Liftoff: What it's like attending a Starship launch

Liftoff: What it's like attending a Starship launch
By: New Atlas Posted On: June 08, 2024 View: 35

Thursday, as you know, saw the fourth Starship launch, and the first in which both the Starship and the Super Heavy booster both made it all the way to a successful splashdown. I've never actually seen a launch of any sort before – I tried once at Kennedy Space Center, but it was scrubbed 3 days in a row and I simply couldn't continue to postpone going home any longer. It ended up being scrubbed for weeks, so I made the right call to head home.

I drove down toward Boca Chica with high expectations. Given my prowess with a camera, I just knew I was going to basically go home with a Pulitzer for "2024's most amazing photo of the year" in the can.

It turns out, reality doesn't always hit the way you want it.

In humanity's short history of space flight, Starship is the biggest spaceship ever attempted. It will be capable of carrying over 220,000 pounds (over 100,000 kg) of stuff into space. Crew, cargo, and everything one would need to survive long-term in space and even colonize other planets.

As with SpaceX's other highly innovative launch vehicles, it's made to be reusable. Not like rockets of the past, which were ditched into decaying orbits to burn up in our atmosphere or simply fell from high altitude back to Earth, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars as well as vital components and materials. SpaceX can catch both the booster and the ship itself and use them again for future missions. At some point, they might be able to re-launch them repeatedly within just a few hours.

It's also capable of being refueled in orbit. That means once it's up, its range can be extended dramatically and it doesn't have to come back down to Earth before setting off to its next destination of the moon, or Mars, or Io. Starship is designed to be the complete package.

This is why I wanted to see the launch in person. This is history in the making.

Like most folk, I'd typically stream the launch to my big-screen TV in the comfort of my own home, with all the very best angles in glorious 4k resolution while listening to professional commentators do a telemetry breakdown every three seconds.

But last week, after a bit of research, I made the decision to book a hotel and make the drive to Isla Blanca Beach in South Padre Island, Texas – widely regarded as the place to view a Starship launch. What the articles didn't say is that at 0700 hours, it would be 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 °C) already, but with the heat index and humidity so high you're perpetually wet that it would feel like 98 °F (37 °C). The morning news was saying 1 pm would be 113 °F (45 °C). Ick.

In the early morning hours, still dark as night, I paid my $12 to drive in and enter the parking area for the beach... Only to find myself amidst thousands of other cars already there by 5 am. Even my handicap placard did me no good – I parked over half a mile away from the best viewing area. Thankfully, I'd packed my little Segway electric scooter in anticipation of having to trek.

SpaceX Starship Launch - 5:30am and tons of people already claimed their spots
SpaceX Starship Launch - 5:30am and tons of people already claimed their spots on at Isla Blanca Beach

I made it to the beach – one side of the peninsula lined by giant broken concrete slabs and the other with surf so nice, they once hosted the 1975 US surfing championship – in no time, silently carving through the droves of other spectators to get there. It was already packed. There was scarcely a patch of Earth that wasn't already spoken for, and since the launch window was open from 0720 to 0900 hours, there was potentially several hours still to wait. Never mind; I had no intention of staying put anyhow, but the well-prepared might want to get there much earlier, and pack a chair!

I stumbled my way in the early morning dark over uneven terrain crowded with arms and legs. People of all ages were strewn about – some still asleep at this godforsaken hour – all looking to witness a piece of history. I spoke with many: a pathologist from Houston, Texas, a news camera operator from Corpus Christi, Texas, an enthusiastic, self-proclaimed "nerd" from Adelaide, Australia... People from both sides of the pond and from very different backgrounds, all happily suffering the oppressive early morning heat to watch.

US Coast Guard and local police boats patrolled back and forth through the narrow strait separating the crowd of tens of thousands from the launch pad, which sits 4.9 miles (7.9 km) away. That might sound like a lot, but it feels incredibly close considering what's about to happen there, especially through a camera lens with roughly a 600 mm equivalent focal length. There was a light fog early on, but the blinking lights of the launch tower could easily be seen in the darkness.

