At 4:30 Saturday morning, I was standing on a grassy field in front of the enormous countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center. It was still fully dark, the only light coming from the clock's bright numbers and the scattered glowing phones of spectators. The night was so quiet we could hear the croaking of frogs and the occasional splash of a fish on the surface of the Turn Basin. But out on the horizon was an unearthly glow. We were waiting to observe something that had never been attempted before: a commercial spacecraft called Dragon embarking on an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. Until now, this is something only government space agencies have accomplished, and if this attempt were to prove successful, the SpaceX Corporation would be one step closer to sending crews of astronauts into space some day.
Around the time I realized I was being feasted on by dozens of mosquitoes, someone in the crowd called out, "The space station!" and pointed toward the sky.
We all looked up, and there, directly above us, a tiny point of light the same size and brightness as any star was moving through the night sky. The International Space Station can be easily seen with the naked eye, but like most people, I've never bothered to go outside and look for it. This morning it seemed an amazing sight. I'd seen pictures and video of the inside of the space station; I knew that six people live there, that it has been inhabited continuously for 11-and-a-half years, and that it's as big as a three-bedroom house. But it's still odd to absorb the fact that a structure the length and width of a football field is traveling at 17,000 miles per hour and is so far away (two hundred miles) it becomes just a single point of light. Everyone waiting for the launch clapped and waved.
"We're sending you up some stuff!" someone called out.
But then, we didn't. We counted down along with the announcer, but when we got to zero, there was just a brief flash of light on the horizon, then nothing. This launch attempt had an instantaneous launch window -- unlike the space shuttle, which generally enjoyed leisurely launch windows of 10 minutes or so, this vehicle has to work perfectly at the second the countdown gets to zero, or else wait and start over another day. Today's attempt was called off just half a second before liftoff because of a high pressure reading in one of the rocket's engines. The next window to attempt again will be Tuesday, May 22 at 3:44 a.m.
Later in the afternoon, one of the astronauts living on the space station, André Kuipers, tweeted a picture he'd snapped of the Cape as he circled overhead, at the same moment we were waving up at him. The photo shows strings of light sprinkled along Cape Canaveral, Merritt Island, and the coast of central Florida. This is one of the odd moments that makes me love spaceflight: at the some second we were looking for him, he was looking at us. The strangeness of human beings peering at each other across the expanse of the night sky, seeing only tiny points of light, but feeling immensely pleased to know our counterparts are out there.
Even though today's launch was not successful, and even though the retirement of the space shuttle has been hard on space fans -- especially people here on the Space Coast -- my experience at today's launch attempt confirms the simple and irrefutable love people have for spaceflight, the unending appeal of the idea that human being can leave the surface of the planet where we evolved. André Kuipers, thanks for taking our snapshot. You looked great up there. And I hope you get your fresh food and clean laundry soon.