Friday, January 27, 2006


You're a VIP!? a man asked us, enviously eyeing the badges that hung from our necks on yellow straps.

Yes, but it's not like we worked with the science. It's not like we had any hand in the engineering or logistics. We were just friends. But by that stoke of fortune, we got yellow straps and badges that would let us in as VIPs to watch the New Horizons launch to Pluto. And even though our vantage point turned out to be farther away than anyone had thought it would be, we would do it again in a pinch.

Let me tell you why.

On the third day, the sun was shining thru a broken deck of clouds at 3600 feet. The wind was chilly, but when the sun came out it warmed our backs.

We sat on a long wharf that reached out into the lagoon. We sat with hotdogs in our hands, our legs hanging over the side of the dock, and our eyes on the distant rocket. And we listened to the firing room audio over speakers set up on shore.

As we sat and watched and listened, the winds and clouds conspired to delay the launch in increments of ten and 15 minutes. An hour and a half passed. But eventually there came the time when the launch director polled his team for a final go/no-go.

He called the engineers one by one in rapid succession. One by one they responded, Go! And when they got to the Red Line Monitor, he was Go! And there was a sigh of relief in the crowd, for a red line violation had aborted the launch two days before. After a moment of silence, the launch director announced he was Go, and the count resumed at T minus four minutes and counting.

Waves on the water rippled gently in the breeze. Clouds glided across a blue sky. The countdown proceeded.

3 minutes and counting
2 minutes and counting
Ignition and liftoff!

Far in the distance, clouds of exhaust and steam puffed up from the base of the launch pad. There was a bright orange flash, and the white rocket in the distance began to rise.

As it climbed, the crowd around us cheered. Over the speakers, we heard the roar of the rocket, but from that point over the water, there was nothing but silence and the ripple of the waves. The rocket climbed into the air, leaving a trail of smoke to mark its trajectory -- a bright orange flame at the top of a curving line leaning out over the ocean.

20 seconds into the flight, the rocket disappeared behind a white cloud. Several seconds later, it reappeared over the top as a flash of orange and then disappeared again only to reappear as another flash of orange followed by a smokey trail.

At 55 seconds, we heard a rumble, and the ground seemed to shake. It started quietly but quickly grew louder -- the roar of launch dissipated by the 12 miles between us. We marvelled out loud that the sound would be so loud after travelling so far across the water.

And none of us took our eyes from the sky until it had climbed high into the sky and was finally lost behind the clouds over the ocean to the east. None of us took our eyes from the sky until then.

And that is why we would do it again in a pinch. Because even from that distance, we couldn't take our eyes away.

NASA Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida
for the New Horizons/Pluto launch

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