I’d just gotten back to camp from a grocery run to Parker. The sun had just set, and I was sitting outside enjoying the colors of an Arizona sunset. My neighbor Amy was out walking her dog, and we got talking. As usual, there was a constant stream of contrails from airliners passing overhead, illuminated by the sun that was still up at their altitude. But one of these was particularly bright, which puzzled me.
Then the white line across the sky became wider and wider. This was no airliner. This was a rocket launch. That’s exactly what a rocket plume does at higher altitudes in the thinning atmosphere. Then I noticed a smaller white dot trailing the main plume, slowing down, and sometimes ejecting puffs of smoke of its own. That was the Falcon 9 first stage, making course corrections to bring itself in for a landing.
I had no idea SpaceX even launched missions from the west coast (Vandenberg Air Force Base, to be precise). But I’m subscribed to the SpaceX YouTube channel, which live streams all of their launches. I pulled it up on my phone, and sure enough, they were showing a launch. What we saw on my phone matched what we were seeing in the western sky. We watched the first stage control its descent all the way until it disappeared behind the mountains. It made a safe landing on the unmanned barge out at sea and will be reused on a future mission. Meanwhile, we watched the second stage continue most of the way across the sky, all the way until they announced engine shutdown on the live stream. Then it disappeared into the night.
I’ve always wanted to see a rocket launch. I missed seeing the very first Space Shuttle launch by just one day when I was a kid. It had been delayed and delayed, and we were on our way to visit family in Florida. If it had been delayed one more day, we would’ve gone to see the historic launch. Instead, we watched it on TV from a hotel room in South Carolina. Definitely an “A” for effort to my parents. Amy appreciated my space nerdiness because I was able to explain to her exactly what we were seeing in real-time as it happened.
Now, with absolutely zero planning on my part, the launch came to me! I still want to see a launch from the ground at some point, but watching this was the next best thing. I wonder if we’ll see a conga line of 53 new Starlink satellites across the sky tomorrow night.