Here’s exactly what it’s like to cover a rocket launch

September 8, 2013

Look, a rocket! (Andrea Peterson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

If you couldn't tell from the constant coverage, I went to a rocket launch. Where something was sent to the moon! That sounds really cool, right? It was, most, but not quite all of the time.

Thursday, Sept. 5. 

10:05 a.m.: After three hours of driving, I make it to the Visitor Center at the Wallops Flight Facility just in time to see the press tour of the range control center, sounding rockets, and scientific balloons leave without me. While attempting to check in, I am confused for a member of the NASA Social program for the first (but far from the last) time: "Hi, I'm media here for the LADEE launch." "Traditional media or social media?" "Traditional -- I'm with the Washington Post." "Oh! There's a desk for you at the back." I quickly learn I should have just told them I was part of NASA Social. After checking in, I discover that neither cell service or the Visitor Center WiFi is working.

10:30 a.m.: After giving up on the WiFi, I sit in on NASA Social events and identify interview subjects for this piece about the program. I also discover the reason the WiFi isn't working is due to the sheer number of iPads being used by NASA Social participants. At one point the person leading NASA Social does the Dr. Evil "lasers" air quotes thing.


NASA Social participants Kim Alix, Constance Rodenbarger, and Nick Hlavacek (Andrea Peterson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

12:30 p.m.: I get lunch with Constance Rodenbarger, the purple-haired NASA Social participant at a local Sonic Drive-In. We have a good, long chat about space and her obsession with it. Constance has wanted to be an astronaut since she was a toddler, but now is aiming to do archival work at the Air and Space museum after she finishes a Fine Arts degree. Back at the Visitor Center, the WiFi is functional, but then it cuts out just as I am about to file a non-NASA story for The Switch.

John Grunfeld's fabulous tie. (NASA TV)
John Grunfeld's fabulous tie. (NASA TV)

3 p.m.: A briefing about what will happen with LADEE begins. It features a series of fabulous ties. Associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunfeld's tie has cartoon spacecraft on it, while NASA Ames Research Director S. Pete Worden's tie features psychedelic purple swirls. The science briefing follows after a short break where I get in some interviews with NASA social participants.

4:45 p.m.: The NASA Social people leave to view the launch pad, so the Internet is finally working again and I can file the non-NASA story I was working on about how suing Google over your sex party tape isn't a great way to stop people from knowing about your sex party tape. We head to the launch pad about 15 minutes later. I take a bunch of pictures of the Minotaur V rocket that will be carrying LADEE to space from the launch pad. The press group then discovers that the NASA Social people were allowed to bring their phones off the bus, presumably in airplane mode. The press was explicitly denied that privilege, being told some signals from phones might interfere with the rocket. ("Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at RadioShack?")

Me standing in front of a rocket. (Miriam Kramer/Washington Post)
Me standing in front of a rocket. (Miriam Kramer/Washington Post)

6:30 p.m.: The press bus gets back to the Visitor Center and I hightail it for to Assateague Island State Park, where you can camp on a beach with wild ponies. Once at my seaside oasis, I set up my tent, light a fire, do some night swimming and transcribe interviews.

Friday, Sept. 6

10 a.m.: On the way back to the Visitor Center, I pick up my second Sonic Drive-In grilled cheese kids meal in less than 24 hours. Once at the Visitor Center I hop on the (thankfully NASA Social free) WiFi to write a post about NASA Social and who gets to go to rocket launches.


Look, a NASA drone! And a tiny NASA vehicle! (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)

1:30 p.m.: The press group gets taken on tour to go look at Global Hawk drones NASA is using to study hurricanes and dust winds off the coast of Africa -- this entails a lot of photo taking and a good 20-minute conversation with the lead scientist on the mission. On more than one occasion NASA people lament that there haven't been any good hurricanes during their observation period this year or last year before realizing that they just complained about a lack of catastrophic storms and walking back the comment.

3 p.m.: The press group gets back to the Visitor Center. The NASA media schedule says subject matter interviews will be available from then until 8 p.m. It turns out that actually means is a bunch of experts are giving more talks to the NASA Social group and traditional media can try to grab them after their talks.

6 p.m.: I have dinner with a fellow space journalist at the closest restaurant -- which is half dive diner, half beer and wine store. We decide not to try to sneak a six pack onto the press bus later. Back at the Visitor Center I start pre-writing as much as I can about my post-launch story. We learn that the NASA social people, but not the press, will have a chance to meet NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Concession stands, porta-potties, and chairs are being set for the locals who are beginning to arrive to view the launch from the lawn. There appears to be free pizza for the NASA Social people.

8:30 p.m.: The press leaves for the media viewing site, which is about two miles away from the launch pad. On the bus, everyone is told to read a flier about what to do in the event of a "catastrophic failure" at the launch. Apparently, if the thing blows up on the launch pad (which they assure us is very unlikely) we could all experience a toxic hydrogen chloride plume. "Exposure effects range from mild irritation to debilitating skin, eyes, or lung damage." I choose to stay on the bus for a while and continue pre-writing my launch post. That helps me avoid the terrifyingly large mosquitoes and biting flies who live in the marsh where the viewing area is located. Around 11p.m., I finally brave the outdoors with some 98 percent DEET spray and attempt (and fail) to get some good shots of the rocket pre-launch.


This is what happens when you don't have the right camera or tripod to take pictures of a rocket two miles away. (Andrea Peterson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

11:27 p.m. -- ROCKET LAUNCH! The group of around 70 press and social media folks watch it from from our privileged vantage point -- but even from there, without telephoto lenses or binoculars the rocket is a pretty small structure in the distance. But it is still magnificent when it launches. At liftoff the whole sky is illuminated, and the rocket streaks across the sky dropping stages at various intervals and eliciting cheers from the crowd. I manage to get some poor quality video of it on my phone, despite my earlier photo failures. But the whole thing lasts only mere minutes. Then the crowds pile back onto the buses so they can get back to the Visitor Center, and in the case of the journalists, file stories. That takes a while because it appears every person within a hundred-mile radius is on the local roads.

Saturday, Sept. 7

12:20 a.m.: The press and social media buses arrive back at Visitor Center to discover we're locked out of the building. Apparently, despite our schedules saying we will return there and the scheduled 2 a.m. press conference, the NASA Wallops staff is exhausted and didn't plan for having to babysit us in the building again. After 15 to 20 minutes of complaining by the growing crowd amassing outside, the staff relents and allows us inside. Then I can finally file my launch story and work with the Post's night editor to get it up on The Switch. Somewhere around 1 a.m. I decide I am not hardcore enough to stay for the 2 a.m. press conference. I survive the three-hour-plus drive back to D.C. by blasting rap music to stay awake.

Sunday, Sept. 8

8 a.m.: After sleep walking through most of the actual day on Saturday, I wake up to an e-mail from an astronaut complimenting my LADEE coverage. AN ASTRONAUT, GUYS. My day is made.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson | September 8, 2013