I would like to see a rocket launched into space
October 7, 2009 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to watch a rocket launched into space (from the continental U.S.). I've researched it as best I can, but would like guidance from someone who knows more about it or has seen one before.

I'm in St. Louis, Missouri, and I'd like to keep my travel time/expense to a minimum. That said, I'd like to do it right and see the most awesome rocket launch that I can... and see it in the best possible way.

Feel free to correct the following assumptions, which may very likely be wrong:
* If I want to watch a launch in the Continental U.S., I must choose between Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
* The launch platforms I have to choose from are: Minotaur I, Taurus, Atlas V, Delta II, Delta IV, and the Space Shuttle.
* These lists, for 2009 and 2010 represent the most comprehensive and accurate information regarding launch schedulings available online.

I have no preference for manned vs. unmanned, and am not favoring launches with any historical import -- I am only wanting to see the most visually impressive launch that I can.

Am I correct in assuming that I want to be as close as is possible? NASA provides instructions on good public viewing positions, but I'd like to be closer, if possible. Who do I schmooze in order to get the best seats in the house? (I'm guessing that the CEO of SatelliteMegaCorp isn't watching the launch with binoculars from his pickup bed on the state highway...) Could choosing a poorly-attended launch help my chances of getting closer? Do different launch providers have different policies on this?

What are the differences in appearance of the various launch platforms? Is bigger better? If so, what's the closest-modern-equivalent to the Saturn V? Are launches to GTO cooler looking than launches to LEO? (Forgive all of this if they are foolish questions... I have no idea).

What am I not asking that I should be? I know there must be an enthusiast community for such things (kindred spirits to Railfans and Roadgeeks), but I'm not finding any online. Do you know of any (are you one?). Many thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It may be smaller than what you are looking for, but you might want to check out the Goddard Space Flight Center at Wallops Island, Virginia.
posted by 4ster at 11:00 AM on October 7, 2009

There's some good info in this recent thread.
posted by nitsuj at 11:02 AM on October 7, 2009

Something to bear strongly in mind:

I witnessed the most recent space shuttle launch (and it was absolutely awesome, a night launch that was like watching the sun rise at midnight). However, in order to witness that launch I wound up going on several nights as the mission was repeatedly scrubbed due to a variety of reasons. This is not uncommon. So if you are planning on watching a launch, I suggest you plan your travel to wherever with that in mind, and have the plans and the budget to extend your stay as necessary.
posted by Lokheed at 11:44 AM on October 7, 2009

NASA offers packages that include breakfast with an astronaut. There are very limited openings. They typically only sell them within a couple of months of any launch.
posted by Gungho at 11:56 AM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster:
So if you are planning on watching a launch, I suggest you plan your travel to wherever with that in mind, and have the plans and the budget to extend your stay as necessary.
A good point, and advice heeded and appreciated. Brings up another question: Although "acts of God"/weather, etc., obviously can't be planned for, are there types of launch platforms/payloads that are notoriously easily/frequently scrubbed? I can see them being extremely cautious with manned launches in that regard. (Then again, I can see them being extremely cautious with a $30M satellite, too...)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 11:59 AM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster:
> NASA offers packages that include breakfast with an astronaut. There are very limited openings. They typically only sell them within a couple of months of any launch.
I'm very glad to know this, and thanks much for telling me. This would be fantastic, and I'm jealous of anybody who has the opportunity to do this... (maybe someday). But I'd like to state that in my case, and for this inquiry, it's not a "money is no object" type of proposition. True, I'd like the best seats I can swing... but I'll forgo any type of VIP treatment to keep costs down.

For what it's worth, my schmoozing/bullshitting abilities are formidable; and I'd like to leverage these--to the extent that I can--in lieu of my acceptable, but quite unformidable financial clout.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 12:10 PM on October 7, 2009

NASA itself doesn't sell anything. Anything that's being sold is probably through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, which is a good place to start looking for this sort of thing. I've never heard of VIP tickets being sold by the Visitor Center for a launch, but I could be wrong (NASA invites plenty of people, but those are most definitely not for sale).

The Space Shuttle is heaviest launch vehicle you'll see today. It's a hell of a show, and generates roughly as much thrust as the Saturn V did. It's also just about the most finicky vehicle out there, so bear in mind what Lokheed said above. A coworker of mine has made not one, but two trips where they never even got out of the Orlando airport. Took off, everything was fine, landed, heard about a long delay, turned around and got right back on the plane.

GEO launches aren't going to look any different than LEO...a big rocket's a big rocket. I've seen a bunch, and my money's still on Shuttle for the best show, despite the drawbacks.
posted by zap rowsdower at 12:57 PM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster:
> GEO launches aren't going to look any different than LEO...a big rocket's a big rocket. I've seen a bunch, and my money's still on Shuttle for the best show, despite the drawbacks.
Very informative, and answers a bunch of my questions. Thanks. What are your opinions/insights on the relative chances of getting prime seating to a Shuttle launch vs. a less popular launch? It'd seem like the Shuttle would have a bunch of people vying for very limited space, yes? That, combined with the good probability of delay that you and Lokheed mention, is making me lean towards a non-Shuttle launch. Is it your feeling that among non-Shuttle launches, one flavor's pretty much as visually impressive as any other?
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 1:09 PM on October 7, 2009

I think the manned flights are more likely to get scrubbed/postponed. Almost every shuttle launch I can recall in recent memory has slipped at least once (though this may be confirmation bias on my part). It costs a whole lot more than $30 million dollars to put together a shuttle launch (not to mention the additional risk to the human astronauts). One of the KSC (Kennedy Space Center) employees once told me it costs $1 million just to get the shuttle out to the pad.

