and there are cheers as the rocket leaves the ground (this is different at the viewing platform; inside the control center there is no celebration until all satellites are confirmed successfully separated from the rocket). And then mostly quiet as everyone watches the rocket arc across the sky. But rockets are anything but quiet. They are incredibly loud and it is only because you are 3+ miles away that the noise is not immediately upon you. But when it arrives it does so in a most impressive manner. A low rumble builds to a roar as it rolls across the viewing platform, drowning out conversations and reminding everyone that, although the rocket is now above the clouds and no longer directly visible, it remains the focus of the event.

With the right mix of clouds and sky the lighting impact of the Ariane 5 rocket one minute after ignition is incredible.
With the right mix of clouds and sky the lighting impact of the Ariane 5 rocket one minute after ignition is incredible.

From here the event converts to a mix of checking out photos and videos and awaiting word from the operations center that the satellite separation is successful. And then the return to the hotel where the celebrations begin. I can confirm that some video exists from said celebrations. I fear that other video I’m less aware of may also exist. But completely worth it.

More from this trip:

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing!
    Must have been great experience witnessing a rocket launch. Not quite Apollo but must still have been amazing.
    Regards, Alastair Majury

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