The Rocket Launch

Waiting for my job to start, I’ve been looking for things to do around Southern California. Maybe it was the release of the new Star Wars trailer and my upcoming trip to Florida, but I started looking up rocket launches and discovered that there was going to be a rocket launch this upcoming Thursday evening at Vandenberg Air Force Base about 3 hours north of LA. Rocket launches happen here about 5 times a year, but this one was special because it was the largest rocket to ever launch from Vandenberg and it was rare night launch which makes it easier to see the rocket. Usually rocket launches occur at inconvenient times like 6AM and are announced only 3-4 days before, so this this might be my only chance to see one for awhile without having to take off from work. So on Thursday morning, I drove up the coast with my friends Jared and Erik. We figured since the launch was in the evening, we might as well enjoy the day.

We got to Santa Barbara around noon and got tri tip for lunch at the Shalhoob Meat Company. We checked on the launch forecast and unfortunately they postponed the launch due to weather. The worst storm in 5 years was supposed to hit during the launch, so they moved it to the next day, Friday. Since we were already 2 hours away from LA, we decided to stay and make the most of our time.

Too rainy for a rocket launch. Mission Abort
Too rainy for a rocket launch. Mission Abort

We then headed further up the coast to Bulleton and stopped at the Figueroa Mountain Brewery for some beers. Not were the beers good, but it was a good opportunity to stay inside during the rainy weather in a place that is so defined by outdoor activities. I got a flight of IPAs.

Figueroa Mountain IPA Flight
Figueroa Mountain IPA Flight

From Figueroa Mountain, it was only 15 minutes to the La Purisima, one of California’s Missions. The missions were built by Spanish Franciscan priests during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. In total there are 21 missions stretching from San Diego up to Sonoma. La Purisima is unique because it is the only mission not built in a quadrangle shape. Rather, it is linear. It is also one of two missions that is owned by the State of California and not the Catholic Church. As a result, it is now a state park rather than a functioning church, which makes it the best preserved of all the missions because it hasn’t been updated for modern use. Additionally, without a church crowd, the mission is very quiet and peaceful. The only people we ran into was a crew filming a French feature film. Unlike other missions, La Purisima didn’t charge and entrance fee and didn’t have a set tour route, which added to the peaceful atmosphere. I felt that La Purisima gave the best glimpse into what the mission looked and felt like during its use compared to other more commercialized ones such as San Gabriel.

The Mission
The Mission

One of the funniest moments of the day was when we were hanging out by the pig pen. Erik lost a friendly bet and had to jump into the pen and pet the muddy pigs.

Erik and his swine friends
Erik and his swine friends

After the mission, we stopped briefly in Solvang, America’s Danish city. The city is supposed to look Danish, as all the buildings are themed. Jared, however, had just returned from backpacking Europe for 2 months and said that buildings did not look Danish at all, but rather Dutch. Danish or not, Solvang still had lots of awesome bakeries. We went to 4 of them before buying some aebleskivers (a Danish jelly donut) for snacks.

Solvang is looking rather festive
Solvang is looking rather festive

At this point, the sun had set but it was only about 5pm- too early for dinner but we would hit rush hour traffic is we drove back to LA right now, so we then went to the Chumash Indian casino. I’m not a gambler, but Jared and Erik were playing Pai Gow so I joined them. We all basically broke even. On the way back to LA, we stopped in Santa Barbara for dinner with my friends Michael and Kate.

Although it was a fun day, I didn’t get to see the rocket launch, so on Friday I decided to go back by myself. The initial weather report forecasted a 40% chance of favorable launch conditions. While 40% seems low, it was a chance to see something amazing and if the weather was unfavorable again, I would still make the most of the day.

This time, I left after lunch and stopped briefly at the Channel Islands National Park visitor center in Ventura. I am hopefully planning a trip to the islands soon and wanted some more information. Unfortunately, the island I wanted to visit is closed until May due to dock repairs. That said, I still enjoyed going to the visitor center. If you go, the park movie (narrated by Kevin Costner) is fantastic.

I stopped again at Gaviota State Beach for a quick sunset hike. An isolated storm cloud was moving in.

Beautiful
Beautiful

I got to Vandenberg Air Force Base around 5:30. Not sure exactly where to watch the launch, I drove up to the base and asked the military guard. Since I was wearing a camo hat, he assumed I was a soldier and gave me directions to the secret launch site….ooops. He then asked me for my base ID and when I told him I didn’t have one, he told me I had to turn around.

Armed with the new information, I found the launch site on the map and found a road that gets about 2 miles away from launch. I then got dinner in the town of Lompoc and got to my spot about 45 minutes before the launch. Turns out my secret spot was not so secret. I reckon there were maybe 60 or so cars parked along the road in a 3 mile stretch.

As I waited for the rocket to launch, I played the Star Wars theme song and Muse to pump myself up while reading the Twitter updates on the launch progress. After filling up all the fuel and oxygen tanks (a 2 hour process), mission control OK’d the mission with a unanimous vote at T-minus 4 minutes. At T-minus 1 minute, range was set to GREEN and at T-minus 20 seconds the Space Wing Commander gave the “Go Atlas, Go Centaur, Go L-35” command at which point there was no turning back.

We have liftoff!
We have liftoff!

At exactly 7:19 PM, the pitch black sky silently and suddenly turned to day. Two seconds later, the 200 ft tall rocket zoomed into the air like the sun rising in time-lapse. Two seconds later, the sound of two million pounds of thrust finally reaches the road. Twelve seconds later, the rocket breaches the cloud and the sky darkened once again. The people around me applauded the “spectacle of light and sound” before quickly heading back to their cars and heading out.

NROL-35 heading to outer space
NROL-35 heading to outer space

It sure was a lot of effort and driving for a 20-second show, but it was worth it. Not only did I watch a 20-story flaming building fly into space, but I also watched night sky suddenly turn alight which is something straight out of mythology. Additionally, I had a lot of fun hanging out with my friends and exploring the Central Coast and would definitely go back given the chance.

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