After I got out of the office Friday, some friends and I decided to drive three and a half hours to the Wallops Flight Facility to see the LADEE launch. After picking them up from the Greenbelt Metro station, we slugged our way through traffic until the bay bridge around Annapolis. All the little towns along US 50 were lit up beautifully at night, and I couldn’t help but imagine what their perspective on the launch would be. A cool night that required a sweater, feeling that autumn had truly arrived was confirmed by the Pumpkin Spice coffee at 7-Eleven.
We had planned to watch the launch about a mile and a half away from the vehicle, but found upon arrival that it lay within the Minotaur vehicle’s safety rage. We moved to a spot up the road about 3 miles away that was filled with at least 120 people. However, we couldn’t get a clear line of site to the pad, so we set off to find a more suitable site once again.
After almost getting our Jeep stuck in a ditch (which we previously drove into unknowingly and almost went through the windshield), we pulled off about a quarter mile down the road, surrounded on every side by rows and rows of corn. We were at the top of a slight hill, which, coupled with the vast corn field, allowed us to see the shimmering point of light in the distance that would loft our LADEE to the Moon.
It was at this point that I was able to look up for the first time, and saw the vast expanse of the galaxy overhead. Stretching across the entire sky from horizon to horizon was our Milky Way, bright and dim all at once, draped across the cosmos like a magnificent curtain. You could even make out the individual clouds of dust that blocked out views of the centre of the galaxy. Tens of thousands of stars pin-pricked the sky with every colour and magnitude. I’ve never been in a dark enough area to see so much detail in the sky before, and I’m unsure when I will ever again. For the first time, I saw the universe, and it looked down to me. It challenged my minuteness, my finiteness, my humanity. What am I compared to it? The universe, vast and ceaseless, compared to a speck of life on a remote planet on a far-flung galaxy. I saw, for the first time, deep into space. I saw the planets and the stars and the nebulae all the way to the core of the galaxy. It was entrancing in a way only nirvana could induce.
My gaze was interrupted when the vehicle jumped off the pad and into the cosmos. Night became day as the vehicle took off into the sky, streaking across the milky way like a giant celestial backdrop. Meteors flashed by all the while and the entirety of the cosmos presented itself in a great spectacle unknown to me previously. Then the roar came, sudden and harsh, followed by bits of propellant spewing from the Minotaur’s engines, bringing attention back into the moment, but a new perspective on the accomplishment. In a moment seemingly worthy of the situation, I stood on the roof of the car, thrust my fist towards the sky, and shouted “To the Moon LADEE, to the Moon!”
We all sat on the roof of the Jeep for quite a while afterwards taking in everything we had witnessed, passing around some beers while the traffic subsided. Wallops main base was about 10 minutes away, and we decided to kick back for a little bit at the Rocket Club, the on-base pub. It was your typical military bar, full of old photos and wood paneling and pub kitsch, but that made it all the more welcoming. Rows of tables were set up facing a massive projected screen where obviously there was a viewing party earlier in the night. Members of the launch teams trickled in through the wee hours of the morning, and we perched ourselves at the bar top for quite some time. I particularly remember being excited over the abundance of Moon Pie marshmallow treats that had LADEE stickers on them. We eventually made our way to the house of a Wallops technician that my friend knew, and had a frat night.
Saturday morning, the sound of the breeze rubbing the sea oats against the side of the house woke us up. Chincoteague Island is a place right out of a novel. Small island resort town, few vehicles, old-time atmosphere and seeming lack of substantial technology starkly contrasted with the high-tech accomplishment we had witnessed only hours before. Walking downtown, a sense of relaxing overtakes your senses, and you can’t help but disregard all sense of time and the world on the mainland. Lunch was with George Diller, who had flown up to provide launch narration. As usual, we had a great time and compared notes.
Later in the afternoon, we made our way back Wallops Island, where we were going to go to the beach. Since the facility is located on NASA property, we would have the entire shoreline to ourselves, since you need a badge to gain access. We did a brief driving tour of the launch facilities, including pad 0A where Antares will launch from next week, and pad 0B where LADEE launched from just 14 hours prior. The surrounding concrete was charred a dark grey which was brittle on contact, and the launch stand smelled like almonds.
There was a surreal feeling sitting on the beach at the launch facility. As far as the eye could see up and down the coast, there was nothing but waves, sea oats, and sky. In the distance one direction the launch pads could be seen, in the other, the support facilities and assembly building. I’ve never been particularly fond of the beach, but yet I felt strangely at home here, surrounded by industry and technology. Nothing felt more right than sitting in a beach chair, waves lapping your feet, with launch facilities in your line of sight.
To intensify this surreality, when taking a jog up the beach, I felt like the astronauts before their missions, taking runs along the Cape Canaveral coastline with the gantrys and facilities nearby. In that moment, I could have imagined Gordo Cooper or John Glenn next to me. Step after step, with no obstacles or visual distractions, running alongside the launch pads was almost meditative. It was a weekend I’ll never forget, and is probably one of the best launch experiences I have ever had. I can only imagine what life is like for those privileged enough to live this daily.