Sea air carrying the scent of seaweed wafted around me as I stood on Florida’s Canova Beach, staring at the sky. I was surrounded by hundreds of people, all gathered on the sand for the same thing: to watch SpaceX’s history-making launch of the Falcon 9 twin rockets. All of the sudden, a giant flame arced into the blue sky as the rockets catapulted from the nearby Kennedy Space Center and then disappeared into the heavens.
As a Florida resident who has watched many launches from this very beach, I thought I’d seen the show. I turned to leave.
“You aren’t going yet, are you?” a man asked me. “You have to see them stick the landing.”
“Stick the landing?” I responded, thinking that sounded more gymnastics than rockets.
He told me that this was the first time SpaceX would launch—and land—two giant rocket engines (called boosters) simultaneously. I decided to hang around. Within a few seconds, two bright flames pierced the blue sky as the rockets began their descent. We watched the boosters land with precision, one of the greatest engineering feats in history. As we clapped, I could hear cheering from the live stream at SpaceX’s Mission Control over someone’s phone.
It’s a great time to be a space enthusiast. While NASA focuses on science missions in its exploration of the cosmos, commercial space companies such as Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, and SpaceX are in a 21st-century space race to resume launching astronauts from the United States. (Since the shuttle program shut down in 2011, NASA has launched our astronauts from a Russian Cosmodrome.) Which means there are more launches happening now than ever before. Plus, this year marks NASA’s 60th anniversary and 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. What better way to celebrate than by watching a rocket launch? Here’s the lowdown on three places in the United States where you can watch both commercial and NASA launches.
Rocket launches are such a big deal on Florida’s “Space Coast,” the 40-mile stretch of coastline home to both the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, that local hotels include launch times on their marquees. More than a dozen missions launch annually as part of the U.S. space program, and the region’s accessibility—it’s an hour from Orlando and three hours from Miami—makes it an easy side trip for space enthusiasts or beach lovers with a cosmic bent. Watch like locals do (for free or almost free) by visiting the recommended viewing points listed in the launch app from Visit Space Coast Florida, by staking out a spot on a boat on the IntraCoastal Waterway, or by viewing from Port Canaveral’s Exploration Tower observation deck ($6.50). Or just head for the sand: Playalinda Beach is adjacent to Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 and 41.
To get closer to the action, head for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. General admission ($57) includes lawn or bleacher seating at the main visitor center, although you can also view launches from the neighboring Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. Or spring for tickets to one of Kennedy’s three viewing venues. The giant Saturn V building ($20, plus admission) includes bus transportation from the Visitor Complex and food for purchase. The NASA Causeway connects KSC and Cape Canaveral ($39, plus admission), and views are unobstructed because it’s only a few miles away from the launch site. Kennedy’s newest site, Launch Complex-39 Observation Gantry, is even closer to the launch site and includes transportation, a light snack, and a souvenir T-shirt ($49, plus admission). Tickets for the three sites sell out fast and crowds gather early.
“Launches typically bring in 1.5 million tourists per year,” said Tom Bartosek, a manager of Visit Space Coast Florida. “That’s comparable to what we saw during shuttle missions launched between 1981 and 2011.”
Operated by Goddard Space Flight Center, Wallops Island is located off of Virginia’s eastern shore, about 90 miles from Baltimore. Wallops’s free visitor center is open for most launches and, at four miles from the launch pads, provides excellent views.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, an island just north of the space complex on Wallops Island, is also a prime viewing location. Home to some of the remaining wild ponies in the United States, Chincoteague is also a great place to explore before or after watching a launch. Each July, it’s packed with travelers who come to watch the annual roundup, when “saltwater” cowboys swim the herds from Assateague National Seashore to Chincoteague.
For more info, check out Eastern Shore of Virginia tourism board’s launch website, which lists public viewing spots around the northern tip of Wallops Island and nearby Chincoteague Island.
SpaceX Rocket Launch Lights Up The California Sky, Freaks Out Some Residents https://t.co/delQm21oJu— NPR (@NPR) December 23, 2017
Along California’s central coast you’ll find tasty domestic chardonnay—and a perfect place to watch rocket launches. Vandenberg Air Force Base, which has five more launches planned for 2018, is located 65 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. And while the base doesn’t have formal a visitor center, its Facebook page suggests watching from Hawks Nest, a former RV park located a half-mile from Vandenberg’s main gate. The park isn’t much more than a concrete pad with porta potties, but what it lacks in amenities, it makes up for with clear views of launches (the park is less susceptible to fog than other areas on the coast) and comradery (it’s a popular spot with space enthusiasts).
One of those fans, Bruce Perens, runs a website where you’ll find info on the base as well as alternate viewing sites in California, including Ocean Avenue in Lompoc.
After getting your launch fix, you can explore more of the central coast: Hike the La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, head to Lompoc’s Aquatic Center, or take in the commercial flower fields in full bloom from April to September. Or keep it simple and drive to Santa Barbara for some pinot noir.
Launches are scheduled for a specific time, but they are ruled by safety and weather, not the clock. Heed the window—the hours before and after the launch time, when conditions are forecast to be just right—not the specific launch time. Pack your patience and an alternate to-do list because launches can be postponed at the last minute for days or even weeks. To pass the time while you’re waiting, tune in to NASA’s live stream or check out the Twitter feeds from NASA and the various launch companies for updates and blow-by-blow explanations of what you’re seeing.
“The best advice is to arrive a day earlier than the launch and plan to stay a couple of days in case of delays,” Bartosek said.
On launch day, arrive early as parking lots fill up fast. Heed weather reports since bad or inclement weather is a leading cause of mission postponements.
A final pro tip: The most dramatic launches are those that happen at night, when the yellow-orange rocket flares are more visible against the dark sky.