I saw a rocket launch, and now I'm in love with NASA

Big ambitions and bigger rockets, what's not to love?

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On January 20th, I witnessed my very first rocket launch — an Atlas V rocket punching into space to drop a communications satellite for the US Navy into orbit 22,000 miles above Earth. That required about 2.5 million pounds of thrust: a very large explosion that must be precisely controlled in order to be successful. It’s not as ambitious as the things that are coming next, but I found it awe-inspiring all the same.

For the last several years, the space program has been in a bit of a lull. The last time NASA sent humans beyond low-Earth orbit was the Apollo program in the 1970s. Since then, the US space agency has focused on sending people to the International Space Station and probes beyond. Actually, the US hasn’t ferried its own astronauts to the ISS since 2011; we’ve hitched rides with Russian cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz. But last April, NASA announced it would begin launching US astronauts itself starting in 2017, and it awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to do just that.

NASA itself is looking more ambitious since the test launch of Orion, an Apollo look-alike designed to carry humans beyond the ISS — perhaps even as far as Mars. In fact, the agency’s goal is to get to Mars in the 2030s. The agency has been working with new technology, including Microsoft’s Windows Holographic and helicopter drones for Mars; recently, NASA began 3-D printing objects in space. Recently, the agency suggested sending humans to airships floating in Venus’ atmosphere. Obviously, more than a few people are dreaming big.

And it’s not just dreams, either. NASA’s budget rose by 2 percent to $18 billion this year — more than the agency asked for. Almost $3 billion has been allocated to support NASA’s human spaceflight endeavors.

An Atlas V rocket awaits its mission. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

It’s not all rosy. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is overseeing the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Communication. He doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change, which could potentially jeopardize some of NASA’s environmental research. But space is important to his constituency. Private companies including Boeing and SpaceX have operations in Texas, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located in Houston.

Even if NASA’s missions face an uphill battle, more countries than ever are participating in space programs; ESA’s nail-biter of a landing on a comet last year suggested that NASA isn’t alone in its audacious goals. Meanwhile, SpaceX, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Orbital Sciences, Virgin Galactic, and a handful of others have announced their own ambitions for commercial spaceflight.

In other words: Space exploration is back in a very big way.

That message hasn’t necessarily reached everyone. When I told friends that I’d be attending a rocket launch today, they were surprised — they hadn’t known there was one. In fact, launches have been occurring regularly for a while now. Of course, space isn’t safe or routine. Last year, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Virgin Galactic all had serious accidents within the span of about two months; a test pilot on the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was killed.

At first, I was worried the Atlas rocket wouldn't launch at all — wind and interference created delays. But then, a little after 8PM, the hold ended. I was almost queasy from excitement.

I wasn't ready for how bright the Atlas launch would be. For a few moments, it was daylight again — even though I was four miles away from the rocket. After the light came the roar: not deafening, but loud. That launch was probably the biggest explosion I've ever seen in person, and it was definitely cooler than the ones I've seen in the movies.

I watched the sky until the bright dot faded from view. One thing was very clear to me: I need to go to more rocket launches, because I definitely want to see that again. I'm a simple woman. Huge, planned explosions make me very happy.

Space is difficult. That’s exactly why I think it’s exciting. It was astonishing to watch the Atlas rocket leave Earth. I can hardly wait to see what will happen next.

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