Author's note: This story was committed to my daily journal "Front Desk Notes" back on January 17, 1997. It appeared in an issue of the zine, Angry Thoreauan, but otherwise I'm pretty sure it's never seen the light of day prior to now.
The most impressive rocket blow up I've ever seen in my life. And I've lived here since 1956 when every second rocket shot (and there were plenty of 'em back in those days) blew itself to hell. I've always told people that growing up here has utterly ruined any appreciation by me for Fourth of July fireworks and today was a very loud, very clear reaffirmation of exactly that. There's no fireworks show in the world that can even begin to come close to what happened at 11:28 this morning. Thankfully, it was a Delta II. Unmanned.
And I damn near missed it.
Tom Black, of all people called at 10:15 asking about going to see the shot. The clicking of the answering machine is what woke me up. And so, in a daze, I called him back. "Wanna go up to Canaveral Jetties and watch the shot?" I'd forgotten all about it. An hour to go.
"Uh, I don't know. Uh...whu...I just woke up, I don't know what the hell I'm doing."
"Why don't you go drink your two cups of coffee and I'll call you back in about ten minutes."
"Uh, ok." And so it's off to the kitchen to put on the hot water.
And turn on the scanner. Having worked out on the cape previously, I've managed to glom on to a freq or two that can be very informative when it comes to rocket shots. Sit down in front of the tv and have my coffee. Exactly nothing is coming in over the scanner. Not a good sign. Tom calls again after the allotted ten minutes.
"Well, whatcha gonna do?"
"I dunno. There's nothing on the scanner. No chatter, no nothing."
"Is that a bad sign?"
"Yes. When a shot's on, they're always chattering back and forth out there. But there's nothing on. I dunno."
"Well how long can we wait before it's too late to make it up to Canaveral."
"I dunno, lessee here, drive down and get you and then turn around and head back up north to the Jetties, half hour maybe."
"Ok, why don't I call you back and ask then?" "Ok."
Continued coffee swilling and dead air on the scanner. Just about eleven and it's Tom again.
"Man, I don't know. I don't think they're gonna launch today. I haven't heard a single thing on the scanner."
"Well, why don't we just go up there anyway? It's a beautiful day out."
"Ok. What the fuck? Why not? I'm on my way."
And, as luck would have it, as I was going into the kitchen with my empty coffee cup, the scanner lights right up. Photo Ops is polling all the camera sites for their launch support readiness status. Cool. They're gonna go.
Start up the vw van and drive down to Tom's. Surprisingly, he's on his way out to the street even before I can turn the motor off. No piddling around today. Good. Into the van and off we go. Just as we're getting ready to enter traffic on A1A the Photo Ops guy calls out "Attention all sites, we are now at L-twenty minutes and counting. That's L-minus twenty." Bitchin. It's cold as hell out, but I'm bundled up in my heaviest jacket and warm enough. Beautiful sunny day with a good stiff breeze out of the north.
"Nah, it's pretty sick."
"Good. Don't wanna have to go out and freeze my butt off anyway. I'll bet there's waves down in Palm Beach." "Yeah? You might just be right. So are we going to the Jetties?"
"Nah. Let's go to Harbor Heights. It's just a couple of blocks down the beach and you don't have to shell out a dollar to get in there."
In to Harbor Heights and wind through the subdivision till we arrive at the little public parking area at the dune crossover.
"Holy shit, there's people all over the place. Looks like we're not gonna have this all to ourselves."
"I'm gonna walk down on the beach so I can get away from all the people."
"Yeah, that's what I was about to say. Of course, you're going to lose all your cool guy points if you go down on the beach wearing shoes and socks."
"Well, if you wanna take off your shoes and freeze your ass off then go right ahead. I'm keeping my shoes on, thank you."
"Me too. We'll just pretend we're tourists. Tourists in our shoes and socks down on the fucking beach."
Through the press of ancient flesh crowding the seaward end of the crossover and down the stair on to the sand.
"Well, at least it's low tide. At least there's some hard packed sand to walk on."
"Let's go over here. There's nobody over here."
North of the crossover to a place with nobody else hanging out. North of us, there's another crossover with people crowding on top of it. And a few folks down on the beach. Past that, the Jetties. Past that, the Delta II is clearly visible, next to it's umbilical tower, sitting on the launch pad. Couple'a three or four miles away.
"Oh, you brought your camera? Joe Tourist gonna take pictures of the space ship?"
"You have a problem with that?"
"Hey, those are those binoculars you're supposed to give to me!"
"No they're not. I'm not supposed to give you my damn binoculars. And besides, you've already looked through 'em."
"Oh yeah, they're pieces of shit. I don't want your binoculars."
Inane conversation continues till the sixty second mark. Looks like they're gonna go.
Three. Two. One. Ignition.
Burst of smoke around the bottom, and it's away we go time.
"Damn, that flame is really bright."
Tom ignores me, engrossed with his camera.
Riding a pillar of dense beige smoke topped by a brilliant yellow flame, the Delta rises away from the ground. At our distance, the roar from the rocket motors will take some time to arrive at our location. Dead silence.
