It’s the golden age of spaceflight. Here’s where you can see a launch.

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Rocket-watching

“It’s a glorious era for space exploration, and if you’re yearning to witness the spectacle firsthand, you’re in luck. Picture this: I’m chatting with Ted Ebbers on the evening of April 19, 2023, right there on the sandy shores of South Padre Island, Texas. He glances at me and asks, ‘You’re here for the launch?’ Well, no prizes for guessing our reason for being there—it’s none other than the imminent launch of the world’s mightiest rocket, slated for the next day. Ted, a freshly minted retiree from the Canadian government, had embarked on a 1,900-mile journey from Toronto to SpaceX’s Boca Chica spaceport in his trusty Tesla Model Y, all in pursuit of witnessing his very first rocket launch.

As dawn broke, Ted and I joined a throng of thousands, all eagerly awaiting the inaugural test flight of the 33-engine Super Heavy booster, tasked with carrying the Starship upper stage. Designed by SpaceX to ferry payloads and passengers to distant destinations like the moon and Mars, this rocket was the stuff of dreams. The crowd at Isla Blanca Park, perched at the island’s southern tip, boasted a diverse mix of spectators—college students proudly donning “Occupy Mars” T-shirts, and snowbirds savoring the moment in their Hawaiian shirts.

Ladies and gentlemen, if there ever was a prime time in U.S. history to witness space launches up close and personal, this is it. The skies above Florida, California, and Virginia are ablaze with rockets, and they’re not just for show; they’re real, and they’re spectacular.

So, what’s fueling this explosion in accessible space travel? Well, it all began during the George W. Bush era when NASA decided to outsource the creation of rockets and spacecraft to private companies. This transition from a government-run show to a commercial space extravaganza picked up momentum through the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations.

Back to Ted. He stood there, eyes fixed on the horizon, as dozens of engines roared to life at 8:33 a.m. on April 20. The rocket began its ascent, but not without a dramatic twist. The booster’s exhaust was so intense that it blasted enormous chunks of concrete from the launchpad, potentially causing damage to some engines. To add to the suspense, three engines failed to ignite at liftoff. The colossal 394-foot-tall rocket clawed its way into the heavens, eventually reaching an altitude of over 120,000 feet. After nearly four minutes of breathtaking flight, tragedy struck—the Starship and its booster met their untimely demise, never managing to separate stages.

But Ted’s response was the stuff of legends. With a smile, he shrugged off the setback, saying, ‘It didn’t matter. The spacecraft flew, and we all got to see it.’ Now, that’s the spirit of a true launch enthusiast.

Now, dear readers, if you’re eager to embark on your own rocket-watching adventure, here are some prime spots across the U.S. where you can witness these incredible launches:

  1. Vandenberg, California: Seasoned rocket enthusiasts know that Vandenberg Space Force Base in California is the place to be. It’s where United Launch Alliance sends secret government payloads soaring into space, the Air Force tests intercontinental ballistic missiles, and SpaceX conducts its commercial flights.

  2. Wallops Island, Virginia: Imagine watching 139-foot-tall Antares rockets ascend from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, affectionately known as MARS. You can combine rocket-watching with beach vacations near quaint Chincoteague Island, famous for its national seashore, local saltwater taffy, and wild horses that love island-hopping.

  3. Merritt Island, Florida: Last year, approximately 100,000 people flocked to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch of an Orion capsule on a lunar orbit mission, even though it was uncrewed. The Kennedy Space Center is where the action is, especially when it comes to Artemis crew launches, with the first one scheduled for November 2024.

  4. Boca Chica, Texas: If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind a bit of unpredictability, head to SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. Here, you might encounter more launch scrubs due to weather or technical glitches, but the experience is well worth it. This site is primarily dedicated to the construction and testing of new space hardware, so you’ll witness innovation in action. Just be prepared to extend your stay to account for possible launch delays, and have flexible plans to fill your downtime.

Remember, launch sites that offer tickets can sell out quickly, so have a backup plan in mind. Scout alternative viewing locations in advance, ensuring they are open to the public, and arrive well-prepared with water, sunscreen, and snacks. It’s time to make your own space odyssey a reality and join the ranks of launch enthusiasts who are witnessing history in the making.

This story originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine, so you know it’s the real deal. So, pack your bags, grab your binoculars, and prepare to be awestruck by the wonders of the cosmos!”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Rocket-watching

Question: Where can I go to witness rocket launches in the United States?

Answer: You have several fantastic options to witness rocket launches in the United States. Here are some prime locations:

Question: What’s special about Vandenberg, California, for rocket watching?

Answer: Vandenberg Space Force Base in California is known for hosting United Launch Alliance’s secret government payload launches, Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and SpaceX’s commercial flights. It’s a seasoned favorite among rocket enthusiasts.

Question: Tell me more about Wallops Island, Virginia, as a rocket launch site.

Answer: Wallops Island, Virginia, is home to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, often referred to as MARS. It’s famous for launching 139-foot-tall Antares rockets, often offering a bonus rocket show for those on beach vacations. Plus, you get the charm of nearby Chincoteague Island and its wild horses.

Question: What’s the draw of Merritt Island, Florida, for rocket enthusiasts?

Answer: Merritt Island, Florida, is the place to be for space fans. The Kennedy Space Center hosts various exciting events, including lunar orbit missions. Keep an eye out for Artemis crew launches scheduled for November 2024.

Question: Why should I consider Boca Chica, Texas, for rocket watching?

Answer: Boca Chica, Texas, specifically SpaceX’s Starbase, offers a unique experience. While there’s a higher chance of launch scrubs due to testing and development, you’ll witness innovation in action. Be prepared for potential delays and have flexible plans to make the most of your visit.

Question: How can I ensure I get a good spot for rocket watching at these sites?

Answer: Sites that offer tickets can sell out quickly, so have a backup plan. Research alternative viewing locations in advance, ensuring they’re open to the public. Arrive well-prepared with essentials like water, sunscreen, and snacks for a comfortable and memorable experience.

Question: Is this article from National Geographic?

Answer: Yes, this article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine, ensuring it’s a trusted source for your rocket-watching adventure.

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