You might think that at 7.73 miles away, a rocket launch, especially an expendable rocket like an Atlas V, wouldn’t be all that impressive, but you’d be wrong.
I’ve seen two rocket launches, the first was STS-131 from about 6.9 miles away:
I’ve described the experience of watching STS-131 launch in previous posts, so I won’t go over it again, but needless to say it was amazing.
The second launch was from about 7.73 miles away from the pad on the other side of the country in Lompoc, CA to watch an Atlas V rocket launch carrying the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (Landsat 8, LDCM) into space. I was invited to view this launch as a part of a NASASocial group. The day before, we toured NASA Facilities at Vandenberg AFB as well as three launch sites, two of which are still operational. On a cold Monday morning in February, we stationed ourselves in Providence Landing Park in Lompoc, CA to watch the launch.
We had spent an hour on Sunday afternoon hanging out with the rocket, so we knew the immensity of the thing, but at 7.72 miles away, it still looked a bit small. Our launch viewing accommodations were great! NASA and the Air Force had set aside for us a beautiful poolside patio and club house from which to watch the launch. If it had been a bit warmer, I’m sure that some of us would have ended up in the pool, but as it was chilly, we all stayed out.
This launch was Vandenberg’s first public launch party, so there were facilities set up for the public and also an Air Force Rock band called Mobility playing for the assembled crowds. It was a great party and our hosts at NASA and Vandenberg outdid themselves. Also, we were able to bring our families to this launch, which was a truly awesome thing.
The day before, while at the launch pad, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden asked us to share the launch via our social media channels. He asked us, whether or not we liked the launch, to share our thoughts with feeling, so here I go…
Our view of the pad was spectacular. We were on a hill on the opposite side of the valley from SLC 3, so there was nothing but a couple of antennas between us and the pad.
By the time we arrived on our viewing station, the rocket had already been fueled and the service structure moved back. After a couple of minutes of watching the rocket, we noticed it venting some gasses, which is normal for a rocket about to launch.
As the launch grew nearer, we all gathered near the white wooden fence to watch the launch. I was glued to Mission Clock on my phone for an up to date countdown and listening to the countdown which was piped through the speakers at the park. We were all glued to the sight of the rocket and waiting for the countdown to hit zero.
The day before, we had been warned that because this version of the Atlas V rocket wasn’t going to use any solid rocket boosters, it wasn’t going to leap off the pad. In fact it was going to light off and linger a bit before it flew into the sky. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was ready. As the countdown got close to zero, I remembered that it was important watch the launch, not just get pictures of it; it was important to EXPERIENCE the event, not just chronicle it.
As the clock hit zero, we all took a breath… and watched the first flames come out of the base of the rocket…
I watched the rocket lift off, I watched it linger above the pad, like everyone said it would, until seemingly, it decided to get a move on and head towards space. But at this point, THERE WAS STILL NO SOUND. In fact it took about 36 seconds for the sound of the rocket’s engines firing to reach our viewing site. When I watched STS-131 launch, the rumble that came was tremendous and I felt the heat of the launch. The Atlas V is a much smaller rocket, but the sound was still tremendous. At 7.73 miles away, the sound was so loud that my son covered his ears and the fence rattled.
Rockets don’t launch straight up, they start to curve and go down range (follow their flight path to get in to orbit), so a few seconds after the sound reached us, the Atlas V headed away from us, south over the Pacific Ocean. It grew smaller and smaller as it got higher and further away from us.
As a rocket gets higher, there is less and less atmosphere to push against, so the vapors coming out of the nozzle, which were basically straight as it was leaving the ground begin to expand. Viewed through the lens of my camera, the effect is highly visible.
It was a gorgeous day on the California coast. There was not a cloud in the sky, so our rocket gradually disappeared into the blue. It was an amazing experience, individually, as a family, and collectively as a group. My wife, who I was worried wouldn’t understand why rocket launches amaze me so, totally got it.
See my full Flickr set for the launch for all my pics.
I want to thanks NASA, USGS, the 30th Space Wing, Orbital Sciences, Ball Aerospace, and all of our hosts Aries Keck, John Yembrick, and many, many more for a wonderful experience. It was awesome beyond belief!