I’ll be honest. The title of this blog is just an excuse to use a palindrome. Very few would consider a Tesla Roadster an actual racecar. It’s squarely in the sports car realm, but nowhere near racing at Daytona or Indy. Since I’m being honest, I have to confess that this isn’t my first go at writing this blog. Hours of thinking and a couple of drafts have brought me to a point I’m practically blocked. The Falcon Heavy launch is a lot to consider when you try to wrap your mind around it. I settled on the idea that I wouldn’t be able to recap everything into one entry, and thought it best to first describe the experience.
I’ve followed SpaceX for the better part of their existence, from multiple launch failures out in the Pacific Islands, to their first successful Falcon launch, to some landings – and RUDs (rapid unscheduled disassembly) -aboard Of Course I Still Love You, the autonomous drone ship. Witnessing the launch of Falcon Heavy and the remarkable tandem landing of two first stage rocket cores was a once in a lifetime experience for me.
I’ll skip over the 8 hours of waiting: waiting to get into the park, waiting to get to the viewing site, and waiting for the launch delays due to high upper-level winds. Suffice to say, we waited a while, although there was always an excitement in the air that made it bearable. I imagine it is a lot like the audition portion of American Idol, only for nerds. They kept us fed, and we received some sweet SpaceX swag to keep us happy in the interim.
Our launch viewing area was from a spectacular vantage point at the Saturn V/Apollo museum on Kennedy Space Center (KSC). KSC was great! During the wait, I was able to explore artifacts from multiple Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury missions – including space suits worn by Jim Lovell (who apparently prefers you don’t refer to him as Tom Hanks) and Alan Sheppard.
Also in this museum is one of three surviving Saturn V rockets. The Saturn V probably deserves its own blog post. It is impressive beyond belief. I put it up there with aircraft carriers as things I can’t believe that man can build.
The museum, along with some great food and beverages provided by KSC, was enough to keep us from being too stir-crazy. The time leading up to launch made it clear that I was one of the amateurs here. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment adorned the site, and people were discussing periapsis, Hohmann transfers, and all kinds of other orbital dynamics factors. My thoughts included, “So if this thing explodes, what are the chances I can catch a piece of the spaceship?” and, “No seriously, will this thing hit us?” While our seats were great, they were clearly intended to be in the safe zone. In fact, I didn’t bother taking any video of the launch because I knew the professional cameras would all do a much better job, and it would allow me to live the moment.
Also, to keep us entertained, there was a fabulous presentation about the Planetary Society from Bill Nye, The Science Guy.
It’s hard to explain how the launch felt to an observer. In the moments leading up to ignition, everyone in the audience was in a borderline euphoria over what was taking place. Once the final ten-second clock started, we were practically screaming the countdown. At zero, the rocket ignited. The white steam cloud at ignition was massive and erupted from underneath the rocket. Although flames started right at zero, it seemed forever before the spacecraft began moving vertically. Once it did though, it was gone!
A few seconds after Falcon Heavy cleared the tower, the sound wave of the ignition hit us. The wave’s force something even a studio with the best equipment cannot reproduce. It was loud, for sure, but not make your ears bleed loud. I was comfortable without hearing protection. The volume was comparable to a rock concert. The percussion, however, was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. You could genuinely feel your lungs and stomach vibrating. Moments before the launch, we received an important message that we needed to move “at least 20 feet away” from the Saturn V center. The warning was because KSC was unsure what the shock wave would do to this building, made with a significant amount of glass. The glass windows on the Saturn Center shook to the point it seemed inevitable they would break.
And like that, the rocket was off. We watched it as long as we could, and as intently as we could, but the moment passed by so fast it seemed like it almost didn’t happen Quickly, the side rockets were peeling off and doing their flip to return to KSC. We could see these burns and then the rockets falling out of the sky like grains of sand. From our vantage point, we also had a live stream of the SpaceX feed. In real life, it looked even more identical than on TV. At one point, I believed the feed was just showing the same image twice since several of the thrust corrections seemed to be perfectly synched.
By the time the landing burn arrived, every person was on their feet to watch. Interestingly, the rocket that was slightly further from us took just a moment longer to ignite for the landing burn. It seemed to me, in that instant, that one of these rockets wouldn’t be coming down softly. Unfortunately, a building between our vantage point and the landing zone obscured our view slightly. We all saw the same image as you, but the euphoria was unique. Just after landing, the sonic shockwaves from the re-entry reached us. The set of six booms – think Back to the Future – were loud and seemed like celebratory fireworks. I’m told that when SpaceX first successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, thought it had exploded because of the sonic booms following the landing.
Initially, we were in the dark about if the third rocket core successfully landed. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that we learned it touched down gently in the ocean, at about 300 miles per hour. Overall, the launch had gone exceptionally well! I would describe it like Christmas morning as a kid. You look forward to it for so long, you build it up in your mind, and you think of all of the presents you might get. Then, before you realize it, all of the gifts are open, and you’re on the way to Grandma’s house, with next Christmas seemingly an eternity away.
Beyond the sheer accomplishment of launching a private rocket of that size and power, it is hard to overstate the importance of this endeavor for the future of humankind. The Falcon Heavy launch is significant, not because of what it accomplishes scientifically, but the enthusiasm and hope it inspires to reach incredible accomplishments. That’s really the bigger point we should be looking at from this historic event.
A lot has already been said and written about the theatrics of this accomplishment. Most are supportive, but there are a some who criticize Musk as satiating his own ego by sending an expensive car into orbit around the sun. Some also assert that the money would have been better served to provide power to the people of Puerto Rico, or clean drinking water to Flint. I can’t argue that those are not noble efforts. Indeed, they are needs that must be met. I would argue, however, that Musks efforts achieved something much longer lasting than fixing either of these problems.
In my lifetime the Earth will reach a population of 10 billion people. Already, we lack sufficient food and water to indefinitely sustain the population. Coupled with global warming and depletion of natural resources, the next generations face some of the most remarkable problems in history. To that end, Musk ignited – if you’ll pardon the pun – a renewed scientific curiosity in the world that may be our only hope for continuing as a species.
Consistently, NASA and Apollo astronauts reiterate the space race with the Soviet Union was one of the greatest technological sparks of any generation. Undoubtedly, without President Kennedy’s aspiration to put a man on the moon before 1970, we would not be where we are today. My hope, and I believe the hope of Elon Musk and Bill Nye, is that the advances we are seeing from SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and others will inspire a new space race. Feeding not only into finding a better understanding of our universe, but also amazing solutions to the complicated problems facing our world.