My buddy Max: “I think there might be a spot open on a boat for the launch tomorrow, talk to Steven.”
Me, to Steven: “Hey man, is there a spot open on a boat? I’m about a 20 hour drive away but will hit the road if there is.”
Steven: “Drive safe, see you tomorrow.”
And that’s how my sudden and amazing trip out to Cape Canaveral began. Due to the flying experience being a bit disjointed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hopped in my Tesla in Dallas, typed in the address of the marina in Cape Canaveral, and hit the road. “Andy, that sounds crazy”, and yes, you’re right. But after my NASA Social experience in March I’ve become a bit of a space nerd, and I figured the only thing better than watching a rocket launch was watching not just another rocket launch, but watching SpaceX launch NASA astronauts into space from US soil for the first time since the shuttle mission ended in 2011.
I hit the road, a grocery bag full of healthy snacks so I wouldn’t blow my diet while on the road. As I passed from Texas into Louisiana and night fell, the autopilot functionality on my Tesla Model 3 made the ride an absolute joy (it drove for me 98% of the time, and no I didn’t sleep while it was driving).
The plan was simple: get on a boat and get as close as we could to the launch site to take some great pictures. We wouldn’t be as close as last time, since we were at the actual press complex, but we still thought it would be worth it. Granted, we still wouldn’t be close, most likely 8-9 miles away, but it was a good plan and I figured if nothing else it would be a good time seeing friends I met back in March.
Here was the thing: the weather forecast looked dreadful for launch. The official Air Force forecast for launch gave only a 50% chance of a green light for launch. As I passed from Louisiana into Mississippi, I hit the first of many rainstorms that I passed through on my way to Florida. They seemed like narrow bands, but it was still concerning, because obviously you don’t want to drive out to Florida to watch a rocket not take off.
The Hope for Launch
I optimistically foraged my way ahead into Florida, sleeping while the Tesla charged. I finally arrived at the Jetty Park Marina just before 11am on launch day. I met my buddies, we hopped on a boat, and tried to head over to the launch pad to get some pictures of the rocket before the Exclusion Zone in the water around the launch pad went into effect. We were met by the US Coast Guard, who told us to turn around because we wouldn’t make it to the pad and back before the zone kicked in. So that was a bummer, but then we went to lunch at the marina and I had some great fish for lunch.
The weather I had passed through did in fact make it to the cape and we sat through band after band of rain. The forecast was still looking good enough to make an attempt at launch, however, so we got back into the boat and made our way through the locks and over to Banana Creek, listening to the SpaceX broadcast via the boat’s Bluetooth speakers.
Max and I got our cameras ready and loved the composition we had, with the NASA VAB in the foreground next to the launchpad the SpaceX Falcon 9 would depart from (click here to see my pictures from inside the NASA VAB).
They began fueling the rocket at about T-45 minutes, which made us really optimistic, since they wouldn’t fuel the rocket unless they thought there was a decent chance for launch. But then, with only 17 minutes before launch, the call came to scrub the launch. If they had been able to delay the launch by 10 minutes or so the weather would’ve probably been ok, but unfortunately they just weren’t able to delay the launch, due to the instantaneous launch window required to meet up with the International Space Station.
What is an instantaneous launch window?
The International Space Station is orbiting the Earth at about 17500mph. A rocket launching to meet up with the ISS needs to not only have enough power to escape the planet’s gravitational pull, it must also have enough power to accelerate the docking vehicle to the same speed, which takes quite a bit of fuel. Because of this, rockets must launch at a precise time in order to balance the amount of fuel necessary to get the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to the appropriate speed while making sure they don’t miss the ISS entirely. That’s why they had to depart at a precise time, there simply wasn’t any room for going early or late to accommodate the weather.
So the launch was scrubbed, which left me with mixed emotions. This was Wednesday, and the next launch wasn’t until Saturday. Part of me hoped it would’ve launched that day so I could turn around and start heading back to Dallas with some stops to see friends and family along the way. The other part wanted to visit the launch pad for some cool pictures, so the scrub wasn’t really that big of a deal. I decided to make it a holiday in Cape Canaveral and booked three nights at a Hyatt Place near Melbourne, Florida.
