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How to Catch a Rocket LaunchIt's not just for the pros: With a little planning and flexibility, anybody can go watch a rocket blast off.
This guide goes through each of the three U.S. sites that have rocket launches this summer: Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral in Florida, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It tells you where to go, what to expect and what launches to watch for this summer.
Space.com talked with launch photographer Ben Cooper for the inside scoop on each of the three sites, and also talked with Andrea Farmer from Kennedy Space Center, Keith Koehler from Wallops and Jay Pritchard from Vandenberg. Each site has its own best places to view: Some offer official tours and launch viewing, and others are best experienced from a nearby park or roadside. [Amazing Rocket Launch Photos]
When planning to visit a rocket launch, it's important to remember that dates are rarely finalized until a few weeks to a few months before each launch. And planned launches can be called off or delayed due to weather or technical issues, even down to 1 second before launch. So it's important to make flexible plans and to prepare to stay for a few days if you're determined to catch the launch despite delays. The areas open to you may depend on if you're watching a daytime or nighttime launch.
Check Space.com's calendar and Spaceflight Now's launch schedule for up-to-date information on when launches will happen, and keep an eye on NASA's and the rocket company's Twitter feeds for additional updates. Online communities discuss the best times and places to view launches, so be sure to look for the most up-to-date information and advice on those sites as well when you're interested in a particular launch site or rocket.
And remember to actually watch the launch once you're there, each of the experts told Space.com. Don't be distracted by photography, especially for your first launch viewing.
As Vandenberg's Pritchard put it, "If you're going to make the effort to come watch a launch, come and be a part of the environment to do that, and watch the launch. There are million-dollar camera systems that are taking engineering photos to do this — get those photos. They will be posted almost immediately."
"Don't miss the experience because you're trying to find it in the little digital image on your phone or your camera," he added. "Go and enjoy the show — and stand back and wait for the rumble."
(Launch schedules updated May 22, 2018)
NEXT: See a launch at Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Click the right arrow next to this story to continue)
Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force StationSlide 2 of 15
Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force StationNASA's Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located about an hour away from Orlando, Florida, are technically two separate launch sites in the same location. Combined, the two host several rocket launches throughout the year using SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V and Delta 4 rockets. The area is called America's Space Coast for good reason: it played host to all five of the space shuttles and launched the Saturn V rockets that brought Apollo astronauts to the moon. (NASA has recently signed over Apollo 11's historic launch pad to SpaceX for that company's upcoming crewed launches, and they've already had their first uncrewed launches from that pad.)
Kennedy Space Center offers official viewing for many launches at both sites, which are announced via the center's email newsletter and eventually appear on the center's website as well. Depending on the timing, tickets to the launches are either included in the price of a Kennedy Space Center tour or must be bought separately. The launch-viewing trips always leave from the center's visitor complex and are generally based at the Apollo Saturn V Center or the LC-39 Observation Gantry (which is located at Kennedy Space Center's launch site).
Tours from the visitor's complex will also often bring visitors near the launch pad ahead of time to get a close look at the rocket. [Photos: The Kennedy Space Center, NASA's Historic Spaceport]
"Depending on the time of day and the launch, it's always different," Cooper said. "But they've been selling tickets to the LC-39 [Observation] Gantry, which is one of the bus stops on the tour, and that generally allows them to get closer than any other location at this point. Especially for an Atlas launch, it's closer than even the media gets."
It's also possible to watch the launches from the visitor's complex itself, which is even closer than many of the viewing sites, but trees block out the view of the launch pad. Occasionally, the center will sell tickets to view the launch from the NASA Causeway, Cooper said. That is also a very close view (and is where much of the media watches the launch). All of the center's sites offer live commentary and audio from mission control.
One major caveat: As mentioned earlier, launches will sometimes be delayed or rescheduled to occur on different days, and visitors who go out to the site will have to buy new tickets to go out another time, even if the launch doesn't happen.
"We've got the closest viewing locations on the Space Coast to see, to hear and to feel these rocket launches as they thunder from the launch pads," Farmer, Kennedy Space Center's public relations manager, told Space.com. "It's a truly amazing experience, and one that I recommend everyone try and do at least once in their lifetime."
