I am driving down a quiet two-lane road through dark, still Florida mangroves, going eastbound toward the sea and a horizon that has barely begun to brighten. It is early—well before my normal rising hour. My younger sister, Sarah, is in the passenger seat, chatting quietly so as to not wake her three kids dozing in the back. We come upon a break in the mangroves, and I pull over, pointing across the marsh. There, a few miles away, is a brilliant white SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket gleaming in the floodlights of Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on Merritt Island. It is an impressive, stirring sight, and I imagine similar early morning views of the Saturn V rockets that launched man to the moon from this very spot.
Falcon 9 is not Saturn nor is it the space shuttle, but it is America’s preeminent space-launch vehicle today. It has revolutionized the space industry by slashing the cost to orbit and making retro-propulsive landings de rigueur, and it has returned crewed spaceflight to our shores. Launches are still impressive events that attract a good number of locals and tourists alike; in two winters here, Dawn and I have been lucky to view more than a dozen (“Snowbirds on the Space Coast,” November 2020) including Falcon 9 test, cargo and crewed missions, as well as Atlas V, Delta IV and Delta IV Heavy shots.
For launches from LC-39A, we have found Playalinda Beach at Canaveral National Seashore to be a particularly spectacular viewing point. It’s only about 3 miles away from the pad—the closest the general public is allowed to get during any launch—affording not only a great view but also a thrilling auditory and sensory experience as well. This is why Sarah and Emilia, 13, Justice, 10, and Ari, 8, are driving with me to Playalinda Beach at this early hour. Today, they will see, hear and feel their very first rocket launch.
Dawn and I do not have any children of our own. Our childless status is not by choice, but we’ve made our peace with it—and truthfully have rather taken advantage of it. Our adventurous sea-nomad lifestyle of the past four years would have been possible with kids but not terribly likely. We do have 14 precocious nieces and nephews we love dearly; although, since leaving Minnesota, we don’t see them as often as we’d like.
Fortunately, like me, Sarah inherited our father’s wanderlust, and if her kids don’t get the bug as well, it won’t be for lack of exposure (among other far-flung adventures, they lived in northern Thailand for a year where Sarah worked for a nonprofit). This week, they don’t have school, and Sarah found cheap last-minute airline tickets, so the family made a quick escape from frigid Minnesota to sunny Florida. Thanks to several weather-related scrubs, their visit coincides nicely with the launch of SpaceX’s Starlink V1.0-L16 mission.
The sun is well above the horizon now, sparkling off rolling combers and bathing the seashore in gloriously warm golden light. Crying seagulls wheel overhead, sandpipers flit across the sand. Surf-casters tend their fishing poles, awaiting elusive bites. A crowd has gathered on the south end of the beach, all eyes on the bulbous payload fairing poking above the sea-oat-topped barrier dunes. Small jets of steam periodically issue from the rocket as liquid oxygen is loaded during the last 35 minutes of the countdown. The kids pepper me with questions—especially Ari, who is hobbling around the beach on crutches and a knee brace following a recent surgery after a downhill-skiing accident. There is no cell coverage out here, so I assume the launch is still on for 8:02 a.m. I count down the seconds aloud for the kids’ benefit.
Because the dunes obscure the bottom half of the rocket, our first indication of T minus zero is when the nose cone starts moving silently upward, ever so slowly at first. The massive cloud of steam and exhaust from liftoff mushrooms into view, just before the 300-foot plume of white-hot flame emitted by nine Merlin 1D engines produced a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust. As soon as the engines clear the fixed service structure, the vehicle begins its pitch-over to the northeastern trajectory that makes Playalinda such a good vantage point for this mission.
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Fifteen seconds after liftoff, the boom of ignition finally reaches us, and the sound level rapidly increases to a guttural crackling roar that reverberates in one’s very rib cage. At close enough range, just the sound waves produced by the engines are strong enough to kill a human. Even 3 miles away, it’s thoroughly impressive. The kids squeal and yell and cheer, jumping up and down. The rocket passes almost overhead as it accelerates into the stratosphere, leaving behind a ragged contrail and flying through the speed of sound and maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max Q).
Two and a half minutes after liftoff, at 215,000 feet and 4,300 knots, the barely visible flame disappears with main-engine cutoff, and unseen by us, the first stage separates en route to a retro-propulsive landing on the drone ship Just Read the Instructions off the coast of North Carolina. Meanwhile, the second stage continues to a 366-by-213-kilometer orbit, where it deploys 60 Starlink mini satellites—some 12,000 of which will eventually provide high-speed internet coverage around the globe. Seventeen launches down, 183 to go. And all of this for the stated purpose of financing the human colonization of Mars. Yes, Elon Musk is a madman—but one who has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to turn “impossible” goals into reality. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against him.
The kids agree that the launch was well worth the early wake-up, but our day is not finished. A few hours later, we are flying up the Indian River in N35319, the 1978 Piper Warrior I’ve been renting from Voyager Aviation at Merritt Island Airport (KCOI). Emilia is in the right seat, and Justice and our dog, Piper, are in the back. All eyes are out the right-side windows as I point out the historic and current launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, the Blue Origin rocket plant, and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building before making a low pass down the 15,000-foot Shuttle Landing Facility runway.
On our way back, Emilia gingerly takes the controls and does an excellent job of holding heading and altitude and making shallow turns. It is her first time in a small airplane; Justice and Ari flew in our Piper Pacer when they were young. After landing, I swap out my kiddo and canine passengers for Sarah and Ari, who is beside herself with excitement as I strap her into the right seat. As soon as we take off, she’s ready to take the controls—and her turns aren’t so shallow. We repeat the previous flight path and land to find Dawn, Piper, Justice and Emilia sprawled out on a blanket in the grass watching the steady procession of landing aircraft. We decide that there’s enough time left for Justice to take his own turn at the controls. Sarah stays behind this time, while all three kids and I take off in the faded but faithful old Warrior.
After putting the airplane to bed, we head across the river to Windbird’s winter berth; it’s Sarah and the kids’ first time aboard our well-traveled home. Justice, Ari and Emilia climb all over it, inspecting all the rigging and fittings that mark it as a bluewater-cruising vessel, and they soon fixate on the 10-foot RIB hanging from our stern davits. We launch Little Bird, and Sarah, the kids and Piper pile in for a fun dinghy ride around the river (remarkably, our 15-horsepower two-stroke outboard is strong enough to plane out with six of us on board).
Naturally, the kids each get a turn learning how to drive a dinghy—yet another first for their jampacked day. But soon, they must head back to Daytona Beach so Sarah can get some remote work done tonight. Suddenly alone, Dawn and I watch the sunset from our cockpit, toasting the day with Dark ‘n’ Stormy sundowners and blowing our conch horn as the sun dips below the velveteen horizon. Any day I get to watch a rocket launch, fly a small airplane, and fool around with boats is a very good day. Sharing all that with my sister, nieces and nephew made it a fantastic one. I am once again reminded of the many blessings in my life, and I am truly grateful.
This story appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Flying Magazine