Being a fan of rocket launches is not what it used to be… and that’s awesome.

I’ve chatted with many of you in person about the Starship (Ship 24) launch I went to go see on April 20th (2023). Many folks I talk to ask me about whether or not I was sad about the “failure” of the rocket. I wanted to give you all a glimpse of what all of this is like from my perspective. I’m going to tell you a bit about how big of a space nut I am, then, we’ll talk about how watching rockets has changed over the past few years, and lastly, I’m going to tell you about what I expected and experienced at the Ship 24 launch on April 20th.

You may well know that I have followed space and rocketry since I was a kid back in the 80’s. I’ve followed SpaceX  and other private space companies since the “X Prize” started back around 2000. I was on site, watching when the first private companies like “Armadillo Aerospace” demonstrated that a rocket could actually take off and land– and when Burt Rutan’s “Spaceship 1” (Now owned by Richard Branson) proved that a private company could actually build a rocket plane that puts people into space safely.  Back in those days, we drove halfway across the country to sit and roast in the desert without so much as internet service or a radio, with barely any information on what was about to happen. We just used our binoculars and cameras and tried hard to understand what we were looking at — but we knew we were watching history being made. We saw many failures, non-starts, delays, and a very, very few successful launches. Even attempting to watch a Space Shuttle launch was an exercise in patience and disappointment. I  was only ever able to watch one successful Space Shuttle launch (live) after attempting to watch one over a dozen times (each one involved a drive from Oklahoma to Florida).

SpaceshipOne, the first private rocket to carry a man to space and back. (2004)
Armadillo Aerospace proves that a privately built rocket can take off and land under rocket power (2006)

Back in the Shuttle era, all rockets were built by the government. News was scarce about rockets and testing. Beyond launches, most progress was a government secret. Getting to go “back stage” and watch rockets being built or tested was reserved for people with security clearances and a need to know. Other than watching a launch, the average guy couldn’t do much more than go to the NASA visitors center. Fate smiled upon me and I once got a chance to go behind the curtain and watch shuttle Atlantis being built. Generally speaking though, rocketry back then was totally boring, except for the 3-5 shuttle launches every year and the occasional “Nova” documentary on PBS.

In 2010 I examined Atlantis’ wing prior to its last launch.
Endeavor had scrubbed for the day and I got to go up into the launch tower to examine a few things, including a valve that caused the scrub.

As of the 2020’s, rocketry is anything but disappointing and boring. SpaceX now launches 1 or 2 rockets every single week from KSC in Florida. The newest rocket, Starship (the one that was recently tested), is being built right out in the open, for all to see.  Where the government didn’t share much about their rocket program, SpaceX actually explains a lot of what they’re doing and even gets new ideas occasionally from enthusiasts (I’m not joking). There are hundreds of photographers, videographers, 3d artists, engineers and other enthusiasts sharing ultra high quality content every day. You can watch their streams of Starships(s) being built 24×7 on YouTube. Elon musk will even take interviews with these fans, answer questions, and confirm or correct things we’ve been speculating on. I have the Starbase Live feed on my computer most of the day, and consume 2-3 hours of “documentary quality” rocketry content per week. If anything, there’s more information available than anyone could ever watch.

Just walk up to Starbase and take pictures. No clearance needed.
CSI Starbase analyzes the post launch damage.
Live video of what’s being done at SpaceX’s Starbase right now.

Now that you have a little taste of what being a space nut like me is all about, let me tell you about my experience watching the 4/20 test of Starship. It goes without saying that I’d been awaiting this test for months. The previous week, I knew we were getting close to a launch date. SpaceX still needed the FAA to grant them a launch license. On Friday evening, the license was granted for a launch attempt on Monday morning (April 17th).

Elon musk had laid out plans for the rocket to launch (without any cargo) and the 2 stages (halves of the rocket) would separate at about 60Km altitude. Stage one would come back down and crash into the ocean in the gulf of Mexico, and Stage 2 would go crash in the ocean off of Hawaii. Keep in mind, most of this plan was only relevent if everything worked flawlessly. SpaceX only gave Starship a 50% chance of making it about 10Km up. The test would be deemed a success if the rocket launched and cleared the launch tower by a good margin. If it made it to Max Q (speed just above the sound barrier), that would be a resounding success. The odds of completing the entire plan were near zero, as none of this had ever been tried before. My expectations were set. This rocket had ZERO chance of surviving in any case — there weren’t even any “miracle” options for it to survive — it would end up at the bottom of the ocean no matter what.

A cool video made by a fan of what the Starship test could have been. Included cargo and a landing, which were never actually planned.
Artists rendering of how Starship would have landed if everything in the mission were 100% successful. There was a near zero chance of this happening.

Again, here it is on Friday, and the launch is scheduled for Monday morning in Boca Chica Texas, about a 13+ hour drive from where I live. I don’t know if there is a hotel nearby with an opening or not, so I pack my supplies and get prepared to go on a week long trip, possibly living out of my van or a tent. On this particular trip, I took my 2 teenage daughters and my 8 year old son, and my mom came along as well. My wife wasn’t at all interested in camp or van life, so she stayed home and enjoyed the silence. I kept watching closely for signs that the launch would be scrubbed. On Sunday morning, we finally left for Boca Chica. On the way, my mom (who also wasn’t interested in camp or van life) frantically searched for a hotel and watched The Everyday Astronaut’s video on how to watch the Starship test flight in person (info on where to go, where to potentially stay, etc).

