What It's Like to View a SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch


238 points | by teleclimber 412 days ago


  • myself248 412 days ago

    I was at the first FH launch, at the turn-basin viewing area, because a friend of mine works for NASA and got the good, good, good tickets.

    I decided to heed the "experience it with your eyes, not through a phone" advice, so the only cameras I set up were fixed on tripods and not guided. I bought a thermal camera some time back, and it dawned on me that I'd never seen civilian thermal video of a launch, so I decided to give it a try:


    Apparently I wasn't the only one with that idea -- scroll down two more messages in that thread, and the OTHER civilian thermal video of that very same launch, was shot by another reader of the same forum, a few feet away at the same area!

    I had another camera facing the crowd, to capture the faces and the oohs and aahs, but the footage sucked. They had speakers set up that pipe in the countdown audio, which is all well and good, but then they made the inane decision to pipe in the sound of SpaceX's own throng cheering, with way too much gain, so it just made the entire audio experience a clipped screaming mess.

    I stepped away from the speakers to experience the rocket myself, and I'm glad I did.

    • jackhack 412 days ago

      Now there's something you don't hear everyday -- "would'ya turn down the audio? I can barely hear the HEAVY LIFT ROCKET ENGINE blasting off in front of me!"

      How loud must the speakers be to drown out a rocket engine firing which, outside of nuclear blasts, meteorites and volcanoes, are among the loudest possible sounds?

      • myself248 411 days ago

        It didn't drown it out, exactly. Just crapped it up.

        • myself248 411 days ago

          Edit but can't edit: I realized I have a photo of how close I was to the speaker: https://www.flickr.com/photos/myself248/31682309057/

          That's the FLIR (which, inexplicably, lacks a tripod mount) gently wedged between the leg and the ball-head, and then USB cabled down to my laptop (not in this photo) running Cheese because, again, the camera cannot natively record video...

          Anyway, the rocket was 2 miles away, and competed pretty well with a speaker 5 feet away. But getting 15 feet from the speaker really improved the experience.

          • jackhack 411 days ago

            Great photo -- now I get it!

            I was imagining elevated speakers a few hundred feet away similar to an outdoor concert, but that's a 100+ watt PA speaker at face level almost within reach.

            Thank you for sharing. What an experience you had!!

      • bwann 412 days ago

        I shot the F9 SSO-A launch with my FLIR One back in December. Visually it was about the same as yours, but what was surprising how well the iPhone picked up the low frequency rumbles. Playing it back on a stereo with a subwoofer was entertaining.

        After being to several launches both watching and photographing, I'd advise first timers to watch with their eyes first too. The flame plume is a very bright, oddly "rich colored", orange fire that video just can't capture. 60 seconds later it's all over, it's hard to watch both the rocket and viewfinder.

        • myself248 411 days ago

          The other thing was getting there and seeing people with lenses so big the camera hung from the lens, not the other way around. Good, they've got this handled, I can sit back and enjoy the experience.

          Come to think of it, I did shoot some lazy phone video too (I'll just hold this to my chest and aim it in the general direction of the rocket, but not pay attention to the viewfinder because I'm looking with my eyes), and I haven't watched it on anything but the phone. Perhaps I should transfer that over to something with better speakers.. :)

        • mattrp 411 days ago

          I was on cocoa beach for the FH demo flight. As hard as I tried to experience it with my eyes I couldn’t help but try to take some video. But it’s true what they say - one or the other. Make your decision to watch or film but don’t do both! I would say if you don’t have a tracking tripod forget the video and just watch a replay when you get back home.

        • SEJeff 412 days ago

          I was at the first FH launch and ordered the "Feel the heat" tickets. We watched the launch from the Saturn V / Apollo center just across the water from Pad 39A where the launch was. The part that I will never forget is the low rumbling in your chest. You can literally feel it.

          The sonic booms on takeoff sound like a machine gun about 3-4 octaves too high, and the 6 sonic booms (each Falcon 9 makes 3 sonic booms on re-entry) on landing were really incredible. If you can watch ones of these, do it!

