It Came Upon a Twilight Clear


Last night, just after sundown, people in Southern California were either awestruck by a beautiful display of technology … or completely freaked out.  We were witness to the twilight launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Iridium 4 mission to orbit.  The rocket took off just before 6PM from Vandenberg Air Force Base (or VAFB for short), a good 150 miles north of the city, and had a southernly trajectory after take-off.  What that really means is that the rocket skirted along just off the coast of the city; as it did it the contrail from the rocket’s exhaust lit up in the sun no longer blocked by the Earth’s horizon.  It gave a display that for most of us normals was unexpected, beautiful, and incredible.

I got to witness it, mostly, but only out of pure luck.  Yesterday was day one of my somewhat annual ‘holiday ass-sitting’.  Where I catch up on movies, television shows, sports, and video games in an effort to let the great world spin without me for a bit.  As I was dinking around, my computer alerted me that SpaceX started a live video – which usually meant a launch.  It’s kinda cool to watch on the vid, but had seen enough of them now that I didn’t immediately jump to it.  Until I saw that VAF was their launch point.  That mission, while having absolutely nothing to do with JPL where I work, was in final testing when I stopped by VAFB last month – so I was practically next to it.  That’s when I thought, it could be visible from La Crescenta.  Granted, if I knew about it hours before, I would have made the effort to head up there to watch it – and I was unsure if I could see it anyway.  So I asked around, and none of my friends knew if you could see it or not.

Well, the launch would be streamed on my laptop, and since I knew I could connect to my wifi from my back deck I thought … might as well go out to see if I can see it.  For the record, sometimes you don’t know what to look for until you see it … sometimes you don’t even know where to look.  That’s my excuse for almost missing it.  I was sure that the rocket would only be visible at a point where a tree would block my view.  So I was hanging over one edge of the deck to look around it, seeing nothing, nothing at all.  I gave that about 15 seconds (which is a long time in a launch) and sighed thinking my shot was missed.  I stepped off the edge of the deck, turned to look at my laptop and ….


By the time I saw it, the rocket was directly in front of my house (though about 100 miles west).  The first stage was just separating.  This made the single white line puff wide and expand.  Soon, the second stage plume, much wided and growing ever wider in the lighter atmosphere, bloomed open.  I could clearly see the first stage as it emptied the last of it’s fuel and spinning behind it’s partner.

This was about the time I realized I left my phone in the house … and I had seconds to get it and start taking pictures.



Now, Los Angeles, being Los Angeles, went into full freak-out mode.  Some stated that it was a UFO.  Some thought North Korea were bombing us.  Some even blamed Canada.

I drank my wine, and enjoyed the view.

For what it’s worth, there are some great pictures of it out there on the intraweb; and even better theories.  So if you found this at all cool, it’s worth doing a little more of a search to see what’s out there.

I’m just sharing for my own personal reasons.  Watching a rocket launch is on my bucket list – and while I always thought I would have to do something way more complex than walking out to my back deck, there it was.  Not just was it right there, it was incredibly cool … it lit up the sky, it crossed nearly a third of the night on a clear evening with a great mix of twilight and darkness.  As I texted to someone last night:

“It ranks up there with probably the Top 10 Coolest things I’ve seen.  Maybe not as cool as almost getting run over by Queen Elizabeth, but definitely cooler than meeting Drew Carey before he was famous.”


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