How I Finally Saw a Rocket Launch: A New Reporter's Firsthand Account
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:43 a.m. EST in this photo taken Dec. 8, 2010 during the key space capsule flight test for NASA's commercial orbital space transportation program.
Credit: NASA/Alan Ault

I had never seen a rocket launch firsthand until last week. Then I witnessed the future of American spaceflight.

I had traveled down to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to cover the launch of the commercial space company SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. The spacecraft is designed to carry cargo to the International Space Station for NASA ? and eventually to carry astronauts, too.

If SpaceX was successful on this test liftoff, it would be the first time a private company launched and re-entered a spacecraft from orbit ? an important milestone for the burgeoning commercial sector.

On a more personal note, it was going to be my first time seeing (and writing about) a rocket launch. I had come to work as a reporter for SPACE.com in April, and in early November I was sent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center to cover STS-133 ? the space shuttle Discovery's final flight. Bad weather and issues with the shuttle's external fuel tank delayed the launch. So, after 10 days of biding my time at Cape Canaveral in the vain hope of seeing a shuttle launch (it is now planned for early February), I flew back to New York with my most exciting personal anecdote being that one day I feared an attack by a group of vultures that had swarmed around some bread left in the parking lot of the NASA press site.

After that, my anticipation of seeing a launch was even stronger. Plus, I was starting to get teased by some of my colleagues, who joked that every launch I was assigned to cover seemed to eventually get scrubbed.

Even though I had been writing about SpaceX and other commercial spaceflight companies for several months, the significance of the Dragon launch was only beginning to sink in when I returned to the Cape.

At that day's press briefing, SpaceX officials said a couple of cracks had been found on the extension of Falcon 9's second-stage engine nozzle, which would delay the launch from its target of Dec. 7. I began to wonder if one reporter really could carry a launch curse. I dutifully called my hotel and rental car companies to extend my stay ? a practiced activity by now.

Yet, in a remarkably quick turnaround, SpaceX engineers worked overnight on repairs, and word came down late that Tuesday that we were "go" for launch the next day ? Dec. 8.

That morning, I found myself standing with a group of reporters and photographers off the NASA Causeway as the countdown clock ticked down the minutes and seconds until liftoff. I had been told by several veteran space reporters that for my first launch, I should simply enjoy watching it happen. Soak in the experience ? don't bother taking pictures, they said.

So I ignored the instinct to grab my camera or live-tweet what I was seeing. Instead I took in every second and tried to imprint it in my memory, so that one day I could tell my children what it felt like to be standing roughly 4.3 miles (around 7 kilometers) away from a truly historic event.

From my vantage point, I saw the Falcon 9 engines ignite, followed by a few seconds of silence, which was the time it took for the roar of the Merlin engines to cross the water from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40.

I felt it first in the rumbling beneath my feet. Then, as the rocket made its ascent and the orange flames lit up the pristine blue sky, the sound thundered through my chest. It was spectacular.

I wish I could have been more eloquent in the moment, but all I could say over the phone to my editor in New York was, "Wow, there it goes." I followed the brilliant white exhaust trail until the rocket was a tiny speck in the sky, and then it disappeared.

Judging by the reactions of the other reporters and photographers, the giddiness of seeing a launch never goes away. I'm told, however, that nothing is quite like the first time. Seeing the Falcon 9 rocket blast into the crisp morning sky was incredible, especially knowing the implications of the monumental test flight.

In the media, we try our very best to stay away from sensationalism, but it is not a stretch to call the success of the SpaceX launch the dawn of a new era. For the first demonstration flight under NASA's COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program designed to spur development of private spacecraft, the stakes for SpaceX were undoubtedly high. In light of the successful mission, however, the payoff is likely even higher.

If everything had gone according to plan, my first launch experience would have been the space shuttle Discovery on its final flight to the International Space Station. Yet, it's ironic, and somehow fitting, that instead I saw the vehicle that could replace the shuttles' capability in the not-too-distant future.

I'm still very much looking forward to seeing a space shuttle launch ? in February, I hope ? but in the meantime, I have plenty to talk about with my friends and family. And I must say I'm awfully relieved there is no launch curse.

You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow.