Falcon Heavy Part I: Vigil
I haven’t seen Cocoa Beach like this for some time. Checking in to the hotel, I had to stand in line. The concierge put me in a smaller room because they are nearly booked up. The wifi is being tested beyond design limits (so much that I’m writing this at Waffle House).
At any given time when I’m at the Cape, you can find me walking up to the pier. From a hotel, park, wherever. Those of you who follow my adventures on Facebook or Instagram know that I enjoy the view down the beach from up there; and walking barefoot in the shore to get that natural pedicure, wearing slacks to still arrive fully dressed. And that’s what I did this evening. Upon arrival, after the sun set below the condos lining the beach, I found a busy pier. From a single seat at the bar, I could hear people saying its name.
(back in Waffle House, two gents have just sat down and began strategizing their launch plan too)
The last time I heard strangers so abuzz about the same occurrence in any given place was during the eclipse in August. Everybody in the line of totality was there to see the same thing at the same time, and it was all that we talked about. We sat in the hotel common area, with friends and strangers alike, talking about it after dinner, and talked about it over breakfast the next day - how the weather was trending from different sources, where we should watch, rumors we've heard about traffic, cloud cover, fake solar glasses, viewing spots. An air of tense anticipation.
That’s what is happening here too. Not to ignore social media and internet news outlets, which are giving Falcon Heavy a larger space in the virtual newspaper. Ordering dinner at the pier, I began to wonder - why has this vehicle garnered so much attention? Why, for instance, is KSCVC charging people $200 to see the launch from the Apollo/Saturn V Center? I’m part of it as well, prepared to spend a few nights here in the middle of the week just to ‘be there’. Is it because two boosters are going to land? No, boosters return to the launch site somewhat regularly now (though not routinely), and hardly generate this much attention. Is it because this is a maiden flight? Perhaps that’s part of it, but not the whole reason. Is it because of the vehicle's power? Possibly, as its 22,821 kN of thrust makes Falcon Heavy the most powerful active launch vehicle, as well as the frequent (but untrue) statement that it is the most powerful vehicle since the Saturn V. Or, heaven forbid, is it because of that ridiculous Tesla that is sitting on top of it? That’s what one of the bartenders at the pier thinks. First car in Space!
Elon Musk has already proven himself as a businessman and marketer, but he has reached a whole new level in recent years with SpaceX and Tesla. Seemingly everyone knows who he is. If they don’t know who he is, they have heard the name Elon Musk. Those of us who follow Musk’s companies in more detail are wowed by what the companies have done, like rockets that come back and land vertically on retro-futuristic rocket-legs, or electric cars that are practical and actually fun. Most importantly, we are wowed by what Musk says these companies are going to do in the future. These days in our Space social media groups, Muskateers (note the spelling difference, term coined by moi) seem to view the man as being infallible, a visionary, a challenger. He does things not only because they are innovative and progressive, but because he can.
Why else would you put a Tesla in space? It markets both of your companies. Muskateers from all across the board unite for a once-only crossover episode that only airs once. A Twitter sensation! That’s how the layperson, the non-space geek, found out about it; and that is how it got us space geeks looking up the details of the vehicle, its payload capabilities, thrust, and two boosters which land simultaneously, launching from the historic Pad 39-A. Sure, if it weren’t for the Tesla, we would still be here; but maybe it would be more like a regular launch, when the audience is geeks, locals, and cruise-ship tourists who happened to be here.
The most important paragraph - None of this detracts from the importance of what SpaceX may accomplish tomorrow. In fact, the Tesla reins in the attention that every spaceflight deserves, even uncrewed flights like this one. Just because there are no people onboard doesn’t lessen the significance. Whether Musk is merely marketing his businesses or lighting fire in the eyes of a whole generation, he is turning heads; and that is a first step that both of those intentions share.
I ate my dinner and began walking back to the hotel. The tide was out. For some reason, I’m always here when the tide is in. It’s a strange synchronicity that perhaps I egg-on simply by knowing it. Either way, tonight is different. When the tide goes out here on the eastern seaboard, there is a large, flat, hard segment of sand between the water and the softer, looser sand near the dunes. In the daytime, this wet sand mirror is colored blue and white by the sky. Tonight, for the first time, I noticed the reflection of stars shining up from underneath me. Sirius, Canopus, Capella, and others. I was walking in space. It was very dark, and the faint smudge of Andromeda’s core was visible. Every moment or so, a brief flash of light from the Cape Canaveral lighthouse hit my periphery. In the distant horizon were the lights of ships. One ship is in just the right position so that its lights could only be seen by jumping in the air, allowing me to see just a bit farther out beyond the horizon. A cold breeze was on my back. By the time I reached the wooden bridge that took me to the street, the whole pier fit behind behind my thumb, like Earth from the Moon. It was more magical than usual. Then I walked into the hotel room and remembered there is basically no wifi.
So I drove out to SR-401, the south entrance to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, to have a vigil on this magical night, alone with the Falcon Heavy across the water. Even 20 kilometers away standing tall on Pad 39-A, it was absolutely bathed in those gorgeous Xenon lights. No one else was around yet, but they will start showing up in the morning. Through binoculars, fantastic features could be seen, in some ways better than daytime with vivid detail set against the shadow of the Earth. Even the rocket seemed to be sharing in that air of tense anticipation with us.
Having seen all I needed, I came back here and walked over to Waffle House, which is still open. And now I’m ordering hot water to take back to my room and make tea, before going to bed. For the launch tomorrow, I am extremely lucky to be at the turning basin at KSC!
STAY TUNED FOR PART II POST-LAUNCH
Images Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.