You should go see rocket launches


I don’t really believe in bucket list items. But if you’re into aviation a rocket launch should probably be on your list.

Just one second after ignition and the rocket hasn't moved. That will change significantly very soon.
Just one second after ignition and the rocket hasn’t moved. That will change significantly very soon.

You don’t get especially close to the event. Proximity is generally measured in miles. And you typically have to be very lucky for the number of miles to be in the single digits. It is still an incredible experience.



The problem with a launch is that it is over so quickly. With clear skies maybe you get 90 seconds of time with the rocket visible from ignition until it is too high and too far down range. In that context watching a live stream online might be the “better” choice. But, to me, that’s selling the overall experience short.

Iridium-8 clears the tower and accelerates towards space

You miss out on that initial moment where the rocket fuel is burning furiously and yet nothing appears to be happening. For a brief moment some 550 tons (for SpaceX Falcon 9, others will vary) floats just off the pad as though it is deciding whether to head into space or not. Of course it does, but there’s always that moment. And it is different in person than on video.

That shadow in the sky is not your imagination. It is the exhaust plume of the Iridium-8 SpaceX rocket.
That shadow in the sky is not your imagination. It is from the exhaust plume of the Iridium-8 SpaceX rocket as the sun rises over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

You miss out on the noise when watching a launch online. Some 30-40 seconds after ignition (or more, depending on how far from the site you end up) the roar of that massive energy release comes rolling across and it is deafening.



And you miss out on the camaraderie of joining others equally excited to be a part of something that is still incredibly special. SpaceX wants to make launches a regular occurrence. So does Blue Origin. And maybe they’ll get there eventually. I’m not betting on it given costs and limited demand. Either way, it remains a very special event today.

Sunrise as we await launch time for Iridium-8
Sunrise as we await launch time for Iridium-8

I’ve now been fortunate enough to attend launches at sunrise in California (this one), mid-afternoon in Florida (SpaceX/Inmarsat I-5 F4) and just after sunset in French Guiana (ViaSat-2/Eutelsat 172b on an Ariane 5). They were all spectacular in their own right. There’s no reason to claim a favorite when it is that much fun every time.

The exhaust plume of the SpaceX Falcon 9, shortly before it disappeared into the clouds and then into space.
The exhaust plume of the SpaceX Falcon 9, shortly before it disappeared into the clouds and then into space.

Just remember that uncertainty and flexibility are all part of the process. Rockets are still far more dependent on weather and other factors than planes. Delays happen and that’s part of the process. I almost bailed on this trip two different times because of the delays. I shuffled and rebooked (hooray, last minute saver-level award space!) and then rebooked again as flights were disrupted. But the payoff is incredible. I highly recommend it.

Huge thanks to the folks at the 30th Space Wing for their hospitality and to Iridium and SpaceX for letting me on the media list for the event.

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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.

7 Comments

  1. I was on a business trip to NASA in Huntsville, AL back in the 80’s and happened to be on-site the day they were test firing one space shuttle engine (shuttles had three of these on the vehicle).
    WOW!
    I was amazed at the power, and grinned from ear to ear watching the white plume of steam rice above the platform. The roar of the engine went through your body.
    One of the NASA people with me commented that it was actually not much, and that it was much more impressive watching one of the booster rockets test fired, albeit from much further away than we were to the test we witnessed.
    Still, made me feel very patriotic about the entire shuttle program.
    Literally an”awesome” experience!

  2. I used to go to a lot of launches, including Grail, Juno and STS-135. Well worth it, IF your trip and/or kids can accommodate the launch delays.

    As for the camaraderie, I’ve been to launches where I didn’t speak to another person. I’ve more often been to launches where I made new Facebook friends, got invited to dinner or generally just had a great time with other space nerds while waiting out delays. It is a very friendly community.

  3. Sounds like real fun. I’m absolutely intrigued after reading your post, Seth.

    Just trying to imagine how much exciting those 90 seconds would be when you see all this action with your naked eyes and senses. And from just a little distance of a few miles. Wow!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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