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Mission STP-2: My Trip to View the Third Launch of SpaceX’s Monster Falcon Heavy Rocket

You’ll have read the press release and seen the professional photos. Well, this is my experience of SpaceX’s STP-2 Falcon Heavy launch in late June 2019 – a personal pilgrimage for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

 

On July 16th 1969, when I was nearly six, I watched Apollo 11 launched from LC-39A at Cape Canaveral on a small black-and-white TV set. Ever since, I’ve wanted to see a big rocket launch. One of those things I kept promising myself, but never quite got around to. Annoyingly, an old friend got to watch a Shuttle launch without even trying – he just happened to be in Florida on a family holiday at the time. Then the Shuttle program ended and it seemed like I’d permanently missed the boat. I would have to make do with seeing a much smaller rocket fire-up someday, an Atlas or Delta or Falcon 9 maybe.

Fast forward to February 2018 and suddenly it seemed like the debut of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (another big liquid-fuelled rocket at last) might actually happen. A big show was promised if it did – not as much fire and thunder as a Saturn V, but getting there with 27 Merlin engines all spewing fire at once. As the final days counted down, I dithered, wanting to go but sure it would be scrubbed and delayed yet again.

Scrubs are trouble for foreign tourists like me: weeks of postponement and a wasted trip. Still, on the Sunday before launch, my bag was packed, my ESTA done, all the bookings – trains, flights, hotels, rental car – lined up in a stack of windows on my PC. A few clicks were literally all I needed to do to make it happen. Still I dithered. The last possible hour to travel passed and I heard the train leave my local station. I discovered almost by default that I wasn’t going – maybe too afraid I’d spend big only to end up twiddling my thumbs in a Florida motel.

Of course, inevitably, FH debuted on cue and what a triumph it was, a big liquid fuelled rocket that channelled the Saturn V like nothing really had for fifty years. I was furious with myself for not going; even I didn’t really know why I’d failed to launch, unlike FH.

***

The next Falcon Heavy launch was cursed by expensive trans-Atlantic flights, but when the 21st of June 2019 rolled around, when Falcon Heavy looked set to fly again a few days later and there were flights going for cheap, I booked with just 48 hours to go until launch.

Then, due to travel down to London for my flight and with an hour to go, the dreaded word ‘cancelled’ appeared in scarlet next to my train in the app. Panic ensued. My phone wasn’t charged and I wasn’t ready, but I just managed to run out and down to our little rural station for the earlier train instead.

I got to London, had a meal with my daughter and walked across a sunlit and lovely Green Park to Victoria station for the train to Gatwick. My trip was on, but it all seemed surreal somehow. I kept checking the SpaceX website and Twitter feed, expecting a scrub. Tantalisingly, it still kept showing as 23:30 on the 24th June. So I decided to splash out on a Kennedy Space Centre viewing package – the cheaper ‘Feel the Fun’ option, because the full-fat ‘Feel the Heat’ package was long sold-out. I somehow managed to book it on my phone from a packed departure lounge, hoping they’d accept a digital ticket (the website doesn’t say so, but they do).

***

Things went smoothly enough until next morning, when I woke jetlagged and early in my motel on Orlando’s tropically leafy International Drive. I imagined packed pre-launch roads and parking lots full and angry, so I set off for Kennedy Space Center straightaway.

In reality, Highway 528, the toll-road to the coast, was empty and I got across the causeway onto Merritt Island – the barrier island which hosts the Kennedy Space Centre and a large wildlife reserve - well before the visitor centre opened for the day. They ushered me past the usual $10 parking-fee booths – free parking for launch day! Most of the other cars already parked displayed permits that showed they were dropping off children at the Astronaut Training Experience, one of KSCVC’s more expensive optional extras. I was able to park right at the front, great for access to my car during the long, long wait ahead; not so good when it came time to leave again.

Overhead, the sky was clear and cloudless. The air was already hot and getting hotter. I milled about, waiting for the gates to open. Even so, a huge queue had formed at the entrance gates before I could join it. Overhead were big blue letters that spelled ‘E X P L O R E’ and beyond were the missiles of the rocket garden. I got to know that sign all too well over the next 21 hours.

I spent the day at the Kennedy Space Centre. I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough to fill the time, but the day flew past. I did indeed explore: The Rocket Garden with its Atlas and Redstone and Saturn 1 and giant F-1 engine; the Hall of Fame and its original Gemini and Mercury capsules; Atlantis, displayed in its own building as if in flight with cargo bay open and arm deployed. I spent a lot of time in ‘the World’s largest’ space-themed gift shop, for it had the strongest aircon’ on site. Even so, most of what’s on offer at Kennedy isn’t at the visitor center at all: to see it, you need a bus tour because the launch complexes, the Vertical Assembly Building and even the Apollo displays are all off-limits to private cars.

