The flames billowed from below the rocket and the mammoth shimmering structure, the size of a 40 story building, slowly started to move upward. It was happening, and even though we were all anticipating the launch, none of us were prepared for what would happen next.
The days leading up to the launch were wrought with excitement followed by disappointment. SpaceX was providing no launch information. This was understandable, they are changing the world and in these early tests, there is no need to keep the public informed of their schedule. Nevertheless, the public is frantic and craves any dribble of information that could be ascertained. A tweet from Elon, a road closure, a TFR posted for the airspace above, any little morsel that popped up got quickly disseminated to the anxiously waiting fans.
Launch day was a bit of a surprise to all of us. We had just experienced a full dry run disappointment the day before and nobody knew if this was now the day or if it would be pushed yet again. There was no road closure in place and no rumors circulating on social media. In fact, the only information that was available was a rumor that the engines had failed to light at T-0 on the attempt the day before. This did not sound like an easy quick fix to us. We were all milling around not knowing quite what to do and were still slightly hung over from the night before. Then, word of a new road closure spread like a grass fire. We tuned into Labpadre, the local SpaceX live stream on YouTube and there on the screen was a banner that read, "Live in 26 minutes". What did this mean? What did they know? Not sure but it gave us a boost of excitement and everyone started checking their sources.
The launch viewing platform that Rocket Ranch has secured, for its VIP guests, is a private and exclusive location. It is inside the county's hard checkpoint which makes it inaccessible by car once the road is closed for launch activities. Both Rocket Ranch and the viewing platform are located on the Rio Grande. The river is the only way to get from one to the other on launch day. We got word that there may be another attempt so we jumped on the boat and cruised down the river inside the exclusion zone to our private perch. The viewing deck is a well built platform that has an incredible view of the Rio Grande on one side and the best possible ground up view of the Starship launch pad on the other. Being there made us the closest humans to SN8 when it left the ground.
When we arrived we were greeted with snacks and drinks and got a chance to intermingle with YouTubers and Facebook page managers, and social media influencers, that have figured out a way to provide the world a glimpse into the secret SpaceX factory activities. It was a Willie Wonka experience and I was holding a proverbial golden ticket. Each specialist had inside information that was being spread as fast as it was being leaked. "When is the launch?" became the running joke as nobody knew the answer but everyone around the world was asking the question. The NASA plane just took off. The venting just started. Someone transgressed the no fly zone. They are defueling. There is a lift next to the starship. All of these little bits of information along with many more wreaked havoc on our systems. Each bit of good news sent everyone into an adrenaline induced rush and each bit of bad news a crash.
The venting, the frost line, these were the tell tale signs that something was going to happen soon. Everyone had returned to the viewing platform and were pacing with anticipation like school children preparing for recess. A NASA spotter plane was circling over head at 43 thousand feet giving us a gauge of height as we peered into the deep blue cloudless sky. Then without warning the massive craft roared to life. A flash of smoke and flames burst from beneath and slowly we could see the craft moving ever so slightly upward. I was no stranger to rocket launches but this was different than others I had witnessed in the past. It was such a big vehicle that the acceleration was almost undetectable. It looked like there must be something wrong. It was leaving the pad, but so slow and didn't seem to accelerate at all. As it cleared the surrounding structures we could see the sharp diamond pattern that is the signature of Raptor engines. Beautiful, clean burning flames like a cutting torch slowly pushing this mammoth away from the ground. Then the sound started to reach our platform. The unmistakable popping that a rocket engine makes as the burning, expanding gasses pierce through the cooler stable air below. It began slowly and continued getting louder and louder until our whole bodies could feel it vibrating through us.
It climbed and climbed straight up. This was also very different, as most launches climb up and then transition into an orbital path that arcs away from the launch pad. This just went straight up and as it did, it appeared to be almost overhead. It was like standing at the foot of a skyscraper trying to see the top. Higher and higher until it looked as if one of the rocket engines gave out. Now only 2 continued to push it upwards. The faint popping continued until it reached its apogee and then in a puff of white smoke, all engines cut off. Silently it nosed over on its side and with amazing stability it assumed a skydiver position. With no sound, no buffet, no change in attitude it seemed to just float. It looked as close to any image of a UFO that I had ever seen. Dropping, not like a brick or a ball, but a controlled float that went on for a perceived eternity.
The Raptors performed nominally. The welds held under pressure. The fins remained intact and aerodynamically controlled the descent. The skydive maneuver was stable. Now it was time for the big swing. We had all seen it in the models but could such an insane maneuver really work? The slow motion fall was getting closer and closer to the ground. It seemed to be time to start those engines and begin the transition but it continued to fall with no sign of a relight. As the starship got lower and lower, it appeared as if it was going to plummet into the earth and burst into flames. Every passing second raised the tension like a stretching rubber band, ready to snap. Then suddenly, one, two engines fired almost simultaneously and the massive tower swung around in a perfect over center position to stop the angular momentum just enough to correctly align itself in a fully upright position. The maneuver worked exactly as we had seen in the models. The engines burned and the closure rate with the ground was now visibly slowing. It was working. SpaceX had proven a concept that until then had only been imagined. It was a range shot, one that could be used to make the proper corrections next time to hit the target.
The grand finale. Every hurdle had been cleared. All the milestones reached. The bar had been set. Those that knew what SpaceX was attempting to accomplish that day, could celebrate in the satisfaction of success. Those that just came to watch a launch, only saw the fireworks. Either way, the remainder of the test had something for everyone. What turned out to be low tank pressure in a header tank, the one that is used for landing fuel, led to one of the engines receiving too much oxygen and subsequently burned hot. The mixture was in fact so hot the engine consumed itself. This of course caused it to flame out. The remaining engine struggled to bring the massive rocket to a stop on the landing pad but was unable to do it alone. The rocket hit the ground with a force in excess of its structural limits and it burst into a fiery ball on impact. It was the best of both worlds. Total mission success and a NASCAR crash fans secretly go to races to see.
The door to Mars is now open. Following the launch Elon tweeted "Mars, here we come!!". The next space race is in full swing. SN9 need only match the accomplishments of SN8 and stick the landing to push forward humanity. I will be there to see this amazing achievement myself. Will you?