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  • Theodore Clayton

Why you should Witness a Rocket Launch

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

It's been ready for hours. Just twenty minutes ago, hyper-cold liquid oxygen and refined kerosene were pumped into its gigantic tanks. Ten minutes before that, weather balloons hovering miles above the launch pad relayed data indicating high-altitude winds were within tolerance levels, giving the flight director the final piece of information to give the "Go" sign.

All there is to do now is wait.

T minus 10

Under the blistering heat of the Florida sun and the extreme cold of its -200 degree fuel, the metal skin of the mighty falcon 9 rocket expands and contracts, breathing like a sleeping Dragon; namesake of the cargo capsule at the top of the vehicle. The whole rocket groans under the weight fixed atop the metallic pillar, the whole thing seemingly straining at the umbilicals and supports keeping it steady like a massive dog pulling at the leash.

It's ready to go

T minus 3....2..ignition start....1...

Thank goodness you're miles away from this event. If you were even a mile away, you would simply be deafened by the tremendous roar of the engines as they spew forth 1.7 millions pounds of exhaust thrust.

Liftoff

At about 6 miles away, the first minute of the launch is silent. In the distance, you observe the rocket on the launch pad as a small pencil. Suddenly, clouds of white smoke billow out from beneath the pencil as it slowly, laboriously, begins its climb to outer space. A few seconds later, the exhaust becomes visible beneath the rocket as an impossibly bright inverted candle flame. Despite its distance from you, and how relatively small the rocket is, the exhaust forces you to squint at the rocket, the hot iridescent gases ablaze like a second sun on the horizon.

And then, as the rocket pitches forward in an arc to the stars, you hear it. A low rumble at first, akin to hearing the neighbors moving furniture upstairs. This low rumble grows to a roar as the launch vehicle begins to punch through the upper atmosphere, a white vapor trail materializing behind it. The sound is so deep and so full now, it seems to fill the entire sky. The rocket has now reached the last layer of the atmosphere, leaving its vapor trail far behind. The rumble begins to pulsate, a low and vast resonation.

And then, the sound fades. The rocket is a tiny speck far above you, the only thing visible from the ground is the exhaust plume, flaring out like an eight pointed explosive flower, growing more faint and small by every second.

Until it vanishes. Leaving you, and all those around who just watched this magnificent event stunned and giddy. Congratulations. You've just witnessed a rocket launch!

While this may be a dramatic retelling of what one can expect when they see a launch vehicle blast into space, it in no way fully captures the absolute wonder of actually being there.

Everyone, at some point in their life, should go see a rocket launch.

Because, what is a rocket launch? From a technical or logistical viewpoint, a rocket launch is simply an exotic payload delivery system. Just another way to deliver cargo to a destination, among the myriad of methods developed by the human race over the millennia, from lumbering camels in the Sahara, thunderous locomotives in the rainy meadows of England, and nearly silent high-speed trains whisking across the Japanese countryside. But even there, a rocket launch stands apart. Until the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviets on October 4th, 1957, the travels of human-made goods were limited to this earthly realm.

Then, in a magnificent culmination of thousands of years of technological and societal development, we slipped out of our gravitational shackles and touched the stars.

And therein lies the potential for why witnessing a launch can be such a life changing event. When we see a rocket successfully lift off and carry its burden to low-earth orbit, as I just did on December 5th, you are witness to the collective efforts of thousands; thousands who collaborated to make a single product. A product that has months, or sometimes years of planning and work behind it. Making, let alone launching a rocket, is no small task. To the observer, we see one vehicle rising to the stars upon a pillar of flame. In reality, a rocket is an amalgamation of millions of parts and the process of launching one requires an equally dizzying amount of support staff. To demonstrate this, lets focus on a simple aspect of the launch.

When do we send up the magnificent creation? For the launch I observed, that was at 12:51pm, December 5th, 2019. And the rocket had to be launched exactly at that time.

That's known as an instantaneous launch window in the industry.

Why?

Because CRS-19 (Commercial Resupply, Mission 19) was a resupply mission for the ISS. Atop the shiny new Falcon 9 rocket booster fresh out of the factory was the Dragon cargo capsule. Within, lay thousands of pounds of food, water, and scientific experiments prepared for the astronauts that call the space station home. At an altitude of 250 miles, travelling at an average speed of 17,500 mph, and all within near-Zero-G conditions, the half a dozen astronauts that call the ISS home are desperately far from the nearest grocery store. As such, they are entirely dependent on food bearing capsules being precisely flung into orbit from the planet below in order to survive the harsh environment of space.

That being said, when planning a resupply launch, you have to make sure your capsule actually gets there.

So, you have to plan for the rocket to liftoff when the ISS is directly above your launch site. You have to program your rocket to angle its ascent in such a way that it will fall within the orbital path of the ISS so that it can successfully catch up. You have to calculate the amount of fuel that's needed for the first stage to carry the capsule out past Earths gravity, and you need to calculate the amount of fuel needed for the second stage to successfully separate from the first stage booster and reach the station. And finally, you need to make sure the vehicle has enough fuel to maneuver around and dock with the station. In space, there are no brakes. A wrong turn can mean spending fuel you don't have.

These are just a few problems that must be tackled in order to successfully launch a cargo capsule into space to resupply the brave men and women aboard the ISS. Problems that each individually demand time and energy from thousands of dedicated individuals. And you know what the most wonderful thing about that is?

You, and I, are just like that rocket. We, like it, face dozens of mind boggling problems that must be conquered for success to occur. And we, like it, are not a just a single individual. You are not a small insignificant drop in the ocean of humanity.

When we face a problem, it's not just us against that problem. It's us, with our mother who taught us how to do our taxes. It's us and our father, who taught us that people who insult us are often suffering in world of pain all their own. Every time we tussle with a problem, we bring to bear against it the knowledge, support, and love of all that we have encountered, from your family and friends, to Socrates and Shakespeare, via their written words.

Your story is preceded by so many, and every moment is sponsored by the immediate hundreds in your most immediate circle. You have so many behind you. And yes, the struggles of life may seem like too much to bear at times, but just think; You exist because thousands before you took that brave first step into the unknown, and faced the world. And those before had millions behind them.

You are the latest in a long line of risk-takers and future forgers.

Be inspired by those who lived to make your moment possible.

Are we go for launch?