We knew what we were getting into
The weatherheads had predicted for days that this would be a foggy night, but usually in those same breaths, someone would say that launch would proceed as planned, anyway: There were other ways to see through the fog. But what that meant is that tonight would not be a slam dunk: In fact, it might be anything but, because many-a-website would tell you the optimal places to see a Vandenberg launch, but none tells you what to do when fog tops 700 feet in the sky.
I love driving up the 101 in SoCal (when it's not on fire). Emerging out of the mountains from the 405, viewing the vista ahead, the ocean, the fields, the distant mountains...too bad you get almost none of that at night. Sometimes, it's hard even to know that you're driving right up on the coast. Enter CA-154: A long, windy road up a steep mountain and through the Los Padres National Forest. (A few weeks before I got there, two cars smashed into each other, each traveling at highway speeds.) After traveling upstairs forever, when you start to wonder if you should worry about air traffic scraping the sunroof, you begin the inevitable long descent into Santa Barbara wine country, where admittedly, I've spent many a delicious day at various points in the past.
My dad was with me in the car. (He didn't want me to fall asleep behind the wheel. Also, he's a space nut like me.) On this night, the descent down the hill required a descent into the fog. It was at this point that we realized that there was a good chance we weren't going to see anything at all, but my dad was all too optimistic for me and urged me forward. So I pulled over on the road in the middle of some farmer's crop and asked my dad to get out of the car and count all the stars he could see. "Zero", he said. With a 4:05 am scheduled launch, and at 3:10 am, in the middle of a vegetable field just inches from Vandenberg, we made the painful decision to U-turn, backs to the action and headed, full steam, away from the site that would soon be bathed in surreal-bright sodium orange from the booster rocket in 55 minutes.
The misguided trip that had us turn back and head almost
First thought was to head out to the coast toward Gaviota, but that attempt was met with fog. So we boogied on up to CA-154 for the mountain top. Unfortunately, it is an exceedingly long journey to the top, and painful when you know that a rocket launch is imminent and 10 minutes away. Make that 9 minutes, 8....
3:58 am, 3:59, 4:00.... My dad pressured me to pull over every minute so he could setup shop with his camera, but the problem was, we were on the wrong side of the mountain. Eventually, I caved at 4:01 am, stopping at a scenic overlook that couldn't have more trees in the direction of the launch. Sheeyit!
Hit the road again...4:02 am, 4:03.... Finally, at 4:03 am, we reached the top of the hill, parked, and scrambled out of the car. 4:04 am....
No time for a tripod. Oh, and we didn't know really where to look, either. But shortly, a corner of the sky started oranging up. With camera in hand and rolling, I was still dodging traffic coming down the mountain. Oops! Also, my dad and I had an agreement not to talk while it happened, but if you scroll to the beginning of my video (which I've set to start at 0:01), you'll hear me politely telling him to STFU. :)
What started as a menacing, orange circle quickly grew a tail and glided at approximately airplane-apparent speed, across the night's pitch. Eventually the tail disappeared as the booster gave way, and the rocket crept closer and closer to orbit before finally disappearing, hundreds of miles away.
Forgive the video -- I didn't have time for a tripod, and in the first minute, I was still dodging traffic (that you can hear in the video) while trying to get up the hill and keep the rocket in frame (that last part I did with mixed success).
Unfortunately, the coolest part of the launch happened after I turned the video off: A low, continuous rumbling starting coming in, vaguely from the direction of Vandenberg. At three minutes away, that's ( 1225 km/hr speed of sound at sea level × ( 1 hr / 60 mins ) × 3 mins ) = 61 km/38 mi away! Not bad for turning around 50 minutes before that.
My favorite launch certainly can't be one seen from 61 km away. And this definitely was not my favorite. But there was my first Vandenberg. ...but on the other hand, there will be more Vandenbergs, and surely one or two launches in the future where I can actually see the launch pad! But what made this really special was that this payload is headed to Mars! Mars!! It's May right now and I'm busy making summer plans. This thing, faster than anything terrestrially bound, will be (hopefully) touching own on the Red Planet two days before they light the Rockefeller Christmas tree. And that journey is only that "short" when the planets are close together!
The world is a cool place. Most people take for granted that we can do things as extraordinary as this. I hope I never lose the childlike wonder and curiosity that make things like this so special.