Viewers can also watch launches from outside locations, Cooper said. The best for Atlas launches is Playalinda Beach, located just a few miles away from the site and open only in the daytime. Other than the ticketed locations and that beach, the next best place is Port Canaveral, right near where the cruise ships are, he said, on Route 401. It's a limited viewing area, and only a certain number of cars can park before it fills up, so it's necessary to get there early. It's the best nonticketed location for night launches.
After that, there are areas on Route 528 where it's possible to pull over and watch the launch, and you can go to further away beaches. But the above are the closest public spots you can find.
Every launch is different, Cooper said: Check the timing details and the launchpad location each time, but it will always vary based on the rocket and the time of day (and whether Kennedy Space Center is offering a place to watch).
NEXT: Upcoming Cape Canaveral LaunchesSlide 3 of 15
Summer Launches: Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force StationSlide 4 of 15
Summer Launches: Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Launches are frequently rescheduled, and concrete dates are sometimes not picked until shortly before the launch. So remember to check Spaceflight Now and our calendar for the most up-to-date information. Launch dates are subject to change!
May 22: SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-12 communications satellite for SES of Luxembourg from Cape Canaveral's launch site SLC-40 during a launch window from 12:29-1:27 a.m. EDT (0429-0527 GMT).
June 28: SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the CRS-15 Dragon cargo ship mission to the International Space Station at 6:03 a.m. EDT (1003 GMT).
Mid-2018: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket will launch carrying the communications satellite Telkom 4 for Telkom Indonesia.
July 31: ULA will launch a Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying NASA's Parker Solar Probe from Cape Canaveral's launch site SLC-37B during a launch window from 4:15-6:15 a.m. EDT (0815-1015 GMT).
August: SpaceX will launch their Falcon 9 rocket carrying an uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft for its first demo flight from Kennedy Space Center's launch site LC-39A.
Aug. 27: ULA's Atlas V rocket will launch carrying the CST-100 Starliner Demo Flight toward the International Space Station, the uncrewed first launch of Boeing's future crew spacecraft.
NEXT: See a launch at Wallops IslandSlide 5 of 15
Wallops Flight FacilitySlide 6 of 15
Wallops Flight Facility
On the eastern shore of Virginia, Wallops Flight Facility is one of the world's oldest launch sites, NASA said, established in 1945. The facility hosts six launch pads and currently acts as the launch site for Orbital ATK's Antares rocket. You can also see launches of smaller, experiment-bearing sounding rockets.
"Our launches here at Wallops are open, whether it be a sounding rocket or something like an Antares, the larger vehicles, and all those can be seen from the visitor's center," said Koehler, a Wallops communications specialist. "You can listen to the audio going on in the control room. You can watch the screens that are showing the cameras on the launch pad, and then folks can go right down towards the edge of what we call the marsh […] and you'll be able to see the rocket take off from there. There are no tickets required. It's first-come, first-served," he told Space.com.
Wallops Visitor Center offers a map of the viewing-site location and that of two other places from which to watch, the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge and Toms Cove Visitor Center. The map details when the facilities are open and where vehicles are allowed. For big launches, the site can fill up quickly, so you need to get there 2-3 hours ahead of time; for sounding rockets launching outside of the visitor center's normal hours, the center will open only a half hour beforehand. Only a few hundred people watch those launches from the center. [NASA's Wallops Flight Facility: Rocket Launches from Virginia (Photos)]
"Antares launches do fill up the entire surrounding area," Koehler warned. "It's going to be a crowd."
Most of the area around the facility is private, Cooper said — there are houses just a mile and a half (2.4 kilometers) away from the launch pad. He suggested a spot just 1.5 miles away, closer than the Wallops Visitor Center, on Arbuckle Neck Road, but warned that it can fill up.
"It's quite a show, but it's also a limited viewing area, so you want to get there early if you want to try for that," Cooper said. "And again, there's private property all around, so you want to be careful about that."
A Virginia tourism site lists directions to this location and other potential viewing spots along with the distances away.
Sounding rockets go up very quickly, and you need to be looking in the right direction at the right time to spot the launch. To help with that, Wallops' phone app points the direction to the launch pad (the app can be downloaded at the bottom of the launch web page).
Antares launches are much louder and slower — and at night, the ascent of these rockets can be spotted from the whole Washington, D.C., area.
NEXT: Upcoming Wallops launchesSlide 7 of 15
Summer Launches: Wallops Flight FacilitySlide 8 of 15