COMMENTARY: I finally saw a launch…and it was incredible

A ULA Atlas V 541 lifts off, carrying the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Credit: Curt Godwin

A ULA Atlas V 541 lifts off, carrying the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Credit: Curt Godwin

I have seen a huge 5-segment solid rocket booster perform a full duration burn in the desert of Utah at Orbital ATK’s facility. Pro tip: if NASA tells you to not look at the flame, then do NOT look at the flame.

I’ve watched the incredible RS-25 engine static fired in a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Twice.

I’ve been on top – ON TOP! – of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC)… within touching distance of a satellite at Ball Aerospace in Boulder… in United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Denver Operations Support Center (DOSC) and in their Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). These are not easy places to access.

I’ve toured NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) — where the agency built components of the Saturn-series of rockets, and manufactured the Space Shuttle’s external tank (ET), and are now building the Space Launch System (SLS) — not once… not twice… but three times.

I’ve had privileged access to many facilities at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, covering the construction of the SLS liquid hydrogen tank stress stand… and the arrival of SLS’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (ICPS) structural test article… and a whole host of other space-related topics at the closest NASA center to me.

I have met NASA’s current Administrator and its Deputy Administrator — Charles Bolden and Dava Newman, respectively — several times.

Heck, I was even at KSC when Orion returned from its maiden voyage on EFT-1 in December 2014.

I tell you these things not to brag, but to drive home the relative enormity of this next statement: I have never seen a launch in-person. That’s right. I’ve seen/done quite a few cool space-related things over the past few years, and I’ve written many articles for Liftoff Report and SpaceFlight Insider covering these things.

But I had never seen a launch. Until now.

I have never seen a launch.

That’s right – I have FINALLY seen a launch in-person. I was part of a super-talented team from SpaceFlight Insider covering the launch of the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite. Though there was a delay in the launch, and there was some concern that it might not lift-off on November 19, it finally took flight at the very end of the launch window.

Though it was delayed an hour, it was still an incredible spectacle of sight and sound. But I almost “missed” it.

In the rush to make sure I snapped pictures of the launch, I almost forgot to actually watch it. In fact, it wasn’t until the sound reached us on the Causeway that I realized I needed to put down the camera and watch the Atlas V soar skyward.

I’m glad I did.

Rising into the early evening sky, the Atlas V 541 was already well-clear of the pad when I pulled the camera from my eye as the sound from the engines hit us on the Causeway. The flames from the RD-180 and four supplemental solid rocket motors were impressively bright, with the crackle and roar of the engines washing over those gathered as the rocket built up speed to deliver GOES-R to orbit.

The 541 remained visible to us on the ground until first stage engine cut-off (MECO).

While the rocket may be long-gone, the memories from being there for the rollout and the liftoff will be with me for the rest of my life. It was an amazing experience, and I hope it will be but the first of many.

Video courtesy of United Launch Alliance.

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