Helicopter Tour over Kennedy Space Center and the SPACE SHUTTLE RUNWAY
The day before the next launch attempt, some friends and I chartered a helicopter from Cocoa Beach Helicopters (highly recommended, by the way, Hudson was an absolutely fantastic pilot!) to fly us as close as we could get to Kennedy Space Center. I had spoken with the owner of the helicopter company and he said the tower over at NASA was usually pretty good about letting them fly close to the restricted airspace over KSC itself, so we figured it would be worth a shot.
Those of you who follow me on Instagram probably remember seeing this story.
We hopped in the heli and made our way up over Cape Canaveral, first looking over the port area, where we saw United Launch Alliance’s Rocketship, a cargo vessel which delivers large rocket boosters from Alabama to launch destinations in Florida and California!
We were excited about seeing the Rocketship (it’s 312 feet long and fits rocket boosters in its hull) and then we saw something even cooler: one of SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships, named Just Read The Instructions. This is one of two autonomous drone ships used as landing pads in the ocean for the rocket boosters to land upon.
(The white bit you see on the deck of the ship is the Octagrabber, which is stored in a garage aboard the ship until shortly after the booster lands, at which point it scurries out onto the deck of the barge to secure the booster for its journey back to the cape)
We then caught a fleeting look south of Florida’s pristine beaches as we turned north towards Kennedy Space Center.
Kennedy Space Center sits in the middle of a massive nature reserve, so we were mainly flying over trees and not much else, but the balmy weather and the doors being off of the helicopter made for a wonderful 15 minute trip over to KSC.
We first approached the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, which I toured (and saw the amazing Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit) in March. I figured there would be some cool compositions to explore from the air and turned out to be exactly right!
I thought the KSC Visitors Complex with the NASA VAB in the background made for a really cool composition (tell me if you agree or not in the comments below!), since the VAB is where the shuttle was assembled.
Just next to the KSC Visitors Complex is the sprawling complex of a big SpaceX competitor named Blue Origins. The brainchild of Jeff Bezos, Blue Origins is a rocket and lander designed with the intent to contribute to the nascent human return to the moon. They’re certainly not as visible or prominent as SpaceX (the brainchild of Bezos-rival Elon Musk) but they’re working just as hard to get back to the moon as both SpaceX and NASA. We did an orbit over their Florida HQ for a few pictures.
We then started making our way over to an enormous runway. The. runway. where. the. space. shuttle. landed.
But on our way we caught our first glimpse of the launchpad with the Falcon 9 rocket standing ready. I had my Sony a7rIV and the impressive 200-600mm super telephoto lens so I knew I could get a good picture even though we were miles away from the launchpad.
I loved the shot. But loved what we were about to see even more. I heard the pilot request a flyover of the space shuttle runway and we were approved!
It was absolutely amazing from this vantage point but then the pilot descended and got us super close over the runway!
It was so amazing being that close to something which the shuttle had touched many times. The runway is still in use today, and is what President Trump landed on in Air Force One to watch the launch just a few days before (and would again the next day). It’s 15000-feet long, so it can pretty much land any jet in the world. (Random side note: I’ve also landed on the sister runway to this one, on none other than Easter Island in Chile, whose runway was extended and renovated by the US government in the late 1960s to be used as an alternate landing site for the shuttle).
Alongside the runway were the expected control tower (which I got a great picture of in front of the NASA VAB) and a bit of a curiousity.
I had never heard of a Space Shuttle named Inspiration before and asked the guys in the helicopter with me about it. Turns out it’s a full-scale wooden replica built for demonstration purposes by Rockwell in 1972. It made its way around the country before finding this permanent display post at Kennedy Space Center.
We flew past a small hangar with a very nice Gulfstream G5 next to it. This was the NASA Gulfstream G5 on which the astronauts traveled to Cape Canaveral only days before. The hangar contained NASA’s Huey helicopter fleet, I was told.