The basic free bus tour is a quick 45-minute whip-around with no stops and there’s often a long hot wait. But I managed to book onto the extended ‘Explore’ tour instead. It was my best decision of Launch Day and not just because I avoided the sweltering queue. The reason? The ‘Explore’ tour gave me an unexpected and close-up view of Falcon Heavy, already out at launch complex 39A, that the ordinary tour missed out.

The usual road that leads right past LC-39A, the old Apollo launch complex now used by SpaceX, was disappointingly closed off by a Police SUV with lights flashing. But the Explore tour stops off at a location the basic tours miss out – a tracking camera station set high above the beach and smack between Launch Complexes 38 and 39A. Up the steps to the camera platform brought incredible views of Falcon Heavy, already erected on the pad at LC-39A and waiting by SpaceX’s newly-renovated black service tower with its new 2001-inspired astronaut gantry.

Through my trusty 10x42 Nikon SE binos, I was able to get a startlingly close-up view of the still-sooty side boosters, the mission logos, the hold-down clamps and the strongback. Falcon Heavy looked ready to go. A guy on the tour borrowed my binos and showed me a selfie taken by a friend of his, right next to the rocket! The lucky friend, he explained, having helped engineer one of the STP-2 satellites had been given special access.

Getting back in the bus, I realised they weren’t counting us back in as they were supposed to. I was overcome with the temptation to hide out right there at the tracking camera to wait and view the launch from close by. The actual launch, seen from eight times as far away, would bring home a chastening reality – never mind having to survive outside for fifteen hours in hundred-degree temperatures, I would have been injured or worse by the heat and/or shock waves from those 27 Merlin engines developing five million pounds of thrust (65% of a Saturn V). All those dramatic press photos are captured by remote cameras for a reason. At just less than 1.5 Km from the tracking camera platform, FH looked a safe distance away; but that’s an illusion.

My tour ended at the Apollo building, where they have a complete Saturn V among other fascinating displays. On the lawn in front, overlooking Banana Creek, were bleachers set up to give by far the best and closest views of the launch that night. Sadly, all those expensive seats had sold out for me, so I stood by them and looked longingly out at Falcon Heavy and tried to imagine what the launch might be like from here just six miles from ground zero at LC-39A (in fact, the theoretical closest you can get is only three miles – a figure derived from the Saturn V days when someone calculated that was the minimum if the rocket exploded).

Kennedy Space Centre early on launch day before the crowds

Atlas-Mercury and the Moon from KSVC on STP-2 launch day

Falcon Heavy from the tracking camera platform, a few hours before launch

Tracking camera, setup and ready for the launch, between LC-38 and LC-39A

Road to LC-39A – closed for launch!

My own launch package was for viewing from a set of permanent bleachers set up on the lawn behind the new Atlantis building, in an area closed from general access: no nearer than the free (with an entrance ticket for the visitor center) viewing from the Rocket Garden lawn, but with a better low-down view and with food and activities included.

My ticket said 19:30, so after an hour of phone-charging at my car, I headed back in and queued by entrance to the ‘Feel the Fun’ area. The queue turned out to be a long one. Sitting on concrete in line, listening to the loop of triumphant music from the Atlantis building got old fast. The trouble was a crash out on the causeway that delayed the caterers.

The wait was finally over and we filed in, each given a wrist band for re-entry (no pun intended) and another for the free photo and food, along with the promised gift – a NASA alloy water bottle.

The catering and organisation were frankly better than I expected. Soft drinks were free all night and the food – beef or veggie chilli with all the trappings – was really excellent. The food was served in a permanent marquee and tables were provided for eating, lit with balloon lanterns.

Afterwards, everyone began to fill the bleachers and the astro-turf lawn between; many had brought their own picnics, seats and mats; I felt a bit low-rent with just my camera. Strangely, though, few had thought to bring binoculars.

As darkness fell, the mosquitos started their free meal and I wished I’d bought repellent. We waited and a DJ started playing all the obvious hits – Rocket Man, Life on Mars etc – followed by some very incongruous line dancing. Next to the food marquee meanwhile, they’d laid on some games for the kids.

We’d need the entertainment, because at nine, with just an easy-seeming two hours to go, the DJ announced a delay until at least two thirty am. Ouch! I fully expected the delay to turn into a scrub, so I went to hang listlessly out in the cool of the gift shop and then went back for a sleep in my car. I reckoned the disappointed crowds leaving would wake me if they called the launch off meanwhile.