          • chadash 412 days ago

            Is it hard to get tickets? How much do they cost?

            • SEJeff 412 days ago

              It wasn't hard to get tickets, you just had to get them as soon as they went on sale directly from Kennedy Space Center:


              I bought them from their website and it was $195 / ticket? It came with a pretty respectable lunch, a shuttle tour of KSC, and a single day full pass to explore KSC. Also, the announcer there in person was Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He spent much of the time talking about the Planetary Society's Light Sail project and all about SpaceX. They had a DJ and it was a pretty well organized event. My wife and I went to the launch, explored Orlando for a day, and then went to KSC as we figured all of the Falcon Heavy people would go to KSC the day after the launch. It was perfect! My wife wasn't a huge space fan before and this turned her into one, I highly recommend it!

              • jrockway 411 days ago

                My group bought our tickets a few days before the launch and there was no availability problem. I think the tickets are expensive enough that they don't sell out, but I could be wrong only having done it once.

                We ended up not seeing the launch and eating the cost because of the delay, but I knew that going in.

              • aerophilic 412 days ago

                One note: tickets sell out really fast, i Believe I heard within the first half hour.

                I second though getting there to be apart of it is incredible.

                One final note: seems like SpaceX is a bit superstitious, they didn’t sell the mission badges until after launch.

                • SEJeff 412 days ago

                  I didn't realize that, but Reddit's r/SpaceX community is generally really ontop of those things, so I saw it there and just bought tickets. Then convinced the wife we should go and worked on travel arrangements. She was just in awe of it all as I was.

                  • mattrp 411 days ago

                    Agreed r/Spacex is awesome - like Hacker News for all things space.

                    • Rebelgecko 412 days ago

                      How did that work out with the launch delays? Did you just plan on being in the area long enough to be there for any subsequent attempts?

                      • aerophilic 412 days ago

                        What I personally did was take the full week off. Buying a one way ticket there.

                        If it had gone on schedule, we would either have done a “different” trip, or simply come home for a “staycation”.

                        In general, I would not plan for it to go when it says it will.

                        Also, another helpful hint: it won’t go earlier than 3-4 days after the static fire. One option would be not to book flights till the static fire actually occurs.

                        • ChikkaChiChi 412 days ago

                          I was planning on going, but decided against it after watching the weather reports and figuring the model would add more unpredictability than I wanted.

                          If work wasn't so crazy, I would have booked a few extra days to cover possible scrubs, and I would recommend anyone else flying in do the same.

                          • SEJeff 411 days ago

                            I planned the trip for 3 days to get the primary and backup launch dates. The first day we did the launch, the second day we went to some Orlando nature preserves (shoutout to Gatorland), and the third day we spent exploring Kennedy Space Center.

                      • AshleyGrant 411 days ago

                        I bought my Feel the Heat tickets on the KSC website Monday evening, two days before the original launch date (well, one day after the No Earlier Than (NET) date). Feel the Heat tickets were still available through the website at least on Tuesday night as well.

                        • mattrp 411 days ago

                          It’s not hard to get tickets but there are a ton of viewing options that are free - and no one is truly close - at best you’re still miles away. I wouldn’t sweat the location - just go!

                        • WalterBright 411 days ago

                          You can feel it if you go to top fuel drag racing, too! In fact, it's more than just feeling, it's like someone is beating on your chest.

                          • myself248 411 days ago

                            I've likened it to going shooting, and you're wearing ears, but when the person in the lane next to you pulls the trigger, the blast just kicks you in the chest.

                            Now imagine that kick-in-the-chest continuously a dozen times a second for the better part of a minute and you're not 4 feet away but more like 2 miles.

                            What I take from your comment is that I need to go see some top fuel dragsters! ;)

                            I've seen the H1 Unlimited hydroplane races, but they're turbine-driven so there's whine and a tremendous roar as the prop beats the water, but a distinct lack of thump. (It's hilarious listening to one spool up and head out of the pits, though...) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTZLiqA2qjY

                            • WalterBright 411 days ago

                              The closest you can get to a top fuel dragster lighting up is about 30 feet. You really don't want to be any closer. Before you go, buy a good set of shooting range ear protectors.