If you look closely, you can just make out the Starship launchpad in the background through the haze. The US Coastguard was out in force for hours leading up to launch, ushering people in their private watercraft away to a safe distance
If you look closely, you can just make out the Starship launchpad in the background through the haze. The US Coastguard was out in force for hours leading up to launch, ushering people in their private watercraft away to a safe distance

As the Earth continued its rotation and daybreak began, the fog became thicker, and for over an hour, the launch pad was completely invisible, hidden behind that uncomfortable veil of moisture hanging in the air. Occasionally, the opaque would become the slightest bit transparent and you could just make out the magnificent structure across the way.

Many people were playing live feeds on their phones of YouTube to see Starship on its throne and to keep track of how much longer before lift-off while SpaceX loaded Starship with 10 million pounds (4.535 million kg) of fuel.

SpaceX Starship Launch - Looking east, and even more people at Isla Blanca Beach, ready for launch
SpaceX Starship Launch - Looking east, and even more people at Isla Blanca Beach, ready for launch

As the live stream reached T-minus 2 minutes, I was ready to shine with my soon-to-be award-winning photography and videography, my thumb hovering over the record button. 30 seconds later, the crowd gasped in awe as there was ignition. ACK! I WASN'T RECORDING!

In a flash, I hit record and trained my camera on the silently billowing flames shooting hundreds of feet in every direction from the next peninsula over. The fog though. The fog. The fog... Cameras do not like flat light. They need contrast in order to auto-focus. There is no contrast in a sheet-of-grey thousands of feet tall. My camera struggled to grab focus and blurred in and out as I whimpered to no avail. Before it could grab a good frame of video, the rocket had started to disappear into the even thicker cloud layer above when BOOM.

This was supposed to be my moment to capture amazingness. Instead, I caught a potato when the Starship launched. Still 100% worth the experience though
This was supposed to be my moment to capture amazingness. Instead, I caught a potato when the Starship launched. Still 100% worth the experience though

The sound hit us all simultaneously like a human game of Whack-a-Mole. The cheers and hoots of the onlookers were suddenly drowned out by what seemed like a ten-thousand-decibel crackle thumping on our eardrums and deep into our chests. I could see for a moment that one of the 33 Raptor engines hadn't fired, but it seemed to make no difference at all, as the 11,000,000 lbs (4.9 million kg) ship rose into the air.

The cheers turned to silence as everyone's eyes followed the sound upwards, mouths agape, in a total state of awe. I was simultaneously furious, knowing there were no awards for me today, and in a state of childlike glee with a quiet ear-to-ear grin etched onto my face as I held my breath. I heard nothing but the near-rhythmic pummelling on my body for what felt like minutes. And I was happy. There was a small gap in the clouds above where we all got to see that last star-like glimpse as Starship left us 100 miles behind.

It was almost 3 minutes into flight when the booster was jettisoned 45 miles (73 km) above Earth.

Seven and a half minutes after take off, there were more cheers from the crowd of thousands. I didn't know exactly why for a moment, until I glanced over next to me where the live feed was still playing and saw the first stage was coming down in a very controlled manner into the Gulf of Mexico. Splashdown. Success. It gave me goosebumps for the second time on this day.

SpaceX Starship Launch - Still over an hour to wait and Isla Blanca Beach jetty area is filling up with people fast
SpaceX Starship Launch - Still over an hour to wait and Isla Blanca Beach jetty area is filling up with people fast

The last few crackles of the Starship rocket and its 32 functioning Raptor engines faded out, and everyone all at once made a bee-line for their vehicles – lots of Teslas, naturally, including a few Cybertrucks. I headed for the car too – I had somewhere I wanted to be.

It took me the better part of an hour to exit the parking lot and start the hour-long drive to Starbase. Sure, it's only about 6 miles (9.6 km) away as the crow flies, but there are no direct roads. You have to drive 22 or so miles (35 km) inland before heading the 19 miles (30 km) right back towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Several people warned me that it's not a good idea to try to visit Starbase on a launch day, but I went anyway. I'd studied up on Starbase; where I can go, can't go, what I might see, etc. The latest info I had was from April of this year, so I was confident I could poke and prod a little.

