Launch Life

PLASMA 5 online article

by Tom Cross

I have vivid memories of watching Space Shuttle launches when I was a little kid. I grew up in Central Florida, USA, 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) from Kennedy Space Center. I was born a couple of months after Challenger’s anomaly. Space Shuttle launches could be seen from my childhood home but I wasn’t able to hear them from that distance. They were the most powerful machines I’d ever seen and I didn’t know much about how they worked, I was captivated by them. Anytime a launch was about to take place, I was glued to the TV watching the countdown clock with binoculars in-hand. Many times, there’d be a scrub after all the preparation and anticipation, so I was de-sensitized to the ‘launch life’ at a young age.

Tom at Dragon Demo Mission (photo by Pauline Acalin) 

When the shuttle finally launched, I’d catch the lift-off on TV then burst out of my front door and sprint into my side-yard and look East, the direction the space shuttle was launching from. It’d take about 20 seconds for it to climb above the trees and a little more time if there were clouds blocking the view. As soon as I’d see the insanely bright orange flame I’d put the binoculars up to my eyes and focus on the brown external tank and white solid rocket boosters. I tracked the shuttle intently, with a steady hand, as it made its way higher into the sky. If I was able to see the boosters jettison I’d try to follow them on their way down. At the time of separation, I knew that the astronauts were at the edge of space and were looking at a black sky and I could still see them even though I was looking at a blue sky. In a way, I felt like I had a connection with them from the ground while they’re in space. If I was able to see the solids separate I felt like I was somehow involved in the launch and did something really cool.

March 15, 2019 – Delta IV WGS-10 Solid Rocket Boosters (photo by Tom Cross)

When a launch took place during school, the teachers would sometimes bring the class outside but a lot of them didn’t like the interruption, so they’d at least put it on classroom TV at low volume. Even though they’d tell us to stay seated to see the launch, I’d burst out of the room and the rest of the class would follow. There’s nothing else like seeing it with your own eyes.

My neighbor who was an elderly man had a son that installed the heat shield tiles on the orbiters; that’s all I knew about him. When he finally came over one day I was too afraid to talk to him because he worked on that awesome machine. He gave us a car pass to watch a launch that took place at one morning at 2am. I remember the bright spot lights on the shuttle, which was bigger in person since having only seen it on TV and text books. There was a fog of liquid oxygen venting, the marshes between me and the shuttle had the lights reflecting off the water and it was incredibly cold, thankfully too cold for mosquitos.

April 11, 2019 – Sound-activated camera image of Falcon Heavy liftoff during the Arabsat-6a mission. (photo by Tom Cross)

When the shuttle launched it was the brightest fire I’d ever seen. The sound and rumble came within 30 seconds, at first very faint then escalated a bit. When I thought it couldn’t get any louder the ground began shaking and the sound was crackly. I figured out later that I could recreate the sound by putting the top of my head in a hot tub jet of bubbles and let the bubbles rush past my ears. I’d do that often.

Fast forward 25 years and I still have the same passion as I did while growing up. At that age, I didn’t think I’d now have a view from the iconic VAB roof to photograph a launch. I also couldn’t imagine that I’d set cameras within 1000 feet (300 meters) from the rocket at the launch pad. I didn’t know anyone who was involved in the space program and now I am part of it. I always thought it was awesome and mysterious.

February 6, 2018 – Falcon Heavy Demo side boosters simultaneously landing 8 minutes after launching a Tesla Roadster and Starman into orbit. (photo by Tom Cross)

I now try to bring the awesome without the mystery to people around the world. I encourage you to come to a launch sometime in your lifetime, there’s nothing else like it on Earth. I love capturing the launch experience in unique ways. These are extreme machines and that’s what I try to portray. It’s almost unfathomable that humans are taking elements the Universe left on Earth and are using them to build spaceships to explore the Universe – it’s full circle. If there’s anything humanity could be doing to push our species forward, it’s to be involved in the space industry somehow. I hope to inspire the next generation of astro and rocket scientists.


full article published in PLASMA magazine 5

PLASMA 5 repro Nora Heinisch
PLASMA 5 back cover Tom Cross / repro Nora Heinisch


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