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What it was like to watch NASA’s next Mars lander launch to space

Our viewing spot to watch the launch is dubbed the “Gravel Pit” — and it certainly lives up to its name. The area is essentially a large plot of rocks and dirt on the side of a small cliff. It’s touted as the best place to watch the rocket take off. That is, if the fog lets up.

I’m somewhere deep inside Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, and I’m about to witness the launch of NASA’s InSight lander. The spacecraft is slated to ride into space on top of an Atlas V rocket, the premier vehicle of the United Launch Alliance. The mission will mark the first time NASA has ever launched a spacecraft to another planet form the West Coast. And it’s also my first time to see a launch from California.

The rocket is supposedly a few miles in front of me, but I can’t make out a thing. The nearby marine layer that forms off the California coast has creeped inland, and it feels like I’m standing in the middle of a dense cloud. At 4AM, it makes for an eerie scene here in the pit. The darkness is closing in around us, and the temperature of the mist seems to keep dropping. Some flood lights illuminate the area, but we cannot see beyond a hundred yards out.

I’m with a large gaggle of journalists and videographers, all of whom are clustered on the side of the cliff, hoping to get a good shot of the rocket. We’ve been warned that the fog may be too thick to see the launch, but I’m hopeful. All the launches I’ve seen before have created a blinding light that have nearly burned my eyes. Surely, the light from the rocket’s ignition will pierce through the clouds, I think.

Before long, the final countdown is upon us. Thanks to a speakerphone mounted on a nearby trailer, we can hear the flight controllers in mission control saying that all systems are ready to go. “Go Atlas. Go Centaur. Go InSight!” the controllers proclaim, referring to the rocket, its upper stage, and its payload. A cheer erupts in the crowd. The flood lights are turned off so we can get the best view for our cameras, and in the background we hear the last countdown: “Five… four… three… two… one…”

To see how what our viewing experience was like, watch the video above. It certainly turned out to be a mission I won’t forget.


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