After the 13 hour drive and the mandatory dinner at Pappadeaux’s, we arrived at our motel (that my mom and brother miraculously found on South Padre Island). Our Motel was only a couple of miles from Isla Blanca park, about the best possible spot to watch the launch from. It was around midnight when we finally got fully settled in, and Isla Blanca park opened at 4am. If we wanted to avoid walking miles down the beach, we needed to get there before they stopped letting cars in. I didn’t get any sleep, and instead spent the night doing last minute day-bag packing, battery charging and researching the exact plan. I drove down to the park, scoped it out and talked to a few locals. The launch was set for around 8am. Fast forward to 8am, and we’re sitting on the beach, watching Starship and listening to a live stream as they announce that they’re scrubbed for the day. I imagine that they’d try again the next day, but I learned later that day, that it’d be Thursday before they could try again. Honestly, I always thought Elon would MAKE it launch on 4/20 (pot reference he seems to think is funny), so it didn’t surprise me even a little– and almost every launch I go see is initially scrubbed it seems. The only bad part was that the sky was crystal clear and the weather later in the week wasn’t expected to be anywhere near as good.

My view of Starship from Isla Blanca Park on 4/17
Because the Starship’s fuel has to be refrigerated down to -200 degrees, it needs over 100 tankers full of liquid Nitrogen to “recycle” after the scrub, which took 2-3 days to complete.

From that point until Thursday morning, we were in vacation mode, so I won’t bore you with those details which I’m sure you can imagine — but we did get to go visit Starbase and watch them replenish the fuel tanks and get one last look at Starship. Success or not, if the launch happened, this ship would never be seen or heard from again. There is a lot to see at Starbase, and the beach is beautiful as well.

Thursday, 4/20, 7:30am. We’ve been on the beach in Isla Blanca park at the southern tip of South Padre Island for 4 hours. It’s hazy and a bit cool, but the countdown is progressing. We get near the time to launch and we hear over the internet that there is a hold in the countdown. There’s a little bit of confusion as we really don’t know if it’s going to be long or short.. and I think the hold was at about 40 seconds. After what seemed like only a few seconds.. the countdown had resumed, and honestly it caught most of us off guard. I hit “record” on my phone, but I didn’t take my eyes off the rocket– I drove all this way to see it, if I wanted to stare at a screen, I’d have stayed home. It took a few seconds for the sound to reach us.. and the sound was amazing.. it sounded like the air was just ripping apart — there are some YouTube videos that capture it well, but it’s something else to feel it throughout your whole body.

Hold at T-40 seconds. Biting our nails for a second there.
Starship launches! (video at the end of the article)

About 22 seconds after launch, it was obvious something wasn’t quite right, some engines were not lit and some more were flaming out and you could see fire coming out where it shouldn’t– but there were no signs of the ship slowing down or veering off course in a major way. About a minute into the flight, they announced that they’d passed “Max Q”, the part where the ship was under the most stress, as it passed just beyond the speed of sound. We were all elated– This was officially better than we’d hoped for– but we crossed our fingers. We wanted to see this thing separate. A little over 2 minutes in, and it started to look wonky.. it was in some smoke, but obviously was not flying straight. Elon had mentioned a “flip maneuver” the ship was supposed to do to help separate.. but it appeared to flip multiple times. At that point, I knew it was gonna break apart… but oddly, it just didn’t. I’ve seen this happen to MANY rockets, and they always immediately break up. Rockets can’t just take the force of flipping while going mach 2 or so through the air. But you know what, starship did. It’s made of stainless steel to be strong.. and dang was it strong. In fact, Elon later said they set off explosives on the ship and it did not rip the ship apart. It took it over 50 seconds after the explosives ripped holes in it for it to finally break up.

My low quality video of the launch.
SpaceX’s video of the launch. Possibly the best video coverage of any rocket launch ever.

As we finally started to look around us, we could see a HUGE dust cloud from around Starbase. We would later learn that this was what Elon referred to as a “rock tornado”– a bunch of sand, concrete, dust, and other material that had been spread everywhere. This actually wound up being the worst part of the experience. The launch tower (they call it Stage 0), the launch facility, and much around it was really damaged from junk being blown all over by Starship’s 33 engines. Elon now says it’ll take a few weeks to fix, and he’s claiming they can potentially launch again in July.. and I’ll try and be there.

Extensive damage to the shielding of the launch platform and tanks.
That giant hole underneath the platform used to be solid concrete.

By far the most disappointing thing about all of this was how the news covered it. My non-rocket-nerd friends were all trying to cheer me up, as if I’d lost a loved one. I checked later and the news covered this thing like it was fully expected to– I don’t know, launch satellites and land somewhere or something. These nice folks on the news apparently couldn’t be bothered to pay attention long enough to know what to expect. Most of my friends still think this is some kind of billion dollar ship that was “wasted”.. it was not. There are several other ships and boosters that are nearly ready to launch today and in fact, there are several that are obsolete by now and will never launch just because there’s no need. I’d have to go on for an hour to explain why that is, but trust me, it’s correct and it makes perfect sense. Anyway, I loved every minute of my trip, I loved the outcome of the launch, and I loved everything about this entire experience besides the news. I’m glad you took the time to read my story, and I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll leave you with one last video of a reporter who was so busy talking about some actors that were in town, that she missed the launch happening right behind her. God bless, have a great day, pay attention, and never forget to vote.

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