I’ve been vacationing at the United States’ famed Space Coast of Cape Canaveral, and one thing is apparent—everybody’s ramping up to go to Mars!
For the past five years, NASA has been changing the way of going to space by involving private industry at the government space facilities, helping new entrepreneurs become world I was lucky to witness the milestone launch of the private SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the storied NASA pad 39A where the mighty Saturn V roared to the Moon in the 1960s.
What a thrill to see just my second rocket launch, this time from the nearby Cape Canaveral Causeway where there were maybe 25 cars pulled over to see the Sunday morning launch on Feb. 19.
And what a set of coincidences as my first and only launch was 55 years ago on Feb. 20. That’s when I was 8 years old and my mother and I watched John Glenn’s Mercury Friendship 7 Redstone rocket rise above our Winter Park, Florida backyard—me being home from school with the mumps!
Oh, I’ve tried to see a couple Space Shuttle launches in the 1990s, but they were delayed, and hanging around wasn’t something my job would allow. Seeing Glenn’s historic Mercury launch to orbit, and then a landmark, commercial blastoff from America’s former Moon Port, well, I feel blessed.
Falcon 9 was delayed one day after the countdown went to T-minus 2 minutes and a sensor reported an engine problem. Postponed until 9:39 am the next day, I was traveling south and lucked out on being at the right place at the right time!
Launched aboard Falcon 9 was the 10th supply mission to the International Space Station with 5,500 pounds of supplies aboard the unmanned spaceship called Dragon.
Like a bottle rocket with an orange flame shooting below, I watched through my camera—as usual—as the American rocket rose above the horizon of Florida high rises and boat dock cranes at the nearby Port Canaveral.
The rocket was like a dart piecing through low hanging clouds as I snapped photo after photo. I was thinking of that cargo ship Dragon at the tip, headed for the ISS. My camera trigger finger was snapping away and my eyes watched through the zoom lens for anything that might hint at a disaster.
The rocket glide was smooth—but there was no noise. Yet. My partner Anita Friend, who is a NASA contractor, said “just wait.”
About 30 seconds after lift-off of Falcon 9, the rumbling of sound wave met our ears, finally traveling the approximate 10 miles from the launch pad 39A.
As Falcon 9 raced out of view into the cloud deck, the rumbling rocket noise was steady, like a rolling thunderstorm in the distance. I bathed in the noise. And then it was over. Or so Anita and I thought.
As groups of people, including us, left the Causeway, we noticed people still looking toward the Kennedy Space Center. Hey, you missed it, we thought.
But we were the ones who missed it. Those who waited 8 minutes after launch in the distance the upright landing of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Station, heralded by two sonic booms. We didn’t realize this until seeing replays on NASA-TV. Darn it! NEXT time we’ll know better.
That next time will be a night launch of Falcon 9 on March 12th at 12:30 am. But the first stage will be ditched in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s Saturday night/Sunday morning—and Daylight Saving Time goes into effect that 2 am. The payload will be EchoStar-23, a complex video communications satellite to be used by Dish Network, Slingbox and Hughes Communications.
Space X is just one of a handful of new aerospace companies headed by business moguls. Tesla CEO and former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk has created SpaceX to launch not just commercial payloads, but humans into Earth orbit and beyond. He has spent more than $500 million of his own money.
Following Musk into outer space are business titans Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and his Blue Origin aerospace company, and Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic firm. All three are determined to promote space tourism with suborbital and orbital human flights.
Also a big private player is Orbital ATK, a merger of an American aerospace manufacturer and the US defense industry. With 12,300 employees building Antares and Minotaur rockets, rocket motors and spacecraft like the Cygnus cargo ship sent to the ISS, Orbital ATK will help maintain our nation’s satellite infrastructure, so vital in today’s world.
But it is SpaceX and its now 5,000 employees that has the jump and an already impressive resume of successful missions for a wide range of clients. The launch of Dragon to the ISS on Feb. 19 was the 26th successful flight of Flacon 9 and payload.
But it has had a few setbacks, including a spectacular explosion on Sept. 1, 2016 during fueling of a Falcon 9 rocket that destroyed a commercial satellite and part of the Air Force Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral. No one was injured.
SpaceX recovered from that failure with a January 14th launch of a new generation Iridium communication satellite from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, the third location from which Falcon 9 has blasted off Earth.
Landing the Falcon 9 first stage vertically on solid ground and at sea on a large barge has been done 10 times by SpaceX, with four or five spectacular early failures.
Reusable spacecraft and rockets are a big part of the blue prints for 21st Century space travel that business barons Musk, Bezos and Branson are implementing for a strong American space industry.
They have put their money where their mouth is—more than a billion dollars of it—to create a new Space Age for everyone.
And with NASA just a year or so away from blasting off its huge Space Launch System rocket—maybe with a manned crew aboard the new Orion spacecraft—things are beginning to come back to life at America’s Space Port on the Florida East Coast.
And that means plenty more rocket launches to see in the very near future!