Landing the rockets
10 min read

Eagles, alligators, and falcons

I first became aware of Falcon Heavy about two years ago, when the inaugural flight was scheduled for April or May of 2016. For those of you not into orbital boosters, Falcon Heavy is the latest creation of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX. It started out as a simple concept – just slap two Falcon 9 boosters on a central core vehicle and away you go. Reality proved somewhat more difficult. The program was nearly cancelled on three occasions because of the extensive redesign required.

Saturn V

The Saturn V has held the title as most powerful liquid fuel rocket for decades, but there is a new challenger.

The launch date was postponed time and again. Momentum finally began to build toward the end of last year when the vehicle arrived at the Kennedy Space Center and modifications began on Launch Complex 39A to adapt it for the Heavy. LC-39A is where the Apollo moon missions were launched as well as 82 Space Shuttle flights. Falcon Heavy was advertised as the most powerful liquid fuel rocket since the Saturn V. I bought close-in viewing tickets as soon as they went on sale. Public interest was high: all 3,000 tickets sold out in 24 hours. This was going to be big.

Our flight from Oklahoma to Florida via Cessna Skylane was hastened by the usual tailwind. We got to our motel in Titusville by early evening on February 5th and had a nice dinner. Our parking pass for Kennedy Space Center said to be there six hours before the scheduled launch time. Surely they didn’t mean six whole hours, so we set out at 8:00am the next day for a 1:30pm launch.

Our first clue that they really meant six hours was the traffic backed up trying to get into the Visitor Center. The second clue was the line going through the security checkpoint. The third clue was the hour-long wait to get on a bus. The line wound its way across the entirety of the Visitor Center plaza. The bus ride was necessary to get from the Visitor Center to the Apollo – Saturn V building. The Saturn V building is situated 3.9 miles west of LC-39A and provided the closest public viewing of the launch.

As we were leaving the Visitor Center, the bus driver pointed out an alligator sunning itself next to a roadside canal. This is not a common sight in Oklahoma. Once underway, the true cause of the backup became apparent. We were getting funneled through the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) as part of our “Feel the Heat” launch viewing package. The SLF is a three-mile-long perfectly flat runway with absolutely clear approaches at both ends. “Flat” is a relative term in this case because the far end of the runway is not visible due to the curvature of the earth! We were allowed to disembark and see the plaque where Atlantis came to a stop on the last shuttle flight in 2011. Actually stepping on the runway surface was a no-no because it is still in use. Starfighters Aerospace is based there, operating the world’s only fleet of flight-ready F-104 supersonic aircraft.

Eagle above

It makes a great location for lunch before a rocket launch.

Back on the bus, we headed off to the final destination for the day. A longstanding nest occupied by two bald eagles was pointed out along the way. The unused portions of the Space Center comprise the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is a fascinating symbiosis of natural environment and man-made creations. Upon arrival at the Apollo – Saturn V building we discovered the lunch buffet was getting rapidly depleted. It took a false start in one line and fifteen minutes in another, but we finally got fed. It’s kind of cool to chow down beneath a Saturn V and a lunar lander.

After lunch it was time to go outside and stake out a spot. To the Space Center’s credit, the crowd density was about right for the size of the viewing area. It was crowded but not overly so. Loudspeakers were set up to provide ongoing launch commentary. There was a local announcer as well as a live feed from SpaceX. It took a little while to figure out who was talking when. The launch time kept getting pushed back because of high winds at altitude. The local announcer observed that SpaceX tends to use up all of their launch window before pushing the button. That meant we could be waiting until 4pm. A bald eagle circled lazily overhead as we sat there on the lawn taking it all in. I began to wonder how they came up with the name for Apollo 11’s lunar module.

Around 3pm one of the SpaceX people announced the start of liquid oxygen (LOX) loading. That got everyone excited. The local announcer said to stand at least 20 feet away from the windows. That got everyone thinking. Thirty minutes later we could see venting out at the pad. They really are going to do this! It is not an exaggeration to say the air was electric by then. So many delays, so many unknowns, and now the moment of truth was upon us. No one has ever before ignited and flown 27 liquid rocket engines at once. Will it hold together? We were about to find out.

Falcon Heavy liftoff


At 3:45 an enormous cloud of steam erupted as the countdown reached zero. At first I thought something had gone terribly wrong. From a distance the retreating TEL (Transporter/Erector/Launcher) looked like the rocket toppling over. More billowing clouds of steam, then suddenly there it is, rising from behind the launch tower. But something still doesn’t look right. It took a second to realize I was looking at a side view. Shortly thereafter the vehicle rotated ninety degrees and we saw Falcon Heavy in all of its flaming glory.

The sound takes nineteen seconds to reach our ears, slowly building in a crackling crescendo. As the thunderous roar reached peak intensity I became dimly aware of another noise, a sort of eerie reverberation coming from behind us. Then a lady in the crowd said, “Look at the windows!” Apparently they were visibly shaking, but I did not take the time to look. The rocket was rising quickly now, like a shuttle launch. I wanted to soak in every second of it. Everyone was cheering wildly, including the folks at SpaceX. Their rejoicing begins anew every time the vehicle passes a milestone in the flight: clearing the tower, maximum air load, side booster shutdown, side booster separation.

Landing the rockets

Now that part is magic.

All too soon it was gone, but the show was not over. The first successful return-to-earth landing of a Falcon 9 booster happened just over two years ago. Now they were trying to land three at once: the side boosters back at the Cape and the center core on an ocean-going drone ship. I was surprised at being able to see the re-entry burns in broad daylight. Eventually I could make out two cylinders falling to earth in formation. More rocket engine firings. They were plainly visible now and slowing rapidly. They touched down one right after the other in clouds of dust and smoke amid more wild cheering. Seconds later the twin sonic booms from re-entry arrived as audible exclamation points. This was science fiction come true before our very eyes.

