Face-to-face with the Falcon Heavy

When I boarded my flight at London Gatwick; I knew immediately that this trip to the Cape would be different from previous visits. Yes it was a homecoming of sorts, as it always is when I return to the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. I knew returning to KSC would once again ignite varying heart-stirring emotions, and replenish an awe-inspiring appreciation for all things space-related but, the formalities of packing and checking my camera equipment, charging the batteries, formatting the memory cards, and organising photography assignments felt somewhat more important, more vital. Not content, I not only double checked, but triple checked my camera gear.

I digress. Booked almost a year in advance of my departure to the Cape, the reason for my trip to Florida was that of a family holiday, and the reason for choosing to go in January 2018 fell mainly because the varying theme parks of Walt Disney World were reportedly quieter this time of year (they weren’t). But in mid-November the news began to filter through;

SpaceX’s inaugeral Falcon Heavy rocket was expected to roll out to LC-39A at KSC for the first time in November 2017 for a hold-down static-firing of its 27 Merlin main engines, but the commercial space company, led by billionaire Elon Musk, delayed the rollout and subsequent static-fire test, and delayed it again, and again, holding out the unlikely hope of launching the first Falcon Heavy test flight before the end of December. But on the 28th of November, the rocket’s static-fire-test and launch (if the test was successful) had slipped further, to January, officials at SpaceX confirmed. It’s a mission that the world has been waiting for since 2011 when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced plans to develop the vehicle. Now, after seven years and numerous delays, circumstance would have it that I was going to meet her, face-to-face.

I landed at Orlando’s McCoy International Airport at 4:45pm local time (EST) on Thursday January the 18th, aware that a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket was set to launch SBIRS GEO-4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station LC-41 at 07:48pm, (SBIRS GEO-4 is the fourth Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Geosynchronous satellite. The satellite’s purpose is to provide the U.S. military with early warnings of missile detection). Somewhere between collecting my luggage from the carousel and being handed the keys to my hire car, ULA had announced that the launch was scrubbed after engineers encountered a stuck fill-and-drain valve associated with filling the first stage’s liquid oxygen system, and that another launch attempt was possible 24 hours later assuming the valve problem had been resolved in time. I therefore headed West towards Orlando to my hotel and checked in, instead of East to the Cape. Later that night, the announcement was made that Fridays 40-minute launch window had indeed been scheduled and that it would open at 7:48pm EST (00:48am GMT), and that there is was a 90% chance of favourable weather for Friday night’s launch window, with a slight concern for cumulus clouds that could pass over the launch pad.

image credit: ULA

The next day, my Father (who had never seen a launch) and I, drove East along the NASA Causeway to a car park 6.5 miles away from the launchpad on the West bank of the Indian River at a place rather aptly named ‘Vectorspace Blvd’. The car park gradually began to fill, and we were soon accompanied by a total of around 30 to 40 other launch enthusiasts who joined us at the water’s edge. Some spectators took it upon themselves to repeat the countdown a loud, from their phones and car radios, for the spectators who didn’t have access to the launch broadcast. They were subsequently thanked for it, as quite frankly, it helped some of us tourists without a US phone network to know where to look and most importantly, when. Suddenly, at T-2 seconds, a yellow glow began to grow on the horizon.

The launch began with ignition of the Atlas’ RD-180 engine, 2.7 seconds before the countdown reached zero. Burning RP-1 propellant oxidized by liquid oxygen. At about T+1.1 seconds, the rocket ignited and SBIRS GEO-4 leaped from the pad. The rocket began a series of pitch and yaw maneuvers 6.8 seconds into its flight, putting it on an easterly course over the Atlantic Ocean towards geostationary transfer orbit before swiftly reaching Mach 1, the speed of sound, 57.9 seconds after liftoff, passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure – Max-Q – 13.3 seconds later.

image credit: ULA

50 seconds into the flight the thunder-clap arrived and the deep rumbling of the Atlas’ RD-180 engine wowed the crowd. The AJ-60A engine burned for about 98 seconds before tailing off and burning out. The spent casing remained attached to Atlas’ Common Core Booster (CCB) until 2 minutes and 20.5 seconds into the flight, at which point it was jettisoned. The CCB itself continued to burn until booster engine cutoff (BECO) occurred at four minutes and 3.3 seconds after launch. Soon after, the Atlas disappeared from sight, the Cape fell silent, and spectators returned to their vehicles and swiftly left the car park. My Father and I were the last ones left. Standing silently, staring at the stars, thinking of the new addition to the cosmos.

