I sometimes get to do some pretty interesting stuff. Friday, I had the opportunity to fly down to Cape Canaveral to witness the first launch of a Falcon 9 spacecraft. With access to the causeway which spans the Banana River, we had a clear view of the first launch of a commercial rocket designed with the ultimate goal of launching people into space.
The day started well before dawn, and as the sun was rising over St. Augustine airport (KSGJ) and nature and the Cirrus Aircraft Company provided the raw materials for one of those iconic “morning at the airport” photos. When I was learning to fly and working at Grissom Memorial airport in Bedford, IN, I used to love to hear the first engine of the day snap to life out on the ramp. Sometimes in the summer, when the air was humid, the sound would seem to be muted by the moisture-laden air. I do love an airport first thing in the morning. Much like a sailing marina, an airport at sunrise is a place full of promise.
There was weather between KSGJ and Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville (KTIX), but not enough to keep us from departing, and the flight to the space coast was uneventful. But it was a day of hurry up and wait.
From weather to telemetry issues to a small sailboat in the rocket safety range and finally a last-second abort on the first attempt, we waited and watched and waited some more in the early June Florida sun. We were constantly on our smartphones, checking in with the SpaceX web site trying to get any insight into whether the launch would happen. The morning dragged into the afternoon, and we got more and more sunburned.
But the hours or waiting paid off when, at 15 minutes before the launch window closed, the Falcon 9 successfully lifted off the pad at launch complex 40, and traveled all the way to orbit.
It’s rare to be able to see the first of anything. This launch was historic in that no commercial company has designed and built a rocket with the specific goal of transporting humans into space. The SpaceX team managed to get into a planned 250 KM orbit within a 1 percent margin on both apogee and perigee. This on a day when they were predicting a 75-80% chance of any success, let alone that they would be able to see a successful staging and ignition of the second stage vacuum engine. Their first flight far exceeded the expectations of the company, and in some ways had the weight of the commercial space industry riding on its success.
The flight home was delayed by some major thunderstorms moving across central Florida. One knocked out the power at the airport, but the control tower was able to operate on an emergency backup generator. We used the NEXRAD capability of the Avidyne Release 9 avionics of the Cirrus to dodge the thunderstorms up to about Daytona, and from there it was clear air to St. Augustine.
There are more pics of Flickr, including some I took as we passed the time waiting on the launch. Congratulations to SpaceX. Here’s hoping the first Falcon 9 launch is truly the first of many.