We planned an extra day in Florida to allow for the possibility of a launch scrub on the first try. Now we had to figure out how to spend that time. It turns out there is a surprisingly impressive aviation museum on the Titusville airport. The Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum has been around since 1977 and sports a collection of over 45 historic military aircraft. Highlights of our visit included going inside a B-52D nose section and a Douglas C-47 named Tico Belle. The Belle was one of the participants in the airborne assault over Normandy on D-Day in June of 1944. Talk about touching a piece of history…

Afterward we headed out to the Canaveral National Seashore. This is where the locals go to watch launches. The park ranger told us there were 10,000 folks on the beach by 9am the day before. We passed two more alligators lounging by the side of the road. Once on the beach we had an interesting conversation with a tanned older gentleman who used to work on the Shuttle program. He said it was good to see the next generation doing great things with rockets and that it was time to pass the torch.

Experimental airplane

An experimental airplane with a 724 horsepower turboprop? Why not?

Thursday, February 8th dawned and it was time to head back. Although it was sunny at our motel in Titusville, low clouds and fog hovered just to the north. We drove to the airport, got ready to go, and then waited for the weather to improve. I do not like the idea of taking off into conditions that are below minimums for an approach back into the departure airport. This afforded the opportunity to photograph one of the strangest–looking airplanes I have ever seen. Closer examination revealed it to be an experimental amateur built aircraft with a 724 hp Walter turboprop engine. It comes complete with a sliding glass door for easy exit. Just the ticket for skydiving, I guess.

Before too long, the ceiling lifted to 600 feet so I filed my flight plan. Then the fun began. I called the central number for clearance delivery. I was given a number to call Daytona Approach. Calling that number yielded a voicemail recording. I walked back inside the FBO and asked if they had a phone number to call – they did. That one worked, but the fellow could not find my clearance and I was put on hold. The clock was ticking away. Finally he picked up and said he found my clearance. Good news, except I had to call them back for release when I was number one for the runway. Have you ever tried talking on a cell phone in a piston airplane with the engine running? Note to self: departing IFR is much easier at an airport with a control tower.

Once airborne we were shuffled around a bit, and then finally settled into cruise flight just above the top of the cloud layer. It’s not very often that you get such a strong sense of speed when flying in a Cessna single. The clouds parted near Tallahassee. The rest of the trip home was smooth sailing in clear skies.


Florida has plenty of real alligators, but SpaceX has some metaphorical ones to avoid as well.

Some say that launching a Tesla roadster into solar orbit was a waste. I say the pictures of the car and its “passenger” with earth as the backdrop are pretty amazing. Rocketry at this level is extraordinarily difficult. The alligators of disaster loom at every turn. While flying an aircraft is about maintaining as much margin as possible, the margins for error in orbital rocketry are slim to none. Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin 1D engines all worked, generating 5,130,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff. The Tesla made it into solar orbit. The two side boosters landed back at the Cape. Even though the center booster crashed into the ocean due to insufficient fuel for relighting the engines, it was still a good day.

SpaceX is firing imaginations in a way not seen since the Apollo program. My first day back in Oklahoma I overheard two gentlemen at lunch discussing orbital boosters. Sadly, the news out of Florida went from space launch triumph to school shooting tragedy in only a week. In the midst of that sorrow, let’s hope the audacity of a private company called SpaceX will pave the way to space once again and set our sights on the stars.

Dan Littmann
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9 replies
  1. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I was just stopping through KDED a couple days ago on a ferry flight with a skylane and got the same pic of that experimental turboprop! It caught my eye as well as an interesting jump plane. Sounds like a great trip! I watched the launch online and was absolutely riveted.

  2. Hamish Macdonald
    Hamish Macdonald says:

    Re: your comment about “No one has ever before ignited and flown 27 liquid rocket engines at once”, technically correct, but the Soviet N1 rocket had 30 rocket engines in its first stage. They ignited and flew all 30 engines, but the best result they ever got (Nov 23 1972) was destruction after 107 seconds of flight.

  3. Pat Wasson
    Pat Wasson says:

    As a former radio news director, the Shuttle was my beat….The first night launch I ever saw was nothing short of amazing….Days were great, too – but that night launch – WOW !

    • Dan Littmann
      Dan Littmann says:

      Indeed. I was fortunate enough to see the night launch of STS-130 (Endeavour). It was a clear night save for two cloud layers. They lit up as the vehicle passed through. Quite a sight. Worth getting up in the wee hours – twice, as it turned out.

  4. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Dan’s article is correct that the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful liquid fueled rocket SINCE the Saturn 5. The picture caption is incorrect. The Saturn 5 was still the most powerful.
    A quick search yields:
    Saturn 5 = 35,100 kn thrust vs. 22,800kn
    Not to say that it wasn’t a great achievement!

  5. Barb Simmons
    Barb Simmons says:

    Really glad you were able to see the first Falcon Heavy Launch, Dan, as well as the Warbird Museum and the Canaveral National Seashore. Watching those 2 booster rockets both land on target was truly amazing! Hope you get the opportunity to see NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) when it launches (hopefully late 2019). It will be even taller and have more lift capacity than Falcon Heavy, although it’s not planned to have re-usable boosters like Falcon. My husband is the TOSC flow manager for Pad-B refurbishment for SLS, but will probably be retiring before the EM-1 launch, due to schedule slips outside his control. Am hoping NASA will give him a pass to watch it from the Cape after he retires, since he has played such an important role on the Ground Ops side.

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