The drive back to our hotel passed swiftly as the conversation was held solely on what we had just seen, how the night sky had been enlivened by that wild yellow flame into a dark, star strewn indelible ink. We had witnessed a launch.

I knew what was coming the next morning, and I couldn’t sleep. Not because of the jet lag, but because of what the next day would hold. Each day, the Floridian news channels were book-ending their numerous advert breaks with dawn shots of Port Canaveral culminating with a shot of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy which had been raised vertical on KSC’s historic LC-39A. SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket, constructed of two previously flown Falcon 9 boosters and a strengthened, beefed-up central core stage, fully assembled stood 230ft (70metres) tall. It would be the most rocket powerful in the world when it launches. With this vehicle, SpaceX is changing the game. The essence of the rocket is in its name: it is the heavy-lift version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Since each Falcon 9 has nine first-stage engines, the Falcon Heavy boasts an impressive total of 27 engines. No other working rocket has ever used so many. All of this hardware will create more than 5 million lbs of thrust at launch. That makes the Falcon Heavy capable of securing around 140,700lbs (63,800kgs) of cargo into low-Earth-orbit (LEO), a payload deployment capability of more than twice what its competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy Booster can transport, earning the title of; the most powerful rocket in the World.

The World was captivated by the Falcon Heavy, and rightfully so. If it were to succeed, not only would the Falcon Heavy be the most powerful rocket in the world, it would be the most powerful rocket to launch since NASA’s Saturn V — the iconic vessel that, with 7.5 million lbs of thrust, accomplished the definitive Apollo-era feat of putting astronauts on the moon between 1967 and 1973 (Apollo 4 to SkyLab 1). Not only that, this Falcon Heavy would be carrying a passenger; a mannequin adorned in a SpaceX astronaut suit, who would be sitting in the driver’s seat of a red Tesla Roadster that the Falcon Heavy would aim to launch into a heliocentric orbit. Elon Musk introduced an image of the aptly named “Starman,” via his Instagram page on the 4th of February, and in addition, Musk will pay homage to the late musician David Bowie by playing his song “Space Oddity” through the car’s speakers as it travels through space.

image credit: Instagram @elonmusk

The next morning a bright Floridian dawn speared my eye with its sunlight through a gap in my hotel rooms curtains as a thick mist still hung over the lake outside my window. It wasn’t warm, but as I walked to my car, the temperature quickly rose as the morning light engulfed me and with it, washed away any concerns that visibility would be an issue out on the Cape.

It was a little after 10am on day two when I crossed the threshold into the KSC Visitor Center and I rushed take my seat aboard the coach for the KSC bus tour. As soon as the coach departed, my eyes were drawn Northeast, towards the direction of LC-39A, 7.4miles away. But all I could see were Government buildings, and beyond that, tree-covered marshlands. The coach exited the KSC Visitor Center turning right onto NASA Parkway West, and the driver took the turn as his cue to begin his narration of the history of KSC, and still my gaze was locked Northeast across the numerous marshes and canals. You see, KSC is situated on Merritt Island, a wildlife refuge. The refuge traces its beginnings to the development of the nation’s Space Program. In 1962, NASA acquired 140,000 acres of land, water, and marshes adjacent to Cape Canaveral to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center. NASA built a launch complex and other space-related facilities, but development of most of the area was not necessary. In 1963 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to establish the refuge. Visitors to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex are often surprised to discover that they are just as likely to be greeted by an alligator or dolphin as they are rockets and capsules. The driver is therefore obliged to point out any alligator, turtle, armadillo currently basking in the sun at the side of the road, and he didn’t have to wait long for his first sighting. Upon his announcement that the coach did indeed have some reptilian company at the banks of a nearby canal, passengers of all ages, most standing to gain a better view whooped and cheered at the sight of an alligator. Still, I gaze in the direction of LC-39A.