                              The great thing about top fuel is it's the only motor sport where a pit pass is actually a pit pass. You can go into the pits and talk to the mechanics and drivers if they're not busy.

                              Once a crowd was hanging around a team that just finished putting their engine back together. They started it, blab-blab-blab-blab. Then they blipped the throttle. I knew it was coming and had the ear muffs on, but most didn't, and the crowd leaned back and cringed as the blast wave hit them.

                              3000 hp running through those little V8's is incredible.

                              Their souvenir stand sold blown up engine parts :-)

                              • myself248 411 days ago

                                > it's the only motor sport where a pit pass is actually a pit pass. You can go into the pits and talk to the mechanics and drivers if they're not busy.

                                H1 Unlimited begs to differ. :)

                                The "pits" are weird; there are dockside cranes that lift the boats out of the water into the pit area, and lift them back when they're done; servicing is always done between races, not during a lap.

                                But with the appropriate pass, you can wander right in. Don't touch the propellers; they could be made of adamantium-duranium alloy and poking 'em would still be rude. But otherwise, yeah, welcome to wrenchville! It's a bit drippier and smells weirder than other motorsports pits..

                        • sizzzzlerz 412 days ago

                          Very good description of what it's like to be there. I was fortunate to witness the launch of Apollo 16 in person as a high school junior in 1972. I'd seen just about all the previous launches on TV but they did not prepare me for actually being there. Even though we were miles away, the size of the rocket was completely outside the boundaries of any vehicle I'd ever seen and, as the OP said, the sound made by those 5 massive engines wasn't so much heard as it was felt in the pit of your stomach. Long after the rocket has disappeared, you still could hear it. It remains the most awesome event I've ever witnessed.

                          • teleclimber 412 days ago

                            That must have been an incredible experience. An Apollo launch would be much louder than an FH, particularly since they did not think to do much sound suppression back then. They used to break windows in Orlando when they launched! Now they have tons of water below and flowing through the pad to carry the energy away.

                          • bdunn 412 days ago

                            Was able to grab seats in the "Feel The Heat" section for the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch last year - it was incredible! (Olivier: your writeup brought back a ton of memories.)

                            I especially liked this picture I grabbed of someone who had his photo taken in the exact same spot for one of the earlier Apollo launches: https://imgur.com/a/xAqbTGL

                            • teleclimber 412 days ago

                              Glad this brought back memories for you. What a lovely moment you captured too.

                            • bane 411 days ago

                              The amateur videos are arguably even more fascinating than the official coverage:

                              From a Cessna: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuTAu5VmtFw

                              From a Nikon with an awesome view of the separation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLCXn445-eQ

                              Great Audio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lMvLyMjzfM

                              • wolfram74 412 days ago

                                The booing about the prospect of the delayed launch made me think about the bureaucrats insistence on minimizing (edit: discussion of) launch risks with the space shuttle that lead to the challenger explosion. I empathize with wanting to see it launch, but the first priority is it actually getting to orbit.

                                • teleclimber 412 days ago

                                  OP here. I think everybody wants to see SpaceX succeed of course, but when you're in the bleachers you are very keen to see it launch. For most people a scrub would mean packing bags and leaving the next day without ever witnessing the event they came to see, and all that money and time gone.

                                  There is a weird dichotomy at KSC: the visitor center is like DisneyLand and the launches are like a NASCAR race. Yet the work being done is dead-serious, very high-stakes, and sometimes even significant for humanity.

                                  • WatchDog 412 days ago

                                    I was also at the same viewing area. Keep in mind that people had been in Florida for days longer than they expected, and had spent half the previous day sitting around waiting for the launch to happen.

                                    • bdunn 412 days ago

                                      Yeah, when I was there for the inaugural FH launch we were up at 5am, at KSC by 6, and then I think the launch was at around 4pm.

