I’m standing in the middle of a wide, grassy field, peering at a tiny, smoking rocket three miles in the distance. Hundreds of reporters, producers, and photographers are all standing around me, staring at the same spot. The seconds tick away on a giant electronic countdown clock located on the field’s edge. With just 20 seconds left on the clock, I hear a flight controller’s voice boom over a loudspeaker behind me: “SpaceX Falcon Heavy: go for launch.”
It’s actually happening.
Even now, I can’t quite believe the rocket I’m looking at is about to fly. I’ve been waiting for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch since I first began reporting on space five years ago. The mission seemed like it would forever be just over the horizon. First announced in 2011, the vehicle’s first launch was annually delayed; it seemed like the mission would always be just “months away,” as SpaceX often claimed. But now, I’m here at NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the rocket is on the actual horizon, ready to take flight.
When the Falcon Heavy leaves its launchpad, I will witness the world’s most powerful rocket soar to space. The vehicle consists of three cores of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and it’s propelled by 27 main engines, for more than 5 million pounds of thrust during takeoff. (That’s a crazy amount of force.) I expect to feel it in my bones. A friend of mine who witnessed an earlier engine test of the Falcon Heavy told me it sounded and felt like a bomb going off.
I’m not the only one who’s excited for it either: I’ve been in Florida for three days, and the words “Falcon Heavy” have been on everyone’s lips. When I check into the hotel with my crew, the staff whisper about the influx of people: more than 100,000 travelers pour into nearby Cocoa Beach, Florida, and surrounding areas to watch the launch. The hotels were booked solid. Billboards along the beach wish SpaceX luck on the launch. People sporting the company’s logo — hats and shirts — are in every store, every restaurant. I even run into a family that flew all the way from Germany just for the mission.
Plenty of press is here, too — and one huge perk of being a member of the press is that you actually get to visit the rocket before it flies. So the day before the launch, we drive past lounging alligators (Florida!) to Kennedy Space Center. Looming in front of us is the giant Vehicle Assembly Building, or the VAB, the massive structure that once housed the Saturn V rocket and the Space Shuttles. And just three miles beyond the building, we can make out a faint outline of what we came to see: the Falcon Heavy on its launchpad.
The launchpad is iconic, actually: LC-39A is what we used to send astronauts to the Moon, and it launched 82 flights of the Space Shuttle. If the Falcon Heavy blows near the LC-39A pad, it could damage a landmark. We enter the gate surrounding the pad and approach the rocket. It’s... smaller than I imagined, but still impressive. All three of the Falcon Heavy’s white cores glisten in the sunlight.
After I snap a few rocket selfies (obviously!), SpaceX CEO Elon Musk makes an appearance. As soon as he steps out of his black car onto the field, it’s clear he’s in a buoyant mood. I overhear him say he’s giddy about this flight.
Eventually, as Musk works his way down the press line, he comes to me. My cameraman Cory clips a mic to Elon’s jacket, and I tell him that The Verge plunked down $500 plus tax for one of the flamethrowers he’s been selling for his tunneling venture, the Boring Company. He laughs and jokes we shouldn’t have bought it — too dangerous. He then says he and his team spent a lot of time figuring out the right level of flame output for the device, or the “Goldilocks level of flames.” I only have him for five minutes before he’s on to another journalist. There’s not much left to do but watch the rocket fly.
The drive to NASA the next day is through an epic traffic jam: Hundreds of cars are pouring into the nearby visitor center to witness the launch, causing a backup for miles down the road. Once we finally arrive in the press room, it’s overflowing with reporters.
Outside, Verge cameramen, Cory and Christian, set up equipment in the nearby field. Our plan is to film both the rocket and my reaction to it, but I suggest they should watch the launch directly rather than through a screen — it’s something to see with your own eyes. During the camera setup, I say, “It’s a beautiful day for a launch” to the clear blue skies overhead. A mistake. As soon as the phrase leaves my mouth, I get a notification on my phone: the takeoff has been delayed because the winds in the upper stratosphere are too high. Soon there’s another alert: the new time is 2:30PM ET. And shortly after that: 2:50PM ET. SpaceX has a federally approved launch window that only lasts until 4PM ET. And when the launch time is pushed back again to 3:15PM ET, some reporters start canceling flights.
After halting the countdown altogether for 20 minutes or so, SpaceX finally gives us one “final” liftoff time: 3:45PM ET. The rocket has to take off then or we’re coming back tomorrow. But the minutes crawl by and there are no further delays. When the press site gets word that the rocket is being loaded with propellant, we burst into applause.
That’s when it happens. Before every launch I watch — either online or in person — I prepare myself for work by running through all the ways the rocket could explode. That always makes me nervous. This time, the fear has been turned up to 11; my stomach is in knots and I can’t sit still. What if the launchpad is destroyed? My God, what if I witness the Falcon Heavy become the world’s most powerful firework?
Twenty minutes before the clock hits zero, I get into position. SpaceX’s online webcast has begun and is being played over the loudspeakers at the press site. The company’s employees cheer throughout the broadcast, which just ratchets up the tension in my gut. What if we all watch this thing explode, together?
And then the clock runs down to zero.
A gargantuan plume of gas bursts from the bottom of the Falcon Heavy as all 27 of its engines ignite, propelling the rocket away from Earth. The engine flames seem to create another tiny, bright Sun in the sky, one that’s slowly moving upward. Everyone in the field is motionless. The rocket almost seems to rise in slow motion, creating its own trail of clouds as it goes. And as it rises, a low rumble from the Falcon Heavy starts to build until it becomes a roaring thunder that seems to shake the entire state of Florida.
Once it finally disappears, the three of us grab all our camera equipment and race to the edge of the field to get a better view of the landings. The boosters are hard to spot against the bright blue backdrop. But soon the two light up their engines high in the sky — the entry burn, which slows the rockets down when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The crowd shrieks. We lose sight of the boosters again when the burn is over and everyone grows quiet. The next time we’ll see the boosters is when they ignite their engines one more time to land.
A full minute passes and then we see them: two little upside-down candlesticks just above the horizon tree line. The people start screaming in delight. The rockets fall out of sight behind the trees, it seems like the whole crowd is holding its breath for the sonic booms. When SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters land, they break the sound barrier and create shock waves in the air that sound like loud thunderclaps. The boosters each create three of these booms because of how they’re shaped, and since we have two rockets landing this time, six claps reverberate through the air in rapid succession. It’s so powerful that the birds in the area cry out in fear and scatter.
Immediately I know that no launch experience will ever quite compare to what I just witnessed. And I’m suddenly sad that the mission has ended for me. (The rocket will still continue for some time in space, with live views of the Falcon Heavy’s dummy payload “driving” a car around Earth.) Of course, I can always come back for more. A successful launch means that the Falcon Heavy will fly again, perhaps within the next three to six months. But there’s only one first time.