The Falcon Heavy will be launching from NASA’s historic LC-39A. The first use of LC-39A came in 1967 with the first Saturn V launch, carrying the unmanned Apollo 4 spacecraft. The second unmanned launch, Apollo 6, also used LC-39A. With the exception of Apollo 10, which used LC-39B (due to the “all-up” testing resulting in a ‘to soon to be ready’ 2-month turnaround period), all manned Apollo-Saturn V launches, commencing with Apollo 8, used LC-39A. The site was used to launch the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon as well as 82 Space Shuttle missions. In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use LC-39A for the company’s flights, and it has since modified the site to accommodate launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

Ten minutes into the tour the coach turned left onto NASA Parkway North, travelling steadily at 55mph, it wasn’t long before KSC’s man-made mountain that is the Vehicle Assembly Building came into view through the drivers windscreen on the road ahead. The passengers fell silent listening to the driver inform us of its history during the Apollo-era and its plans for the future, namely the construction of NASA’s own upcoming heavy rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). Then, out of the righthand side of the coach, in the spaces between the blurring of passing palm, pine, and chestnut trees, sporadically and for the briefest of moments, LC-39A flashed into view 4 miles away. The view lasted only for a second, but it was enough to see that raised parallel to the launch tower, stood the Falcon Heavy.

I gasped at the first sight of it, and soon realised I hadn’t yet exhaled as again I am gifted with a second fleeting view of the Falcon Heavy, and a third, a millisecond here, and millisecond there, in the gaps between the passing of trees. The sight is magnificent, but its a little smaller than I had imagined. The reason for this is not lost on me; All three of the Falcon 9s that are strapped together glisten in the Florida sunlight and I realise that I have been comparing it to the images of the immense Saturn V which stood on the very same launch pad. It also doesn’t hold the same sense of awe and wonder I had felt when I saw the Space Shuttle sitting on the pad, also LC-39A. I can find two arguments that offer some reasoning to this;

One, the Saturn V was the rocket of my parents generation, and I had grown up with stories of it being read to me on long car journeys or at bedtime. The Space Shuttle was of my generation, and I had witnessed the launch of the shuttle Atlantis (STS-117), seen various shuttles cross the entire breadth of the sky chasing the International Space Station, and even heard the double sonic-boom generated by the re-entry of Endeavour (STS-134).  I had seen its achievements first hand in the same way that my parents had looked at the moon in July 1969 knowing man was walking upon its surface at that exact moment in time. The Falcon Heavy is new, perhaps belonging to the generation who had been to young to fully appreciate the Shuttle era, and therefore had no rocket to their name.

Two; Both the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle were manned. The Falcon Heavy is not, not yet.

The World has been captivated with SpaceX and its Falcon rocket family, proving as Francis Bacon once said “…there is no beauty that hath not some strangeness to its proportion.” You see, psychologists say that we humans are social creatures, and we evolved – and still live – in an environment where it paid to pay attention to the people, and the things at the top. Celebrity fascination may be an outgrowth of this tendency, nourished by the media and technology. It’s only relatively recently in human history that people have had near-constant access to celebrity news. Now, I’m using the term celebrity liberally, because in this case the celebrity is the Falcon Heavy itself. The sheer spectacle of landing their first stage boosters successfully both on land and at sea have gripped the public’s attention and it doesn’t look like the company will be letting go anytime soon. Seeing the Falcon Heavy with my own eyes, I did not take it for granted that millions of people from across the World would envy my view at that point, given that the raising of the rocket from horizontal to vertical was almost a daily occurrence and that this particular view was a rarity to say the least (for SpaceX technicians and engineers to work on the rocket it would need to be lowered and returned to the nearby hanger).

image credit: The Rogue Astronaut – PCDPhotography

The rest of the tour passed quickly and the coach concluded its journey at the Saturn V Visitor Center where the atmosphere was palpable. The Falcon Heavy was being talked about. The upcoming launch, hugely anticipated as it was, remained only a test run of the rocket, hence the publicity-seeking payload. But now, if the conversations were to be believed, we have an heir to the Saturn V rocket. The Falcon Heavy isn’t quite as powerful as the Saturn V but, it is operational.