***

When my alarm woke me again at one twenty, the KSCVC was transformed. Crowds were milling around excitedly outside the entrance. The previously-dark giant countdown clock was now announcing one hour and nine minutes to go in blazing two-metre numerals. Inside, the crowds at the rocket garden and the launch-package bleachers were heaving and expectant.

Miraculously, they hadn’t scrubbed after all, even if the DJ kept warning they still might and not to blame him if they did (it seemed he’d unfairly had lots of hassle after previous scrubs). At thirty minutes to go they started to broadcast SpaceX live on big screens and the excitement reached fever pitch. So many tired and excited people were wandering about it was hard to find anywhere safe to setup my camera tripod.

The countdown continued and the DJ tried to tell us, above the rising hubbub, where to look. He warned us that we might well be inclined to ‘say a bad word’ when Falcon Heavy appeared over the trees, but to resist for the sake of the children. At T-10, we all counted down together. Then there was a moment when no one moved, no one breathed and all was dark.

Then, above the hedge, a giant ball of light flickered soundlessly and grew until it lit up half the sky with an eerie yellow glow, how I imagine a nuke. When Falcon Heavy finally appeared, it was just a plume of dazzling flame in the darkness, flickering yellow down into burning blue. I tried looking through my binos, but flinched away dazzled – FH was still much too close, too bright and hot for that. Still it was completely quiet, the shock waves of launch still whizzing across the miles of Merritt Island towards us.

When the noise came, it started with a rumble as the 27 engines gradually fired up in sequence, then built as the rocket cleared the pad and the engines built to full power. It hit as a rock-concert-loud assault, both heard and felt. Sure enough, I said that bad word. Sorry kids.

The sound is hard to describe. I expected a simple roar like a jet engine, but it had a tortured, distorted character, the battering sound waves crackling with a staccato chain-saw rip. It was then that I realised just how overwhelming it would have been from less than a mile away, out at the tracking camera - perhaps unendurable without somewhere solid to take shelter.

As Falcon Heavy climbed, the noise hardly abated, but it became watchable through binoculars, until the engines vanished to a single star burning through the exhaust haze and flame. Main engine cutoff came and two new stars – the still-burning side boosters - separated from the central one in extraordinary swirls of coloured gas that looked just like a nebula.

Then came a strange and wonderful sight through my binos. The bright star of the centre stage engines became the centre of a slowly expanding, perfect giant umbrella of incandescent gases, the umbrella’s ‘ribs’ flowing away like jets in a fountain (see photo below). I could see why this effect is frequently mistaken for a UFO. There were ‘oohs’ and ‘awes’ from all around.

I saw the brief flare of the boosters’ re-entry burn. Then it went dark; for what seemed ages. When the landing burns of the returning side boosters began, they lit up the sky again, on the south side above the Atlantis building this time, disappearing behind the trees. The roar reached us just as they landed. Everyone cheered. The yellow light flickered dramatically as the boosters touched down unseen below our horizon. People cheered again and clapped; then it went dark and quiet. Launch over.

That was it. Conversation resumed, some people started to pack up, others left.

BANG-BANG!

BANG-BANG!

Four duck-and-cover-inducingly loud retorts like some monster canon echoed through the night: the sonic booms of the returning boosters had reached us at last. Some said it was the most dramatic moment of all, a final act of high drama even Apollo couldn’t have staged.

Only then did I realise that it was 3 am and not only did I have to survive a long and exhausting traffic jam to get back to my bed in Orlando, fully 24 hours after I’d left it. Worse, my camera had malfunctioned, my exposures much too short and the results poor. Still, I had the memories, and what memories they are!

My meagre photos of the launch follow. Camera problems meant my long-exposure launch shot didn’t happen.

Giant KSCVC countdown clock

Crowds gather, SpaceX livecast starts …

STP-2 steams on the big screen

T-0: FH is below the horizon, lights up the Florida night

Launch arc

Incredible tracking camera shot – from SpaceX Twitter feed – shows the ‘nebula’ of gases from the separating boosters, just as I saw it through binoculars

Boostback burn beyond the pines at the KSVC Atlantis Building

Do I have regrets? A few. I wished I’d booked earlier and got even closer, onto the bleachers at Banana Creek from where I’d have seen the start of the launch, which I missed below the horizon from the visitor centre; I hope to do that sometime. I wished I hadn’t bothered with my malfunctioning camera at all, just as the DJ had wisely advised. I wished I had positioned myself high on one of the bleachers with a better view to the south and the landing boosters. Overall though, it was an incredible experience, even if, like my first eclipse two years before, it left me like a junkie wanting more …

Summary: you don’t need me to tell you that a big launch is a true bucket list experience for any space enthusiast!