                                      The idea of another 10+ hours baking in the Florida sun...

                                      (But, seriously, no one there would have preferred an unsafe launch. For us, the booing was targeted toward high atmospheric winds!)

                                      • tylaw 411 days ago

                                        I'm planning to take the family for the FH launch expected in June. Seriously considering the "Feel the Heat" package, but wondering if it will be too loud for the littles (2 and 6)? Obviously they'd wear proper hearing protection, but would it still be too loud/intense?

                                        • mattrp 411 days ago

                                          I had my five with me (all under ten). We debated endlessly about whether to buy nasa tickets until they were sold out. We flew down the morning of (this was the demo flight last year) - and by 10 am we were in the vicinity of the launch area. Since we didn’t have tickets we evaluated some of the bridge locations but finally decided if it didn’t launch we’d rather make it a day at the beach rather than hang out alongside a highway. Three things to note: 1) the beach area had terrible internet. Most of the time twitter wouldn’t load so it was hard to know exactly what was happening. 2) you have a pretty good shot of the landing zones when the rockets return - better than inside ksc I’ve read, 3) if we hadn’t been staying in the hotel it would have been several hours of traffic after the launch. As it was we took the kids to the pool and ate dinner poolside but we could see the road outside was packed for easily two hours post launch.

                                        • SEJeff 412 days ago

                                          Same! My wife and I had the feel the heat tickets. We woke up at 5AM on launch day and didn't get to the Apollo / Saturn V center until around 11am. The line was crazytown.

                                      • lenticular 412 days ago

                                        Interesting that that low, deep tones were the first the author heard. This is due to sound waves traveling through the ground arriving first. The higher frequencies are attenuated much more. I've always noticed this occurring with on-ground explosions as well.

                                        • bsmith 412 days ago

                                          Interesting. At what point does it stop being sounds waves traveling through the ground and start becoming straight-up seismic vibrations caused by the (effective) explosions happening on the pad? Probably a bit of a spectrum, as the ground is itself acting like a giant woofer of sorts. I wonder where such a launch registers on the Richter scale...

                                          • lenticular 412 days ago

                                            The sound waves in the ground actually are seismic waves, there's no real distinction. The difference is that air essentially just has longitudinal pressure waves (like P-waves), whereas the ground has transversely oriented shear (S) waves and a number of surface waves.

                                          • jcims 412 days ago

                                            You can hear this on a lot of those EOD cache disposal videos on YouTube.

                                          • dredmorbius 411 days ago

                                            OT: This is one fast-displaying, well-designed static site blog. Wish there were more like it.

                                            Deetails on the First Post page -- Hugo based, Indigo theme (modified):


                                            • newfie_bullet 412 days ago

                                              That was a great read. Would love to be there some time for an event like that. Still so amazed when I see video of those rockets landing vertically. Great to hear that so many people are still very excited for space exploration!

                                              • malingo 411 days ago

                                                Great writeup. Reminds me of Penn Jillette's description of watching a space shuttle launch:

                                                It’s beyond sound, it’s wind. It’s a man-made hurricane. It’s a baseball bat in the chest. It’s so loud. It’s so loud you can’t even call it loud.


                                                • erobbins 411 days ago

                                                  I saw multiple space shuttle launches in person, and this article captures it pretty well. The visuals are spectacular, but the sound... I thought I knew what to expect but it's just indescribable.

                                                  If you can go see a launch in person, do it. It's the most amazing thing I've ever witnessed in person.

                                                  • vonnik 411 days ago

                                                    This was from watching a SpaceX launch last year, fwiw: https://medium.com/@chrisvnicholson/we-watched-a-rocket-leav...

                                                    • sbr464 412 days ago

                                                      This youtube channel[1] has a pretty amazing binaural (immersive) audio recording of the facilities and launch.

                                                      Liftoff is @ 3:15

                                                      [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImoQqNyRL8Y

                                                      • goshx 412 days ago

                                                        I was there too and this post is a great description of what you experience!