On the 24th of January, the Falcon Heavy conducted its static-fire test. It fired all 27 engines, igniting its three core boosters at 12:30pm EST on LC-39A, lasting around 12 seconds.

image credit: The Rogue Astronaut – PCDPhotography

SpaceX didn’t immediately release details about the test, including the precise length of the static fire nor did they offer any details on the performance of the 27 Merlin engines. But then, Elon Musk tweeted an hour after the test.

“Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good. Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so.”

My heart sunk. The launch was scheduled to take off on Tuesday, February 6th. Six days after I had left Florida.*

Seven days later, on Wednesday, January 31st I returned to the Cape, this time to Playalinda Beach. Located in the Canaveral National Seashore, Playalinda Beach is one the best and closest locations to view rocket launches on the entire Space Coast. It is the closest you can possibly get for the Atlas V and Falcon 9 launches, (the LC-39A Observation Gantry is the absolute closest viewing area to the launch pads of CCAFS, that offers shaded viewing from the gantry and outdoor bleacher seating make this the premium launch viewing area, situated just 2 to 5.5 miles from launch pads. However, launch viewing at this location requires a ticket in addition to KSCVC daily admission. Ticket cost is $49 depending on the launch). With a short walk down the beach, you can be within 3.5miles of the perimeter fence to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and its launch pads. At 4:25pm EST, SpaceX was preparing to launch one of its Falcon 9 rockets with the GovSat-1 satellite from LC-40. Patience was in short supply during the finger-tapping, tension-filled hours before the launch. The frenzied checking and re-checking of camera equipment, and the constant monitoring of social media feeds didn’t lessen the tightening of knotted insides of space enthusiasts on the Canaveral National Seashore as the countdown begun, a full 24 hours after its initial planned launch. The original launch window on the previous day wasn’t viable due to the need to replace a sensor on the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket.

Every rocket launch makes noise, and that noise is a form of power; we don’t necessarily think about it too often but sound is a mechanical wave that we hear because it vibrates the molecules of the medium through which it travels. The engineers who designed and built the Falcon 9 rocket knew it was powerful, and as it launched it shook the sand on the ground beneath my feet, rattled windows and triggered car alarms. The sound comes at you like a wave, a relentless thunderous crackling which you can almost see coming, and it hits you with enough force you feel it in your chest, to act on us as though we were trees in the wind.

image credit: The Rogue Astronaut – PCDPhotography

The Falcon 9’s first stage was equipped with 9 Merlin-1D engines which ignited at the T-3second mark in the countdown, with Falcon 9 lifting-off at T-0. Climbing away from Cape Canaveral along an easterly trajectory over the Atlantic, the rocket passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressure – Max-Q – T+78seconds into the flight.

The first stage – Core 1032 – powered the Falcon 9 for the first two minutes and 38 seconds of the mission before it reached Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), the point at which the first stage engines shut down in preparation for stage separation. The stages separated two seconds after MECO, with the second stage igniting one second later. All of this visible from the Florida shoreline.

SpaceX successfully deployed its GovSat-1 satellite to its targeted orbit 32 minutes after launch, but did not attempt to recover the already flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage. However it did survive its soft water landing.

image credit: SpaceX

Whist packing away my camera equipment, I’m inadvertently included in a conversation with other space enthusiasts when I’m handed my lens cap that I was unaware had rolled under their car. The people involved in the conversation included a pair of local launch veterans, and a several curious holidaymakers who wished to experience seeing a launch firsthand. Our enthusiasm for rocket launches was mutual, but what else was shared was our use of language when we each gave our descriptions of the launch we had just seen. We all referred to the rocket as ‘she,’ as in; “Didn’t she look spectacular when she lifted off the pad…” This is not uncommon. Anthropomorphizing our machines is a way for us to express trust in them—which, of course, has everything to do with our comfort level and nothing to do with a machine’s effectiveness. Your computer doesn’t care if you call it Siri, Cortana, Alexa, or Hal.

