One surprising sensation defines what it feels like to stand just three miles from one of the biggest rocket launches of all time:
And that’s how it was with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
We stood atop the roof of NBC’s media building, three stories up from the ground and cooked by the sun as delays pushed back the targeted launch time. Originally slated for 1:30 p.m. EST, SpaceX bumped it repeatedly until the launch was set to happen just before 4 p.m. Wind conditions were not ideal, officials explained, and worries began to creep in that the launch would be pushed to the next day.
Hanging over us while we were waiting was the real possibility that this rocket could blow up. Even the night before, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he would consider it a success if Falcon Heavy didn’t damage the launch pad. If it were to actually explode, we might have to move – and fast – to avoid flying debris.
But then the wind turned: With 15 minutes until the Air Force’s designated launch window would close, SpaceX decided to begin the final countdown.
Ten seconds before the launch, the reporters gathered around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center fell silent. All eyes were glued to the gleaming white, 23-story-tall rocket in the distance as the clock counted lower.
Six seconds to launch, a plume of smoke burst from the base of the rocket, billowing out from the pad as kerosene fuel powered up the motors.
Four seconds. The plume of smoke tripled in size, as all 27 of Falcon Heavy’s engines came to life.
Zero. The strongback arm holding the rocket vertical slipped away. In silence Falcon Heavy slowly rose, breathing fire from its three cores, the flames pouring from its base nearly too bright to watch. Yet, as Musk’s rocket began to pick up speed, the only initial sound came from the cheers and whistles of the thousands gathered at Kennedy.
And then, with Falcon Heavy streaking away, 20 seconds after liftoff, the ground began to shake.
The lens on our video camera rattled as it captured the event live on television. We felt the roar more than we heard it, the sound drowning out the crowds and hitting us in the chest as if we were leaning into a rock concert loudspeaker.
Falcon Heavy flew out of sight, becoming the most powerful commercial rocket in history.
Silence returned across the area as onlookers strained to follow the rocket’s next stage: the ambitious return of the two side boosters that SpaceX hoped to land a few miles south at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Within minutes, they appear: two bright lights, ripping back through the Earth’s atmosphere. The boosters blinked side by side for a few seconds, winding their way to the ground in a dance of aerial acrobatics. Again, silence, as the crowd waited for the results.