                                                        • _nickwhite 412 days ago

                                                          I also saw the first FH launch, but I was at the (free) Playalinda Beach public access area. It's so close (~3.59 miles to 39A) they actually close the beach and move spectators further back. HIGHLY recommended if anyone is looking to see a launch. I've seen other launches from the causeway, but this was closer and had a much better atmosphere - and literally right on the beach, so the kids love it.

                                                          • chasd00 412 days ago

                                                            i grew up in Daytona Beach and my father would take me to see shuttle launches all the time. The sound is what i remember, you feel it as much as you see it. It's sort of like seeing a top fuel dragster in person, you get a whole new sense of the power unleashed when the peddle is put to the metal.

                                                            • theNJR 412 days ago

                                                              That was an enjoyable read! One of these days I’m going to make it to a Vandenberg launch.

                                                              • Diederich 412 days ago

                                                                My family and I have watched three SpaceX launches from California. It's incredibly worth while. If memory serves, the closest public place is about 2.5 miles away. Unfortunately you can't see the launch pad. The rocket appears two or three seconds after launch.

                                                                But yes...the sound. Rather, the vibrations...are amazing.

                                                              • OrgNet 412 days ago

                                                                I went to the last shuttle launch at night, it was great. The whole sky got bright. I got the sound a moment later because I was across the water.

                                                                • matthewmcg 412 days ago

                                                                  Don't forget a good pair of 7x50 binoculars.

                                                                  • playpause 412 days ago

                                                                    I know nothing about binoculars. Why 7x50 specifically?

                                                                    • myself248 412 days ago

                                                                      7x magnification, because more makes 'em jittery and hard to aim. You pretty much need a tripod past 10x, and 7-10 is a good compromise with enough field of view to quickly find an object against an empty sky.

                                                                      Less than 7 doesn't really show you much more than you can see with the naked eye.

                                                                      50mm objective lens gives you good light-gathering power. Which you don't need for a day launch or birdwatching, but it's important for night stuff. You could get 7x20's (opera glasses) and be just fine, but the 50's aren't that much more expensive and they'll apply to a lot more situations.

                                                                      • clort 412 days ago

                                                                        I think the main useful thing about 7x50 is that 50mm (diameter of the input lens) divided by 7 (magnification) is just over 7mm, which would be the diameter of the image in the output lens and is also approximately the maximum diameter of your pupil, meaning that the field of view is never smaller than your pupil and you can always see properly. If the exit diameter is smaller than your pupil then it is like you are peering through a small hole.

                                                                        If you know you are going to be viewing in bright daylight then your pupils will be smaller and you can use smaller lenses like 7x35 or so or for extra magnification you could use 10x40 but with higher magnification you get more jitter anyway.

                                                                        In low light conditions, if you compare the field of view through some 7x50's vs straight gazing, you will notice that the scene seems brighter as well as closer. That is because you are receiving light from 50mm dia onto your retina vs light from 7mm diameter.

                                                                        and thats enough about optics, back to the space rockets.

                                                                        • vkou 412 days ago

                                                                          7x50s are traditional marine/astronomical binoculars. They are about as big as you can get, without getting too heavy to comfortably hold. I use mine to stargaze/satellite gaze fairly regularly.

                                                                          Although, for daytime observation, 7x35s should be just fine.

                                                                    • mycall 411 days ago

                                                                      I was at the STS-1 launch. I got a patch and got to meet celebrities. It was amazing, lots of cheering in the bleachers.

                                                                      • cr1895 412 days ago

                                                                        Anyone who saw this and who got to witness shuttle launches: how does it compare?

                                                                        • adt2bt 412 days ago

                                                                          I didn’t see this one, but I did see a shuttle launch, and I gotta say his experience seems to be pretty much the same as mine was witnessing a shuttle launch.

                                                                          • Frye 412 days ago

                                                                            I watched shuttle and FH launches from the same area on KSC. The power and noise from shuttle was insane. FH was similar but much more timid.

                                                                          • adhambadr 412 days ago

                                                                            wow thanks a lot for sharing. +1 on my bucket list for sure.