Machines don’t need names, but we feel the need to name them—out of a mix of affection, perhaps, but mostly out of a desire to reorganize forces more powerful than we are so that they appear to be under human control. Whether or not they actually are. We give human names to all sorts of things we can’t control in the natural world too – Hurricane Katrine, Jack Frost and even Mother Nature.

Ultimately I love rockets because they have a personality. Some are great at some things and terrible at others. Some are a cheap date that give a great thrill. Others are difficult and rebellious, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. They all have a voice whatever their nationality. This is what I love.  I like to find the mechanical side of a rocket as well as its aesthetic. I like to see a rocket brought to the edge of its ability – that’s when it shows you its personality. That’s when a rocket gives you a wink.

A rocket is one of the few mechanical creations that engenders a deep emotional response in people. There’s something about a rocket that is alive. To me, that is what makes them exciting – the sounds, the smells and the feeling of being a part of the machine as it launches. It’s a completely engaging sensory experience, like no other.

Huge, planned explosions make me very happy. With the Falcon Heavy scheduled to launch a large Saudi Arabian communications satellite called Arabsat 6A in the first half of 2018. Followed by a payload for the US Air Force no earlier than June, the Falcon Heavy looks like is has an ambitious future, one that could give this generation a rocket they could claim as their own. But one that we can all enjoy.

*Since returning to the UK:

The first Falcon Heavy successfully launched on the 6th of February 2018 – deploying its payload of a Tesla roadster with an astronaut suit-clad mannequin known as “Starman” on a heliocentric journey beyond the orbit of Mars. Live video captivated millions of viewers as the Falcon Heavy launched, before the rockets fairings fell away revealing Starman to the cosmos to the soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, followed closely by its two strap-on falcon 9 boosters returned for a dual-landing back at Cape Canaveral, punctuated by sonic booms.

Once in orbit, Starman looped around Earth for nearly six hours, streaming live video to us as it did. After a long-duration coast, the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage engine reignited to give the Tesla and its mannequin passenger enough speed to break away from Earth’s gravitational grip, sending the car and its rocket stage into an orbit centered on the sun that will travel as far away as the asteroid belt.

image credit: SpaceX

image credit: SpaceX

image credit: SpaceX

image credit: SpaceX

image credit: SpaceX

image credit: SpaceX

title image credit: SpaceX


2 thoughts on “Face-to-face with the Falcon Heavy

  1. What a great article. My brother, kids and flew down to Florida to watch the Heavy fly and your words and imagery brought back some of the magic. I noticed you mentioned Playalinda as being the closest possible viewing location at 3.5 miles to the Atlas and Falcon launches (SLC 41 and 39A respectively). It is an awesome (and affordable) location for those launches. I hope you don’t mind that I offer a small correction. Playalinda is slightly closer to 39A than Banana Creek (next to the Saturn V exhibit). But the closest possible viewing to a large rocket is, by considerable measure, the LC-39 observation gantry overlooking SLC-41 for Atlas rockets. It’s got nothing but 2.3 miles of open water and flat land to obstruct that thunderous roar you so well described.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Andrew, first and foremost for getting in touch and taking the time to read my blog, and secondly for your thoughts! It’s greatly appreciated, truly. Any corrections I don’t mind at all! In fact I welcome them, they start a conversation amongst like-minded space enthusiasts! I had considered mentioning the observation gantry, but given that it’s not only a ticketed position, limited, and you have to purchase a ticket to KSCVC, I thought I’d keep it more of an open to the public/no limited numbers advice point. However, that said I’m going to go back in a amend the post with a mention of the gantry. Thanks again Andrew! Keep in touch! And I’m so pleased everyone enjoyed the FH launch!

      Liked by 1 person

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