By Greg Hertel
5 4 3 2 1 and there is a bright flare of light from the base of the rocket and then the whole scene is obscured as the light grows and wipes out my night vision. It’s a yellow light as the rocket uses kerosene for fuel. Hydrogen would have been almost colorless, a pale blue, and the aluminum in a solid fuel booster like the old shuttles is a brilliant white light. This is an intense yellow and there is a palpable substance to it that can’t be seen in video The rocket lifts slowly but only for a second or two. Thrust builds quickly and there is a visible acceleration away from the launch pad. Because all you can see is the bright flame, there’s nothing to compare to and height above ground is deceiving. The rocket is moving quickly now, silent for the first 20 seconds. Suddenly the sound arrives and bellows around us. It’s loud at ignition and as the booster clears the ground and the full length of the exhaust plume is exposed to air it becomes so loud that even at four miles, conversation is impossible. It’s not a steady roar but consists of loud concussions on top of the roar.
The rocket is up many miles in a few seconds and soon the booster pulls away from the second stage and the booster begins its return, invisible because it drops with no motors burning. Stage two strikes a layer of rarefied atmosphere where the exhaust expands hugely at the base and makes the rocket look like its rising on a basket of light. When the second stage goes out, the sky is suddenly dark. The stage and payload coast up and hours later dock with the International Space Station. But back on the ground, we’re waiting for the booster landing!
Space X has pioneered the reusable booster and normally they land on a barge off the coast. This time, because of the winds kicking up too much wave action, the booster is going to land back at the Cape a little distance from the launch pad. The booster has been dropping like a stone for many minutes now. One of the Old Hands says, “Pretty soon. Look over the launch area about 20 degrees above the horizon.”
As if on cue, there is a sudden blaze of light as the booster starts to decelerate… QUICKLY! In the space of a maybe 10 seconds the booster goes from dropping at a thousand miles per hour to a gentle touchdown! The speed and precision of the landing are amazing. The booster lands just behind a line of trees so we don’t see the actual touchdown but there is a sudden absence of light as the black sky leaps back when the glare of the engines are cut off. The ship descends past the trees and the light just… goes… out!
That’s what you want to see.” says the Old Hand. “You don’t want to see a fireball rising above the trees.”
About ten seconds later the final event as a loud sonic boom slams the ground. It’s the classic double bang as the shock wave from each end of the rocket descending hit in quick succession. I’ve heard a few sonic booms in my life but none as loud as this.
It’s dark and quiet now as people take their gear down and start to file out. This was a stunning day for me. That inner 10-year-old who loved rockets was grinning (and still hasn’t stopped. Not only were the lights and thunder of the launch everything I’d hoped for, but the information I received was also fascinating. The International Space Station is a mature laboratory and being used for everything from the sublime to the common.
The multipart payload consisted of some deep science: growing artificial heart tissue in zero-G to commercial applications. Nike had an experiment trying new methods of manufacturing foam for the soles of their shoes that would cushion better. A major plumbing company was researching a better low flow showerhead while another experiment was investigating potential for growing green food in pods for long-duration trips to Mars. These same pods might also be sold to individuals to grow greens in apartments and tiny houses. All of these experiments paid for by the sponsoring companies.
Final thoughts. When a rocket launches, the difference between a controlled burn and an explosion is quite small. Actually watching it and feeling the power of the motor transmitted through the sound is awe-inspiring. This was only a cargo launch but soon there will be human passengers riding that column of flame into the sky and the stakes will be high but we’ve done this before. A hundred thousand years ago we started the Age of Fire and we left Africa for… Europe… Asia… the Americas. In 1961 a man named Yuri Gagarin took a trip into space and in 1969 we left earth and Neil Armstrong landed on another planet. This humble cargo launch that I watched was from the same launchpad that those Apollo rockets left from. We are still in the Age of Fire! This Falcon 9 was more powerful than those first small campfires in Africa but it was still fuel, oxygen, and heat. It took a long time to get here from Africa and there have been starts and stops along the way. We’ve made mistakes, gone backward and had to rediscover basic principals but we’ve come this far and I don’t think we’ll stop.
I came home just as the coronavirus was ramping up. My flight to SeaTac was only half full. In Orlando, where I spent my last few nights before my flight to Seattle, the resorts were starting to hollow out. Now, the virus is in full swing we are on pause, not just in our nation but around the world. This will pass through and we’ll continue to reach for the stars. We are a wandering race. We take risks and my hat’s off to those brave men and women who willingly ride that pillar of fire. It won’t be smooth. We will stumble sometimes. This virus is another small pause, but we’ll get by this and continue reaching up.
Well Plan B turned out to be far better than Plan A and I’d like to thank Mandi at the Journal for adopting me for this assignment. I met some fascinating people and had the time of my life. I hope to be there again next year as humans resume our journey from Cape Canaveral.