This past weekend SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station. Supply missions are pretty routine, but there were two things that made this one special. It was the first SpaceX launch in Florida after one of their rockets exploded during a fueling test last fall. and, this is the really important item, it was their first launch from pad 39A. For those who aren’t space geeks, pad 39A was the launch site for all the Apollo missions as well as many of the Space Shuttle missions. This is also the site from which SpaceX will launch their missions to Mars.
While I wasn’t able to be on the coast for the launch, thankfully, technology allowed me to be a part of the action through Twitter and live streaming. The launch was scheduled for 10:01 a.m. eastern time Saturday, February 18. I went on Twitter and watched #SpaceX. There were updates on the countdown and comments from people around the world excited for the launch. About thirty minutes before launch I found a live stream and listened to that right up to the hold called at T-minus13 seconds, which ended up aborting the mission for the day. I think the second attempt on Sunday, February 19 at 9:39 a.m. had even more Twitter engagement with new tweets coming in twenty to thirty at a time as I refreshed the screen every few seconds. I also have sources who informed me that there was an impressive crowd in the Port Canaveral/Cocoa Beach area both days. I had expected the spectators to drop off a little for Sunday’s attempt as the weather was less than inviting with rain early and heavy clouds until mid-afternoon.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’ve been working on a new book, a follow-up to Jessie, which is set on the Space Coast. I’ve spent so much time with the main character, Jessie Cole, that some of his personality traits have woven their way into my own life. I saw this launch through his eyes, all of the future potential it represents and the history it builds upon. SpaceX had planned to send their first robotic mission to Mars in 2018, but has pushed that back to 2020 after some challenges they experienced last year.
I admit, I’ve been skeptical about our chances of getting to Mars in my lifetime. My dad retired from the Space Center in 2010, and for years prior to that we knew about plans NASA was working on for a vehicle that could make the trip into deep space. Those plans have been in the works for over a decade with little to show for it. During my research for Jessie and this current book (title still pending), I read Deke Slayton’s memoir He said something in it that captured the feelings I had as the Shuttle program was winding down. I don’t have the book on hand to quote it directly so I will use the paraphrase from my notes. In March of 1972 NASA announced the Space Shuttle model. What had been planned as a three pronged program with farther reaching goals including the Space Shuttle, a space station and a space tug had been stripped down to just the Shuttle. Essentially the Shuttle was turned into a truck with nowhere to go.
I believe the Shuttle accomplished many things and brought us new scientific data we couldn’t have found any other way, but I also feel like some of the momentum the country had gained upon reaching the moon was lost when we attached ourselves to low earth orbit for so many years. Here’s where some of Jessie’s personality comes out in me. I believe, if he were here now (instead of back in 1989 where I left him), he would question if we could have established a colony on Mars already if we had kept pushing back in the 1980s and 1990s. We developed an entire industry out of nothing, made it from the first manned launch to the moon is a little over eight years. Now we stand on the precipice of fifty years since that first moon landing and man hasn’t stepped foot on another planet.
I had feared that the country no longer cared about space exploration, but my experience over the weekend, watching people post pictures of themselves either in Florida awaiting the launch or at their desks and living rooms streaming the coverage from the internet renews my hope that we are still enthusiastic about going beyond our earthly borders. I plan to keep a close eye on the developments at SpaceX as well as the other private companies vying for contracts to transport astronauts. I have confidence one of these will be the leader that takes us to another planet in my lifetime.
If you would like to learn more about Jessie Cole and his passion for space, you may purchase Jessie in eBook and paperback on most online book stores, Or you can check your local library’s Overdrive dashboard.