Last November I watched a rocket launch from Wallops Island, Virginia. It was an Antares rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. This was my fourth attempt at seeing a rocket go into space. The first, on October 29, 2014, the Antares blew up shortly after launch. The second was a Space X launch from Florida scrubbed in the last seconds of the countdown. At that time I was with two high school friends. The uncertainties of the a launch occurring the following day and our long drive home discouraged us from extending our stay. The third was at Wallops Island with my wife and grandson. Again, launch delays and his school schedule prohibited us from staying beyond our available window. This fourth time there were two launch delays due to wind and weather. However, with only my wife, Linda, along, and both of us retired, we were free to extend our stay.
During the delay my friend, Stosh, a retired NASA employee, arranged a tour for us of the Wallops Island Flight Facility. This facility is miles from the launch site where the Antares stood waiting so there was no chance of seeing the rocket or launch pad. This is where weather balloons are routinely launched by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and rocket payloads are prepared among other things. On that gray, rainy and overcast day we toured the machine shop where sub-orbital sounding rockets are produced and visited an airplane hanger where a NASA P-3 Orion research aircraft was being readied to collect data for projects such as monitoring Arctic Ice.
The next day was finally dry and clearing. Stosh, unable to stay another day had to leave. Linda and I walked the Wildlife Loop at Assateague Island. It was off-season and the National Park was nearly abandoned. We detoured from the main trail loop to another trail that led to the beach. Standing near the ocean surf absent any other human presence, made us feel like intruders on a scene from past millennia. However, looking southwest, launchpad 0A could be seen in the distance where the land met the sky. Binoculars clearly resolved the seemingly diminutive Antares rocket waiting to be fueled.
After two delays, the launch window, originally scheduled for 4:49 a.m. Thursday, was now set for 4:01 a.m. Saturday morning, well before dawn. Each time the launch was rescheduled the launch time needed to be adjusted to synchronize to the shifting orbital position of the ISS. At 3:30 our alarm got us out of a cozy bed in a fog of inadequate sleep. A quick check of the countdown clock showed it still progressing with less than 30 minutes until launch. The weather was cold, clear and calm, perfect for a launch. We dressed in layers of winter clothes, our enthusiasm purposely restrained knowing that a single failure among thousands of electrical connections, control valves and sensor readouts could make all this an exercise in disappointment.
Outside we walked across the empty McDonald’s parking lot and further down the road to the bridge connecting Chincotiague with Assateague Island. We were not alone as there was a straggle of pedestrians all moving toward the same bridge, and a line of vehicles parked along the shoulder. We encountered a woman, a local resident, who joined our walk in the darkness. “And I thought birders were crazy,” she said. At the bridge there were others quietly talking who lined the pedestrian rail that faced Wallops Island. It was a sober gathering – serious, hopeful and restrained in the pre-dawn dark.
Before finding an open spot at the walkway railing I happened to look up. The constellation Orion loomed prominently dominating the lesser constellations. His sword extended with a blaze of radiant nebula visible with the naked eye. I couldn’t recall ever seeing it before with such clarity. This unanticipated gift, even if there was a launch scrub, was making the effort worthwhile.
The launch pad, rocket and tower, though miles distant, were brightly lit and visible upon the horizon. Resting the binoculars on the handrail made the image steady and made this tiny, white, protruding structure, the focus of so much planning, effort and preparation, seem present. Between time checks I used the binoculars to take in Orion and the famous nebula. No one on the bridge counted down the final seconds as I had expected. Looking through the binoculars I waited, afraid to blink. At exactly 4:01 the slender white form where all eyes were focused was silently punctuated by a flash of fire at its base.
Though expected, ignition arrived as surprising and rewarding. “There it goes.” I announced, believing that somehow the binoculars had given me a time advantage over those around me watching without optical aid.
The flash of fire quickly became a bright torch smoothly lifting the thin white finger. As it rose slowly the length of the visible flame was revealed to be greater than the length of the ship itself. Still in utter silence, it was well clear of the launch tower and beginning its arc across the sky before the air vibrated with the rumble of ignition and the continuing burn of the rocket engine.
Moving east, it arched above us, somewhat south of directly overhead. We watched as the velocity quickly increased, an alien presence among the ancient, star-marked sky. The engine’s soundtrack now contributed to the full sense of certain accomplishment.
A little past our relative crest of the arc, the flame of the first stage extinguished. I watched with the binoculars but saw no second stage burn. It seemed almost a minute before I found the light again with the binoculars narrow field of vision. I continued watching as the orange flame grew dim and became indistinguishable from the light of the dimmer stars in the sky.
It was over rather quickly, and the spectators began to break up and move toward warmer quarters. There was a greatness to the experience though I had little immediate sense of that. It is my nature to attend such events with the analytics turned off and my senses merely open and set to record. Only later after that recording is replayed does it become synthesized and meaningful among the other recorded experiences in my lifetime.
Without the starry background the launch would have been a stunning and inspirational act of man, a symbol of accomplishment through science and reason. Against the background of stars this brief effort of man is brought into perspective. Mankind has been given a natural curiosity, a drive for exploration and understanding that must be pursued for humanity to fulfill its nature. We were a witness to this moment of higher calling.