Some of you are aware that I spent a lot of years in the rocket game before I decided to become a rich and famous writer. I’m still in the “becoming” stage, but I do miss the glamour of the smoke and fire action. Today some of that came back with the launch of a monster rocket up at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Not that I was there on site. But there was a time. On this occasion, I was left with trying to find a suitable hill where I could see the beast as it flew several miles up on a polar route, heading due south along the coast of California. I found said hill, but there was no sign of the rocket. Doubtless, it was just too high.
The difference, of course, was that this time I was simply an observer, with no effect on the outcome. If it went, it went. If it didn’t, there’s always tomorrow.
Back in the day, however, it was different. Granted, I was never the one to push the button, but if there were problems I was one of the people who had to have some ready answers for an aggressive press. Notwithstanding, those were exciting times.
Typically, the launch sequence would include a two-day countdown, with scores of engineers, nervous executives and spacecraft customers all focused on hundreds of gauges and switches as the moment to go edged closer.
A couple of hours before liftoff I would join a group of reporters and caravan out to a press site where we could view the action from front-row seats. Well, not quite front row; I decided from my very first launch that a mile-and-a-half was quite close enough. Any time you’ve seen a launch on television, I can tell you, is a far cry from the real thing. The sound alone is sufficient to get your attention.
My only real complaints were the wretched launch times and the scrubs.
For some reason that was never adequately explained, altogether too many of these things were scheduled for the middle of the night, and by that I’m talking about 2 a.m. And for me, it was after a full day at the office. The drill went roughly like this: leave the day job at five-ish, get something to eat, check out the news at the hotel, try to grab a nap, and then get going at about 11 p.m.. This entailed a full-body application of mosquito repellent — remember, Space Central, USA is in Florida, home of the blood-suckers — and then a long-sleeved shirt and full-length pants. Forget the tourist fashions.
At the press site, I would get launch conditions updates, yack with the reporters while trying not to embarrass the company (my employer), and basically just wait as the countdown ticked away. It always fascinated me how, despite the numbers of times we’d been through the drill, things grew very quiet as we moved into the last five minutes. Conversations ceased, and we just watched the pad.
Then at “zero,” the coast — or so it seemed — would light up as the engines fired up.
Or it wouldn’t. A voice over the P.A. would yell, “Hold, hold, hold!” and we knew there was a problem and we were done for the night. Second verse, same as the first, on the following night. You heard the word “shit” a lot as the gang headed for their cars.
But as often as not, the next night — or the night after that — the skies would light up and you knew that it was all worth it. There is nothing quite like seeing that bright shaft of light arcing up into the darkness and going out of sight.
Miss it? Oh sure. And I actually got paid to watch, up close and personal.