There was almost zero traffic, and I arrived a weary hour or so later, teeth still rattling from the horrible condition of Texas Highway 4. I needn't have studied up; nothing looked like what it did in April.

There's an incredible amount of construction happening at Starbase, from parking structures, to entirely new buildings like Starfactory being annexed, to one of the remaining public streets being blocked off entirely. I recognized almost nothing from the pictures and videos I'd been studying. I explored regardless. Every piece of tarmac I could drive that wasn't behind a private property sign, I drove it. Twice, in fact.

SpaceX Starbase, where various portions of the Starship are assembled
SpaceX Starbase, where various portions of the Starship are assembled

I searched for Elon's house (his "Boxabl Casita" tiny home), but it was behind a sea of tiny Airstream travel trailers, all with their own little Starlink antennas mounted to the roofs. It looked like something from a movie set. I failed to take any pics of that, as I felt like I'd be invading peoples' privacy more than I already was. I'd heard he was at Starbase and I was hoping to give him a congratulatory shaka out the window as I passed by, but sadly, I did not get to greet the world's richest and probably craziest – in a good or bad way, depending on what you think – man.

After creeping around Starbase for 45 minutes or so with one final drive down "Meme St" and feeling very much like a stalker, I left for SpaceX Starship Orbital Launch Pad about a mile and a half away (2.5 km) to see where the party started. The first thing I saw in the distance was the launch tower, with vapor of some sort still pluming from the base of it, looking every bit as cool as the NASA shuttle launches I saw on TV as a kid... Cooler, in fact, as I was headed right to it and there was nothing in my way to stop me.

Just inside the gate, in full view, sat the ship that started it all: Starhopper. Only 5 years ago, Starhopper had its first – and last – untethered test flight that ended up being a total success. It flew for 57 seconds from one launch pad to another, going up about 500 ft (150 m) in the air, flew laterally, and touched back down to Earth on an adjacent landing pad. One might even be able to say Starship is a direct decendant of Starhopper.

If you look at the bottom middle, those spots of orange bits dangling off the black tanks, that's the shielding that was mostly blown off into a debris field. Does anyone know what those tanks are for?
If you look at the bottom middle, those spots of orange bits dangling off the black tanks, that's the shielding that was mostly blown off into a debris field. Does anyone know what those tanks are for?

The next thing to catch my eye was the debris field. Shards of shorn-off, twisted metal were scattered across the field for thousands of feet. Cleanup crews were just arriving to pick up bits of what I later learned was shielding for some of the large tanks immediately next to the launch pad.

I'm not sure what the tanks contained, but I could see matching remnants still affixed to them, torn and twisted and clinging on by their last rivets. Some of the pieces were as large as a dog house. Most were the size of a torn-apart shoe box. I picked one up, half expecting it to be hot, even though it had been a few hours since launch. I chuckled to myself, knowing full well it wouldn't be hot, but my child-like wonder still had a hold of me.

I mean, I'd just seen a rocket – the BIGGEST ROCKET EVER MADE – get sent into space. And now, here I was at ground zero. It was unbelievably awesome.

I scanned around to see how the local flora and fauna had fared. After all, across the street is the Boca Chica State Park with a conservation area. There were no fauna to be seen – not even bugs. The plant life as far as I'd ventured into the field – about a thousand feet (300 m) – had suffered some, showing the beginnings of a light braise, the leaves singed and the stalks wilty. Do plants have feelings? I hope not.

Up close with some bits and some toasty plants
Up close with some bits and some toasty plants

After taking a few pictures, I left for my hotel room an hour away. It was a quiet drive, reflecting on everything I'd just witnessed. The fog may have robbed me of my Pulitzer, but it was still one hell of a day.

I'm not going to try and convince you that watching this launch was life-changing. I will tell you that a core memory was made though. One of my favorite core memories, in fact, and one of the most enthralling experiences I've ever had. I write this in the hope of convincing you to experience this sometime in your life. Go see a rocket launch. You will not be disappointed... as long as it doesn't get scrubbed.

So kudos, SpaceX, on a successful test! It seems more and more like Mars could be a sooner-rather-than-later thing for humanity. And could you imagine Starship with a Pulsed Plasma Rocket on it?

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