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MaryLiz BenderSeptember 20, 2018

The day I caught rocket fever

On February 6, 2018, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with two of my heroes: Bill Nye on the left, Buzz Aldrin on the right. Our eyes were fixed on the first vertical Falcon Heavy rocket. Figuring the world's most powerful rocket might send me flying backwards once the countdown hit zero, I gripped the railing so tightly I started to lose the feeling in my fingertips.

I was excited to witness my first rocket launch on this historic day, but had been battling a growing anxiety that something might go wrong. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk kept reminding the press that the rocket could blow up. Over the loudspeakers, launch officials continually advised us about the hazards involved in a failure, which only added to my anxiety. The launch kept getting delayed, and the launch window shrank.

Then the notice finally came and the countdown began. Here I was on the balcony of the Saturn V building at Kennedy Space Center, between two legends who’d shaped the course of my life.

Falcon Heavy launch viewing site

MaryLiz Bender

Falcon Heavy launch viewing site
Awaiting the launch of the Falcon Heavy demonstration flight from the balcony of the Saturn V building at Kennedy Space Center on February 6, 2018.

The balcony overlooked hundreds of spectators in the field below us. All of us counted together in unison: “3, 2, 1… liftoff!” I gasped and held my breath, then let a loud yell, as I witnessed a giant cloud of smoke billow up below the rocket while it gracefully lifted itself from the ground. I had imagined an earthquake and an immediate sonic boom. But it was surprisingly peaceful, aside from the loud roar of the crowd and the sound of the rocket.

Falcon Heavy rocket launch

Photo and animation by Ryan Chylinski (@sciencetripper) / courtesy of Spaceflight Insider

Falcon Heavy rocket launch
An animated closeup of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket which flight which launched on February 6, 2018 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL from the historic launchpad, 39A.

A sensation came over me: a realization that I’m experiencing the beginning of a new era in human innovation and exploration. All of human history flashed before my eyes as I watched this unnatural event take place. Not long ago, we discovered tools. Over time, we continued to innovate and eventually built technology that could lift us to the stars. Mentally, I stepped outside of the situation and looked down on myself in this moment: “How did I get here?” That’s when the tears hit me — a high school dropout with no formal science education to speak of — inspired by Bill Nye: The Science Guy and astronauts who left and then returned to this tiny world to share a new perspective. How did I make it to the forefront of human exploration? It was at this moment that I heard Bill yell:

“IT’S SO POWERFUL! MY SLACKS… MY SHIRT… IT’S VIBRATING!”

I re-entered the moment and realized that the power had hit me too. I didn’t feel like my body was going to fall over from the blast as I had anticipated, but I felt a very deep rumble in my chest. Meanwhile, Bill kept narrating the launch. He was downright giddy as he shouted about the physics.

Bill had warned me not to try to take video, saying

“A lot of people want to take video of a launch, but remember — there are tons of professional photographers doing this for you. I advise you to be present and fully experience the moment.”

But I couldn’t help myself. I decided to sneakily compromise by holding the phone out in front of me. Bill noticed I hadn’t actually started recording. He hit the record button for me just in the nick of time. The resulting video is extremely poor. The lens wasn’t even facing the right direction during take-off.

Once the rocket disappeared into the clouds I stopped the video and, for the first time that day, relaxed my shoulders with a long sigh. Then Bill shouted “Here they come!! There they are!!” I jumped and the roar of the crowd grew louder. I had forgotten that the boosters were coming back for a landing! Of course! Two boosters were landing themselves right on their targets, slightly staggered, ever so gracefully. It looked like a ballet. “Just like that,” I remember whispering to myself. Then came the sonic boom, "Woah!" followed by a second, more ferocious boom in its wake, "WOAH!" Bill and I whipped our heads around at each other and screamed, eyes wide.

Everyone spent the remainder of the day excitedly recounting their unique perspectives of the launch. Grins stretching ear to ear, eyes glossed over with emotion. There was a deep sense of connection. We’d all experienced an incredible phenomenon together. We, humans, worked together to make this happen. We continue to stand on the shoulders of giants, achieving so much more with each step. But, only when we work together. This sensation is inescapable after witnessing a rocket launch. I had an uncontrollable urge to share this new-found perspective with the world. I had contracted “rocket fever”.

Please accept marketing-cookies to watch this video.

Soon, LightSail 2 will launch into space on the first operational Falcon Heavy rocket. I’ll be there, gripping the railing alongside Bill Nye and The Planetary Society team.

I hope you’ll join us this time. There’s one week left to enter a contest to win a trip to see this historic launch and have lunch, dinner, and a launch viewing experience with Bill Nye and the rest of us at The Planetary Society. Take it from me: you don’t want to miss it.

Read more: commercial spaceflight, pretty pictures, Planetary Society Projects, mission status, personal stories, events and announcements, LightSail, Planetary Society People, Planetary Society, rockets

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MaryLiz Bender
MaryLiz Bender

Associate Producer of Planetary Radio, Digital Content Coordinator for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by MaryLiz Bender

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