As we looped around for one more overflight of the space shuttle runway I set my sights on a composition I had spotted earlier as the morning light started casting a golden hue over the landscape.
I loved so many things about this picture. The VAB itself needs no introduction, but the reflection in the lake at the bottom of the picture was a pleasant surprise. From the VAB you can see the Mobile Crawlerway, which is the track the Mobile Crawler would take to deliver Saturn V rockets and Space Shuttles to the launch pad. Back in the distance, just past the SpaceX VAB, was the star of the show, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule at the very top. I just loved the symbolism of the scene.
On our way back to the helipad, we flew past an area I had toured in March: the ISS Processing Facility, where everything going to the ISS must pass. This is where the famous doorway from which the astronauts exit quarantine on their way to space sits (as well as the Astronaut Parking Only spots), and I just had to get a picture of it from the air.
We landed back at the helipad in Port Canaveral a few minutes later after an absolutely incredible flight!
We were watching the weather forecast all week. Things didn’t look too good for the launch on Saturday but we went ahead and got a boat anyway. Our goal was to start early and head over to the launchpad in the morning, grab some lunch back at the marina, and then head to the same spot as before for the launch attempt.
We started over towards the launchpad, hugging the coast of Merritt Island and seeing countless other launch pads, including the ULA’s VAB, inside of which a rocket was being assembled!
We also saw, of all things, a blue beach house. It turns out this house can be used by astronauts while in quarantine if they fancy a swim or some fresh air during the dregs of pre-launch quarantine.
We finally made it to the launch pad. We couldn’t go onto the beach but we got as close as we could! The weather relented and the beautiful morning light lit up the rocket!
We kept taking pictures and suddenly we heard the familiar whump-whump-whump of a Huey helicopter. Shortly thereafter a NASA Huey helicopter came into view, complete with door gunner, just to see what we were up to I’m sure.
The Huey then unintentionally posed for some awesome pictures with the VAB in the background.
It turned back towards Kennedy Space Center, content that we were just nerds taking pictures. We went further along the coast so I could get a good picture of the crew arm connected to the rocket.
We scurried back to the port (meeting up with the Coast Guard again, just so they were certain we were on our way back in before the Exclusion Zone became active) and had a great lunch at a local BBQ spot.
The Rocket Launch
Rested, sunscreened, and ready, we hopped back onto the boat for what we hoped was the last time and made our way over to Banana Creek for the launch. The strangest thing happened: the weather started moving north, away from the launchpad! Everything was looking good to go! We got our cameras ready and waited for the final green light for launch. While we were waiting, we heard the scream of fighter jets overhead, doing security patrols.
(I’m not sure, please tell me in the comments, but those jets are armed with missiles aren’t they?)
The only thing cooler than getting ready for a rocket launch is having the soundtrack of fighter jets overhead!
The countdown began, I said a last minute prayer for safety for the two brave astronauts sitting at the top of that rocket, and got my camera ready. What started as a bright light at the bottom quickly became the flames of 9 Merlin engines from the Falcon 9 rocket as it slowly cleared the tower and picked up speed on its way to space!
Whooping and hollering, I kept on shooting.
Before I knew it, the rocket was making its way into the clouds and out of view.
Success! American astronauts launched successfully into space (and are now happily working aboard the International Space Station) for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. My friends and I jubilantly cheered as the boat captain ran us full throttle back to the port (where he was late for his wife’s birthday dinner, eek).
Wrapping it all up
What a fun weekend. It was great seeing friends from NASA Social back in March and meeting new ones. As much as I loved seeing the rocket launch, honestly being out on a boat with friends old and new was the best part, I just had a blast!
There’s another significant rocket launch (of the Mars 2020 Rover) coming up next month and I have my fingers crossed for a media credential for it, but in the meantime I hope you enjoyed these pictures from an incredible weekend!
Which picture was your favorite? Tell me in the comments below!