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the occasions lady and

A Nighttime Rocket Launch
by Audrey Poff, digital illustration by Brittney Osborn

I have been fascinated by rocket launches since living on Florida’s space coast for a short time in the late 1980s. On a recent trip to Florida, our family was able to see another launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center – our first nighttime launch.

Unless you live within a short driving distance of Kennedy Space Center, it is difficult to plan a vacation around a scheduled rocket launch. It is common for launches to be scrubbed at the last minute and pushed back a week or more, making it nearly impossible to plan a trip that would include the viewing of a launch. Instead, we plan our vacation whenever time allows and then, unbeknownst to my family, I begin checking websites and social media to see if any launches are scheduled while we will be in the area.

While on the way to Florida last month, I discovered that SpaceX was scheduled to launch a rocket from Cape Canaveral shortly after midnight on June 6. The veteran Falcon 9 rocket was slated to make its third trip to space to carry a massive radio satellite into orbit for Sirius XM before returning to Earth. There was a nearly two-hour window for the launch, starting at 12:26 on the morning of June 6.

Although viewing a nighttime launch on Florida’s space coast has been on my bucket list for a long time, I wasn’t sure if Rodney, Emma and Sophie would be willing to get back in the car for an additional two hours before we had recovered from the 12-hour drive to St. Augustine. Yet, less than six hours after checking into our condo, they all agreed to make the drive to Titusville to view the launch.

Being a photo geek at heart, I had all kinds of camera equipment with me on the trip and wasted little time hauling it to the water’s edge in preparation for the launch. With only about 20 minutes to set up – a huge mistake, I pulled the tripod out of the bag. Do you know how dark it is in the middle of Florida’s swampland shortly after midnight? We were in a safe viewing area at a local park, but it was pitch black by the water’s edge. For the life of me, I could not get the tripod assembled in the darkness, and the man next to us was already ranting about the tiny iPhone flashlight Rodney was using to help me. I gave up. The tripod was unstable, and my camera equipment was too costly to risk having it topple over.

About that time, the frenzy surrounding us made it clear that the launch was about to happen. As the four of us stood at the edge of the water, the rocket’s glare began to light up the night sky. Soon after, the sound waves made their way across the water, rumbling like thunder from an approaching storm. It amazes me every time.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 12:26 a.m., marking SpaceX’s 18th launch of the year. Approximately nine minutes later, the booster’s first stage returned to Earth, landing on one of SpaceX’s two drone ships stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

I have been fortunate enough to see three launches so far in my lifetime, each of them unique in their own way. I was living in Florida in 1988 when Discovery became the first space shuttle to launch after the Challenger disaster two years earlier. I stood in the Atlantic Ocean with my brother and sister-in-law as we watched America’s return to space. During a family vacation 18 years later, we were able to see NASA’s only Fourth of July launch from a stranger’s home who welcomed us into his backyard along the bank of Florida’s Indian River.

It may have taken us a little while to recover from missing two nights of sleep, but to me, seeing the night sky turn to day as the rocket lifted off was worth it. Those are the most memorable and spectacular fireworks that you will ever see.