As a relatively new resident of Florida’s Space Coast, I have learned several important facts about living at the edge of space:
1. Rockets make our house shake.
2. Most residents don’t pay attention to rocket launches unless they have family in town or might have to worry about traffic jams after the launch.
3. Always set an alarm to see a launch at daybreak. It’s worth it.
John’s dad Jim was in the blockhouse the day of the first Atlas rocket launch in 1957. He may be the last man who remembers the experience. With his dad always at the Cape while he was growing up, John is a native to this strange intersection of Earth and the orbits above it.
John grew up in a place where rocketships were normal, where dad came home and joked about what the astronauts were up to, where the population waxed and waned as government programs and priorities changed over the years, and where “working space” was a career, not an office.
Meanwhile, I was a thousand miles away, Dreaming of Jeanne and watching the Jetsons, wondering when the hours of spaceflight and moon walks on television would end and my favorite shows would be back on, and when we’d finally establish a colony on the moon once we planted a flag up there.
John went to work at Kennedy Space Center in 1978, just in time to be the youngest on the team working to get the place ready for the first Space Shuttle. It’s his story, so I leave it to him to share anecdotes, but this I know: it was a job where things had to be done right and people had to follow through on their commitments. To this day, he remains puzzled that the rest of the working world isn’t like that.
When we first met and he kept referring to “shuttle,” I thought he meant a shuttle bus or airport shuttle. Imagine my surprise, the gal who wanted to go to space when she was a kid, whose earliest memory of checking out a library book was “Space Cat Goes to Venus,” who consumed science fiction before it was labeled sci-fi, to find out he meant Space Shuttle. And then to meet his dad, too. Between them, their working knowledge of the manned space program is pretty incredible.
Since he participated in so many Shuttle launches, John doesn’t wake up at crazy hours like I do to watch the rocket launches. In fact, he can sleep right through them and never notice. I know the rockets of today aren’t as showy as the Shuttle launches were; I only saw a few of those in person, all from a distance, not standing at the VAB as John often did.
But when SpaceX brought back the boosters to KSC in 2016 and we saw them land over the horizon, followed by a double sonic boom, even John was impressed by that.
My advice? If SpaceX or ULA say they are launching just before sunrise, no matter where they are launching from, don’t miss it. The rocket’s red glare, the backdrop of nascent sunrise, and those early rays of the sun illuminating the gas cloud to create a UFO-like “cosmic jellyfish” are phenomena that you just don’t experience every day.
Here’s a step by step of how it played out on June 29th, in the span of eight minutes. I was shooting with my iPhone. Had I known what was going to happen, I’d have had my Nikon out there on a tripod.
Watch a Rocket Lanch
I took the above photos of the SpaceX daybreak launch from our backyard. Other than our neighbors and friends across the region, most people in the world can’t do that as most launch sites aren’t near heavily populated areas. The next best thing is planning a trip here to the Space Coast to see a launch. Launches do slip (although SpaceX has a pretty good track record) due to problems on the pad and changes in weather forecasts. To plan your visit to the Space Coast, check out Florida’s Space Coast website.
We are blessed with an abundance of waterfront parks along US 1, from the Titusville marina south to Port St. John. All of these are popular (and free) places to watch a launch, as is Port Canaveral, especially along the 528 causeway or on the beach at Jetty Park. At Canaveral National Seashore, Playalinda Beach is about the closest you can get to the launch pads that SpaceX uses. A National Parks pass or $10 per vehicle admission fee is required, and they are only open during their normal hours (usually 6-6 or 6-7).
You can also be up close and personal to a launch by paying for the privilege whenever Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center offers a place to do so, with shuttle buses to take you there and back.
Keep Up with Rocket Launches
I have an app called Space Launch Schedule on my phone that lets me keep track of what’s coming up next, because there’s nothing like being surprised when the windows of your house start rattling. What’s nice is it also shows launches going on at locations other than the Space Coast.
Of course, you can follow along with the SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) websites once they have live feeds going on. Locally, Florida Today has an app called 321 Launch. My old phone was too old for its gee-whiz features like augmented reality, so I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.