A Writer Describes a Falcon Heavy Night Launch
The first ever night launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket occurred in Space Coast last night from NASA Kennedy at 02:30 EDT. Carrying the STP-2 payload, SpaceX successfully delivered 24 satellites to space, including The Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 mission, other scientific payloads, military payloads, and the cremated remains of customers of Celestis Memorial Spaceflights, including those of Skylab astronaut Bill Pogue. SpaceX frontman Elon Musk named STP-2 as the most challenging mission they have flown, with a complex satellite deployment taking place over the course of several hours.
It was successful in all areas but one: the company still has yet to successfully retrieve a Falcon Heavy center booster on its droneship, parked hundreds of kilometers offshore in the Atlantic, with last night’s booster hitting the water at speed. However, this aspect of the mission has no effect on the successful deployment of customer payloads to space. Making up for the center booster crash landing is the first ever controlled retrieval of a rocket’s payload fairing. Once the vehicle reaches the vacuum of space, it is no longer needed and jettisoned overboard. Instead of crashing into the ocean, however, SpaceX successfully positioned a ship with massive netting in just the right place to catch it. More and more of the Falcon class rocket is becoming reusable.
By way of the scientific, military, and engineering goals, as well as the cost and resource saving aspects of reusability, SpaceX created a profound and impactful experience. Even with this being the third Falcon Heavy, the flight remained exciting, and stood out even more without distraction. Instead of listening to the launch chatter and livestream, counting down with the clock, and cheering with friends, I decided on a more cerebral experience, and witnessed the pure events as they happened in front of my eyes, with little other sensory input. If there were ever to be a launch that “wowed,” this would be it.
I watched the launch and landings from Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral, 22km from the launchpad and just 9km from the landing zones. Being staggeringly close to the landings was a new experience, having seen the previous Falcon Heavys on-center, as well as the nighttime departure a powerful liquid-fuelled rocket with a relatively closer thrust/weight ratio. Anyone who has enjoyed Florida’s coast knows of the wooden boardwalks that connect the street and the beach, crossing over the mangroves, palmettos, and dunes. I was stood on one of these, with the Atlantic to my right and Jetty Park to my left. From start to finish, the launch and landings take 10 minutes.
Here is the story.
Imagine yourself immersed in the dark night, with the Moon, golden, rising over the sea, and Jupiter above you, bright as can be. The crickets are chirping, the air is warm, still, and humid, and you’re alone, no one else around. It’s a peaceful night in Space Coast.
Your watch hits 2:30 AM, and in the northern distance, a coral-orange glow begins to illuminate the sky, expanding concentrically around a single point. Is it sunrise? No. Is it dangerous? Hopefully not. Whatever is happening, its unnaturalness is evident when the glow rises up above the palmettos and trees.
A bright flame hits your eyes before they adjust, giving you afterimage spots with each blink. The rocket slowly moves straight-up, almost as if deciding which way to go. Building speed, it makes up its mind, heading out over the Atlantic with a confident parabolic trajectory. Up and away! The flame trail sputters, quickly flickering red, orange, and yellow at different lengths and speeds. Altogether, though, the force is steady and unstoppable. The raw, unapologetic sheer power of humanity’s creation makes you feel so small, and yet so big as well. You look through binoculars and see the shape of the same rocket that stood on Pad 39-A all day and night.
A dull roar comes through the brightened shadow of the Earth, at first like wind rushing by your ears; but it grows steadily, just as the light grew, and the rocket rose. The roar becomes not just sound, but feeling, rumbling through you and going all around you. The relentless, gurgling, bass supernaturally silences the crickets, the push and pull of the ocean, and the distant sounds of civilization; or is the bass so loud the rest is drowned out? As the rocket reaches the upper atmosphere, the flame trail reaches backwards, diversifying in color, adding gold, lavender, a smidgen of cyan. It becomes kilometers long, meeting less and less resistance from Earth.
The event changes with a little flash, and then there are three lights moving away from one another: two out to either side, and one pushing onward. The two lights are about to tumble end-over-end as a gaseous haze forms around them, and around the exhaust of the center booster continuing up and away. The cloud, too, steadily grows. You’ve never seen anything like this in your life. Its pale gold and deep purple tendrils dance, conjoin, separate. Between the pathways of the tendrils is a peaceful, ethereal nebulous white cloud. The exhaust of the continuing booster is a dahlia in the sky - its petals erupting from the Merlin engines on Falcon Heavy’s core stage. This is no still image, however. It is dynamic, excellent, and gentle. You find yourself mouthing repetitiously and meditatively: “Oh my God… oh my God…” It’s euphoric.
The scene normalizes, with the lights fading out of view. Up in the sky, you see a fixed, flashing green and red light. A helicopter was out there watching the whole time, probably official business within the range. Soon after, two bright lights appear in the sky, but just for a moment. Those boosters aren’t done yet. The 14-storey tall rockets are still in the sky, falling to Earth.
As you wait, adrenaline builds. This is another new experience - just 9km from a dual booster landing. Presently, one bright light descends into the humidity. Seconds later, the other bright light follows ardently. The boosters fall to Earth with rapidity. If you blink, you might miss. Where is the gurgling bassy roar? The lights get slower and slower, going beneath the horizon at an honest and respectable rate, and then darkness.
Just another blink or two, and then “BOOM-Boom-boom! — BOOM-Boom-boom!” An invisible punch of air hits you frontally with each of the six explosive events. Your hair is jolted in place. You come to attention, tensing up and eyes shuttering instinctively. The roar of the decelerating rockets finally descends, again steadily, blasting back into the spaceport from which they departed just minutes ago. You actually leap in the air, pacing back and forth with your hands over your face. The sound-quelling bass fades out to the sound of car alarms.
The past 10 minutes were something to behold. Curiosity, then amazement, followed by awe, euphoria, peace, a pure jolt, and finally, exuberance. They all happened in the time it takes to stop for a cup of coffee. Then, oddly, everything in the sky, on the ground, and in nature goes back to the way it was before.
Everyone seemed to agree that the sonic booms tonight, a regular occurrence at SpaceX landings at the Cape, were louder than ever, and that the atmospheric effect at staging was larger and more complex. Tuning back into the world again, I learned the center booster didn’t make it. Learning about the seaborne destruction of an object I’d just witnessed flying away was immediately counterintuitive - as was the thought that the payload was in orbiting Earth, about to reach the coast of Africa. In 90 minutes, it would fly over us again, having completed its first lap.
Over the course of the several hours ahead, 24 different satellites would be deployed. The mission doesn’t end with the launch; and the launch is not for the spectators. There is serious work being done in spaceflight, and the most important kind, the one that actually matters, is the peaceful scientific exploration.
Special thanks to Spaceflight Now for its absolutely invaluable and consistently quality reporting.
Information about Celestis and astronaut Bill Pogue’s memorial.
Cover Image - Falcon Heavy STP-2 about to rise above the dunes. An early sunrise in Space Coast.