COCOA BEACH, FLorida – It is difficult to put into words the feeling of unrelenting anticipation and an electric energy in the air of a different kind--excitement. All week, KPRC sent photojournalist Jeovany and I (Rose-Ann Aragon) to cover this historic moment from Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach for viewers and readers in Space City--the home to human spaceflight. To space enthusiasts, this was a launch of a lifetime, a new era of spaceflight and new vehicles to “ooh” and “ahh” over. To those just interested in space, this was moment to watch, perhaps, a really cool rocket launch from right here in the United States.
People traveled from all over the nation, be it driving or taking the efforts to fly, to get a glimpse of history. Wednesday by 3:33pm (Houston time), Cocoa beach was packed, many tried to maintain social distancing by wearing masks and staying away from other people. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, NASA officials asked everyone to watch online. Millions watched, according to NASA, many were watching right there in Houston. During our 6:45am live shot Wednesday, rain poured. Consistent lightning and thunder kept us inside our car to do the live shot. Florida weather in May--that's all I have to say about that. 20 minutes later, we were outside in sunny weather talking to people who came at 7am that day to set up a spot on the beach. Houstonians can relate to this kind of random weather!
Wednesday Weather Woes
We interviewed a couple who used to live in Texas and had a comfortable life retired in Florida, Ron and Debra Alderman. They said while they're usually okay watching the launches from at home or online, they wanted to make the effort to come to Cocoa Beach to watch this one in-person. When you talk to people who have watched decades of space history, you can see just how much this means to them.
"We watched all the Shuttle missions," Ron Alderman said. "This is on the level of John Glenn's launch, [Alan] Shepard's launch...It's right up there."
All day long, beach-goers (as well as Luna and I) fought heavy episodes of rain and lightning. Slowly and surely, people’s hopes sank along with the probability of having a Wednesday launch. Luna and I set up at the Cocoa Beach Pier, partnering with our sister station, Channel 6 in Orlando, to get get power on the pier. Every time a wave of rain would come, Luna and I worried our laptops and cameras would be soaked. However, we were ready. People on the beach were ready. The SpaceX Crew Dragon teams, according to NASA, were ready. NASA was ready. But, the weather wasn’t. At T-17minutes, in regular-people speak... 17 minutes to the actualy launch... SpaceX made the decision to scrub the mission because of weather.
"We had too much electricity in the atmosphere. The challenge there is not that we were in a lightning storm. The challenge is that the launch itself could trigger lightning. The rocket itself could become a lightning bolt," Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, said a day later in a news conference.
So, Luna and I took a day off; I mostly read up on the latest with the mission, making sure to keep current. I also made a big dent in my book. From the Cocoa Beach beach front I spent hours reading Elon Musk’s biography (It’s a good one!) by journalist Ashlee Vance. We got good rest because we knew later in the week, we would need all the energy we could to bring quality live coverage to our viewers.
Saturday, the weather seemed to be just as uncertain. NASA gave a 50/50 chance at a successful launch. Local meteorologists were predicting early in the morning the launch would be riddled with rain and lightning. Friday and Saturday night, there was rain and lightning. It seemed like a repeat of Wednesday, but still, we spoke with many people who moved their plans to try again. All day showers sprinkled throughout Cocoa Beach. Even Luna and I had a healthy dose of skepticism. We thought we would stay another night for another try Sunday at 2pm. The crowd at Cocoa Beach grew. The beaches were packed. Prior to launch, the chance remained at 50/50 with the weather in red for issues including clouds and the charge in the atmosphere. Weather was a ‘No go.’ Many viewers felt that they had no choice but to hold on to hope as they did on Wednesday.
"We were nervous. We weren't sure because it had previously rained," Matthew Lewis, a father who drove his family from Chattanooga, TN said.
Later, NASA officials announced that the weather conditions improved and that the chance for favorable conditions for a launch was at 70%. At an hour to launch, viewers of NASA-TV were promised a weather update. We all waited. And waited. It seemed like an eternity. Then, several minutes later, officials at NASA said the weather was clear and that weather was a 'Go.' Still, everyone was told they had to wait until the launch to see if weather conditions stayed in the green.
Sure enough, it did.
“10, 9, 8 , 6,” went the NASA-TV broadcast.
It was happening, and it was happening today.
"3, 2, 1...Liftoff!"
The beach was quiet. I could only imagine what was going through people’s heads the seconds that we all at Cocoa Beach couldn’t see what happened right after the liftoff. But, shortly after, a small fireball-looking dot shot up into the air and people near and far cheered continuously. Commanders Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were traveling in a spacecraft that no one had ever flown. It was the first commercially-made spacecraft to take NASA astronauts into orbit.
As a journalist, first and foremost, it is my job to report what is happening. I couldn’t help but think, it was also a moment I would never forget.
At 2:22pm, Hurley and Behnken were on their way to leave this Earth, making history in a risky and dangerous way. Covering space you realize space exploration is always dangerous. There is always risk. However, they made a choice to travel on this rocket to help test it out for future crews. Bob Cabana, the Kennedy Space Center Director, said this was the start of larger vision--turning to the commercial sector to make travel to lower Earth orbit sustainable so that NASA could focus on exploring deep space.
"We want to establish a commercial environment in lower Earth obit, so we can focus on hard job of exploring beyond planet Earth. We can’t do that if we’re locked in lower Earth obit. SpaceX, Boeing – that’s the beginning of a whole new era of space flight," Cabana said in a NASA-TV interview earlier that day.
Behnken and Hurley had a succesful liftoff. In space-talk, every moment was "nominal." Now they are on their way to the International Space Station, where they will meet Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy, who NASA officials said couldn't wait to have them there.
As a reporter, I was humbled to cover an event of this magnitude with my talented teammate Luna as well as our hard-working team at Channel 2. I was very thankful to my news director, Dave Strickland (who is also an avid space enthusiast!), and General Manager, Jerry Martin, for this opportunity to stay and cover this launch, despite the delays. We are excited to follow this mission and bring these history-making moments to our viewers in Space City. --God speed to Bob & Doug!