If you can manage to make friends with anyone that has a (non-visitor) badge to KSC, they may be able to escort you on site that day, not necessarily to the VIP area (with the huge countdown timer), but closer than the general public. The recent Hubble mission was extra popular, so this was not possible. Less popular missions would give you more opportunity.

Ask everyone you know to ask everyone they know if anyone can get you on site at KSC (or VAFB). Nobody gets closer than a mile or so anyway.

KSC Launch Schedule. If you can make it in October to FL, you can see the Ares I-X Flight Test. No launch would be disappointing, you will have a good time no matter what.
posted by kenbennedy at 1:09 PM on October 7, 2009

I watched STS 125 in May from KSC. You do need tickets, so if you want to see a shuttle, start working on that immediately. My buddy made all the arrangements for our trip, so I'm a bit fuzzy on the details, but there are multiple viewing locations of varying desirability, and it's largely first come first serve. I haven't seen any lesser rocket launches. Seeing a shuttle launch involves a lot of ceremony and hassle. It's quite a show, but I might settle for a more mundane rocket if I could get closer.
posted by chrchr at 1:32 PM on October 7, 2009

I think you may be underestimating the power involved in a large rocket launch, and therefore overestimating the value of being close. I have seen a Shuttle launch from Titusville, FL, just across the causeway from Cape Canaveral and about six miles from the launch pad. Seven and a half million pounds of thrust and a plume of flame the size of a skyscraper makes that distance seem insignificant.

While the launch may look stately and serene as seen on TV, the reality is that, once the SRB's ignite, the Shuttle gets up and leaves pretty quickly. So think about it: within a few seconds, those who are a mile from the pad and those who are ten miles from it are, for all practical purposes, the same distance from the shuttle as it rapidly climbs away. This is a spectacle of awesome power, and being anywhere within the same zip code will be a ringside seat, kind of like watching Godzilla eat Tokyo from a few blocks away. To give you some perspective, I have clearly seen the Shuttle climb away in broad daylight from the cockpit of an airliner at 35,000 feet…over Savannah.

Don't worry so much about being at ringside. Just go watch.
posted by dinger at 1:54 PM on October 7, 2009

Just to reiterate what dinger just said - I live in Winter Garden, a 70 mile drive to Kennedy Space Center. I can stand in the driveway of my house and see the shuttle go up when there is a launch. But it's a heck of a lot louder when you watch it from the cape. ;-)
posted by Lokheed at 2:50 PM on October 7, 2009

I was in Florida in March to see a Delta II launch. I can't comment on any other rocket, but if you're seeing a Delta II go from complex 17, there are public locations you can see the launch that are closer than any other public viewing site in the hemisphere -- Jetty Park is so close to Complex 17 that it feels like you can reach out and grab the rocket (I think it's a couple miles), and the experience is awe inspiring.

I had a badge to enter KSC to see the launch and chose Jetty Park over the official viewing areas, as Jetty Park was much closer.

That said, the Delta II is being phased out, so I don't know how many launches from Complex 17 are left. It's a great show.
posted by chimaera at 10:30 PM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster:
dinger> I think you may be underestimating the power involved in a large rocket launch...
While I'm close to a hundred percent sure that you're right about this point; I think It'd be wrong to assert that the experience of having this view [3.7mi away - photo set] would be qualitatively similar to having this view [1500' away - photo set]. But in all other regards I defer to your experience.

I searched a bit (y'alls info was of truly immeasurable importance in guiding my search, I would've been completely lost without it), and chimaera's Jetty Park/LC-17 (Delta II site) combination (at 3.1mi) looks very solid. Unfortunately, he's also correct regarding the Delta II phaseout; there is only one more launch scheduled at KSC, in 2011. Using that as a trial balloon, though, I found that the closest that I could confirm that a civilian photog has gotten to this site was 1.4mi, at a place named "Press Site 1". Handsome shot, they even cut a little viewing window into the vegetation [Photo Set].

All somewhat moot, until 2011. But as an exercise, it encouraged me to look for other "Press Sites", of which there would seem to be several (the most famous being the press site for LC-39a, where the Shuttle launches... tough ticket to come by, I bet).

I will keep searching, and I will post any findings in this thread for posterity. Thanks to everyone in this thread, f'real. Every one of you. Terrific insights and advice... straight up and down the line (...and by all means, keep laying it on me, if you can spare it).
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 9:17 AM on October 8, 2009

Sorry to have the worst news ever, but If I was going to be in FL for the Ares I-X launch I could escort you onto the causeway. Unfortunately, I can't make it. I have a permanent badge at GSFC, and GSFC is allotted a certain # of on-site launch passes for some events. The point of this is just to tell you to keep looking for that friend of a friend, even those that may work at other NASA sites. I will keep you posted in case I ever am in the right place at the right time to help you out. I never made it to the STS-125 launch (a mission I actually worked on) since I had personal travel right up until the day before. I had to settle for NASA TV on that one. I too have yet to see a launch in person.
posted by kenbennedy at 12:06 PM on October 14, 2009

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