And then, impossibly, it detonates. Just detonates. Like a bomb going off. A very large bomb. A hundred and twenty feet long and eight feet in diameter. Big damn bomb. Silently.
A fan-like spray of intensely bright white points of light ride individual smoke trails up and away from the growing, roiling, evil-looking cloud that marks the point of the explosion. There's enough brilliant debris particles surging up and away from the detonation that they're pretty much all touching one another. A weirdly brilliant arc of firepoints moving up and away, riding a corduroy curtain of smoke.
"Jesus fuck! Get a picture of that! Get a picture of that!"
Tom, with camera to his eye, doesn't need to be told to get a picture of that, but I tell him anyway.
I'm standing there in stunned amazement as the arc of fire breaks up into a myriad of brilliant points of light, each trailing a dense thick streamer of smoke, all rising higher into the sky and spreading out all around. The sound finally arrives. The good, deep-throated roar of a rocket launch viewed from close by. The sound is riding to us backed by the stiff north breeze and is louder than usual. Hell of a roar. And the thought breaks through my stunned brain that there might just be quite a bang coming our way invisibly through the clear air. Wonder what that's gonna sound like?
The firepoints reach the tops of their arcs and spread out, heading down toward the ground in a wide wide area surrounding the pad. I flash on the Photo Ops guy and his crew. Some of those guys are going to be under that shit when it comes down. Uh oh. The explosion cloud boils and swells. And then the bang comes. Even knowing it was going to arrive quite soon, I'm still jolted and surprised by it.
How can I describe the bang? I dunno. Maybe stick your head inside a bass drum and let somebody just whack the hell out of it with a baseball bat or something. It's a very sharp sound. Almost metallic sounding. Like the head of the bass drum had been stretched very VERY tight. And you can feel it. It hits you and you can feel it. Now I know how windows get broken in nearby buildings when bombs go off. It's the bang that does it. A concussive pressure wave that hits you. Keep in mind that I'm FOUR MILES away from the source of the bang.
"Holy fuck! They're not supposed to detonate like that. They're supposed to burn a little first. They're not supposed to detonate. Get a picture of that!"
"Shut the fuck up! I want to look at it with my own eyes, too."
"Get a picture of that! Holy shit!"
As this deranged conversation was playing itself out, I noticed that the steady roar of normal rocket motor sound had not stopped with the arrival of the detonation shock wave. It was still roaring away. Weird. Not sure what that was all about. And over the roar, came a succession of secondary concussions. BANG! BANGBANG! BANG! BANG! Any one of which would have been quite impressive, but after the main shock they seemed somehow subdued.
As the flaming debris started falling back to earth in a wide area surrounding the pad, Tom said, "I'm glad I'm not out there where all those little sparkles are falling down."
"Sparkles?! Those aren't sparkles. Those are FIREBOMBS."
The roaring and banging and falling firebombs all finally subsided and we were left, standing on the beach, watching the explosion cloud grow and metamorphose. The cloud was red on top.
Tom said, "Wow, look at those flames up there."
"Those aren't flames, that's hypergol. The BFRC. The Big Fucking Red Cloud."
The red color comes from one of the upper stage rocket fuels. Nitrogen tetroxide. Extremely nasty stuff. Highly toxic. Fortunately, the cloud was staying just offshore, following the coastline down south.
"Think we oughtta get out of here?"
"Nah, it's not gonna come over us. Them shrimp boats might have a problem though."
As the cloud passed just to our east it grew and changed, becoming orange on top and thunderstorm dark down around it's bottom. The ocean took on a weird bright green look between us and the cloud. The cloud continued to grow and expand and wound up with a flat, anvil top. Like a thunderstorm. A man-made thunderstorm. Never seen one of them before. With roiling mammatus under the margins of the anvil, and everything. It finally got sufficiently south of us to block the sun. Sunlight, shining through the reddish cloud top, glinted off of the small waves breaking just off the beach.
"Never seen the waves that color before. It looks like Mars."
"Yeah. The angry red planet."
Finally it was time to go. Gotta get ready for work. See ya.
At my condo, the tv was full of it. The local news at noon ran till two pm and had all kinda pictures. Including some incredible weather radar pictures from the local ABC affiliate that clearly showed the growth, development, and travel of the "thunderstorm" cloud. Amazing. And a note on the Weather Channel local update screen from the local civil defense people advising everyone to close the windows, stay indoors, and don't run the heat or air conditioner. Until the poisonous cloud dissipates.
A fine recipe for hysteria. In fact, as an eyewitness, I can plainly state that the damn cloud stayed out over the ocean. Until it had spread and dispersed to the point that any nasty chemicals in the cloud were diluted to near non-existence. That upper stage tank doesn't contain that much nitrogen tetroxide. But I'm sure that numerous nitwits will come down with all kinds of symptoms. Despite having never actually having come in contact with the cloud.
It's almost seven pm. Between writing this and checking in six rooms here at the little mom-and-pop motel I'm working at, I've burned up some hours. Took over with seventeen occupied. Middlish busy.
Everybody's talking about the rocket. Not a single person who works here was watching when it took off.
They all said the shock wave shook the building and got their attention.
You missed it, dummies.