Rocket Launch!

I grew up before there were satellites, astronauts, and intercontinental communications. What we knew about the stars and planets was from looking through optics. Radio telescopes weren’t invented. The Big Bang was still a theory, and no one had listened to the hiss of the cosmos echoing its birth.

I was entranced by the Mercury 7. I sat rapt as Alan Shepard became the first American in Space. We held our breaths as John Glenn made his three orbits of the earth. I sat in Larry Kelly’s living room and watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon. I still watched the moon landings while in college, and was crushed when Harrison Schmidt, the first trained geologist on the moon, was voiced over by a talking head who had no clue what he was saying, and assumed that the rest of America had no interest, while Schmidt described in beautiful detail the granularity, texture, type and details of the rocks and dust he collected.

I watched the first launch of the Space shuttle, the one and only when the fuel tank was painted white. I watched them repair the Hubble, watched in horror as the Challenger tore apart after launch, and listened with dismay to the reports of the loss of the Columbia.  I’ve lost count of how many spacecraft launches I’ve seen on TV, or online.

I have never seen a space launch in person, after all the interest in space exploration I’ve had over the years. However, we discovered that Wallops Island Spaceport was launching an Antares Rocket to resupply the International Space Station at 4:44 AM on Monday Morning. The launch had been pushed back a day, but we were still there, and only 30 miles from where we were camped. I had never seen a rocket launch. The last time I had an opportunity to see one, it blew up on the launchpad. Fortunately I was several hundred miles away on the East End of Long Island, intently looking out sea for the glow of launch, but fortunately, the glow of the explosion wasn’t that big.

While waiting for the spectacle, Kitt and I discovered that the legendary mosquitoes of Assateague Island are even worse than reported. We stumbled out of bed in or sleepwear and my ankles were bare. After a little bit, my ankles felt itchy. Examination with a flashlight revealed 20 or more mosquitoes having an early morning buffet. My Dad used to give us Donald Duck Comics during the Summer. One, with Scrooge McDuck had them in the Yukon looking for gold Scrooge had hidden. Mosquitoes were swarming and Scrooge told Donald and the Nephews to hold still until they were thick with mosquitoes and then roll on the ground. He explained that’s how the miners made their winter coats. Assateague is on that level.

We had seen the International Space Station orbit overhead earlier in the evening, so I anticipated that the launch would be in the same general direction of their orbit. Wrong. I was coming back out of the RV with some mosquito spray when I caught an orange glow from the east, out of the corner of my eye. There was haze on the horizon, but the rocket was immediately visible directly after launch. It climbed slowly and appeared to be an ascending comet. There was no noise. You couldn’t see the rocket itself, but through the binoculars, there was a dome shaped bright spot, similar to the Capital dome, solid in color with the orange exhaust spewing out and getting thinner the further away from bright spot. The rocket left a white trail, barely visible in the glow and starlight. I think the time of day is termed nautical twilight. There was just the promise of the sun to the east, but most of the stars were visible.

Image from Photo Credit: (Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via AP)

When the rocket had passed over about a third of the way across the sky, you could suddenly hear the roar. It was a thrumming, really loud noise that was only moderately abated by the distance. There was power in the noise. You could tell that it was something mighty from the roar. It overpowered the noise of the ocean. It sounded like it had more power than standing at the foot of the Niagara Falls and listening to their roar. I’ve heard a shadow of the roar on television over the years, and we were 30 miles from the launch site, and it was impressive.

About two thirds of the way across the sky, the glow faded and went out. Kitt and I thought that the rocket was too far away, and obscured by a cloud or the haze, but suddenly there was a white glow in the sky. A brilliant white, a huge white glow that was three times larger than a full moon, and far brighter. The Second Stage. The glow faded as the rocket attained orbit. The whole launch to orbit took less than ten minutes according to NASA. It seemed much longer.

There have been occurrences in the last three years that many would not classify as lucky, but I know that I’m a lucky guy. I witnessed my second total eclipse with my daughter and niece in August, their first, and my first space launch with my daughter. Wow, wow, wow. The world is an amazing spectacular place, and I’ve been blessed to see it.

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