What It’s Like to Cover SpaceX as They Blaze a Trail to Mars

Elon Musk’s vision for what SpaceX could become has led to an ongoing series of unprecedented events at Cape Canaveral.

The launch and landing of the Falcon 9 rocket.
The launch and landing of the Falcon 9 rocket.

For a reporter on the space beat, covering SpaceX launches is a no brainer. The firm is lead by an eccentric billionaire, Elon Musk, a visionary who has established himself as an entrepreneur that is pioneering humanity’s future as a space-faring civilization. Musk’s vision for what SpaceX could become has led to an ongoing series of unprecedented events at Cape Canaveral—where rockets are launching more often than ever, and because of SpaceX’s breakthrough in reusability, returning home to fly another day.

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There is a sense of urgency to the story too. Having successfully recovered five of their rockets, the public is eager to see one fly again—an event that will mark a turning point for both SpaceX and the aerospace industry. A high profile explosion of the company’s Dragon cargo vehicle last year and a few failures while landing on their drone ship have added drama and unease.

Watch Observer’s exclusive footage of the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket:

Elon Musk wants to reach Mars by 2025 and in order to do that, space exploration needs to become dramatically more affordable—and reliable. The reusable rocket is the key to this and every time a Falcon 9 is recovered, SpaceX inches closer to the red planet.

For this reason, media activity at the bustling spaceport is recovering after five years of deteriorating interest since the retirement of the space shuttle. In the past year covering SpaceX cargo missions, I’ve encountered Morgan Spurlock shooting an episode of Inside Man for CNN, A crew from Vice on HBO shooting for a segment, and a crew dispatched by Ron Howard who is producing a Mars-mission series for National Geographic.

Last weekend, the media gathered again at Kennedy Space Center for the launch of SpaceX Cargo Resupply Mission 9 to the International Space Station—a launch that will send crucial supplies, science and hardware to the orbiting laboratory’s crew. SpaceX is carrying out the mission for NASA as part of a lucrative cargo resupply contract.

It’s not just first-time visitors to the facility who are taken back by the size of the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building and the rich history that has unfolded on the space coast. Even reporters feel it too—every time they enter the facility. Everyone takes the opportunity to snap photos of NASA’s giant countdown clock—the same one that makes staple appearances in the b-roll footage of many films made about space exploration.

The first thing members of the media do at the NASA press site is struggle to connect to the internet. Between ourselves, we’ve joked many times about the agency’s ability to beam data from Pluto but inability to provide quality internet at a busy spaceport. The next order of business is to secure a spot for watching the launch and landing of the Falcon 9 and many originally wanted to be 525 ft above the ground on top of the VAB.

But surprisingly, a day before the media was set to arrive, NASA informed us via email that the press site and the Vehicle Assembly Building would be closed an hour before launch due to safety concerns caused by wind direction—a recommendation that came from the 45th Space Wing at nearby Patrick Air Force Base.

The NASA Press Site and Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.
The NASA Press Site and Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.

In the case of a launch abort, the Dragon spacecraft’s trajectory could send hazardous chemicals in our direction. The news disappointed many who planned to shoot the launch from the elevated view and some (like myself) who enjoy the experience of traveling up through the single-story, awe-inspiring VAB. But there were two other options.

Members of the media could witness the launch of the Falcon 9 from the NASA Causeway—a feeding ground for mosquitoes, and potentially, alligators. The area is on the water across from the launch pad and you’ll be out there for about 90 minutes before liftoff regardless of the weather.

The other option was to watch the launch and landing with SpaceX, which sounds like the coolest thing in the world. It is.

The Hawthorne, California-based firm rented out the new sailboat-inspired Exploration Tower that is a bit further away from the launch and landing zones but will offer a clear and elevated view of the Falcon 9 touching down at Cape Canaveral. A limited amount of passes were available for the tower so there was a fair amount of anxiety before SpaceX’s communications team approved many of the applications.

About six hours before launch, the media boarded buses to visit the Falcon 9 at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40. It’s a 20 minute drive through the mostly undeveloped base—wild boars, bald eagles, turtles and alligators roam free, often within eyesight.

What usually happens when covering a launch is that reporters arrive only after the rocket is standing vertically on its pad and in final preparations for launch. As the buses got closer to the launch complex, those who were familiar with visiting the Falcon 9, started noticing that the rocket simply wasn’t there.

“I don’t see it,” one photographer said. Followed by others.

Actually, It was there, but horizontal on the pad.

This is when the caravan of two buses started to slow down. Almost immediately, we started fearing there would be a “scrub,” meaning an extended launch delay. Rescheduling can be caused by weather, fuel issues or an oblivious local who picked the wrong place and time to go fishing.

The term “ScrubX” is thrown around by the media a lot at Cape Canaveral and sometimes with good reason. Some launch delays can last from days to weeks with multiple attempts being scrubbed at the last minute. A budget can be strained to say the least when you’ve got a hotel room, car rental, and flight changes.

But it was a false alarm. SpaceX’s team informed us that the rocket would be vertical in a few minutes but that the press remain pulled over on the side of the road until the process was complete. Waiting, too, is something reporters on the space beat must get used to. The countdowns are the very least—and the most fun—waiting we do.

Through dips in the tree-line, though, we were able to see the complete rise of the enormous Falcon 9 rocket on its launch pad. The media squeezed together on one side of the bus with their phones and cameras out. After our buses finally arrived, we are given an hour to roam around a large area behind a fence protecting the pad and rocket.

Photographers setup remote still cameras in the grass that are triggered by sound. Others setup GoPros rigged with large memory cards and batteries so that they can record for hours before liftoff. Some simply snap photos of the rocket for social media or seize the opportunity to briefly interact with SpaceX’s communication team. Selfies are also taken.

Excitement begins to build among almost everyone at Kennedy Space Center—no matter your role. The adrenaline is what we’re after and it’s something we chase after covering our first launch. The feeling of the ground shaking under your feet, the deafening sound of the rocket’s nine roaring engines, and the visual feast of watching a space-bound vehicle blaze a fiery trail through clear skies.

Launches are often described by reporters who experience them in person as “beautiful” and “surreal.” With SpaceX taking on the responsibility of returning human spaceflight to American soil and launching the first human explorers into the solar system, stakes are pretty high—and the atmosphere reflects that.

The International Docking Adapter that will usher in a new era of manned commercial flights from American soil to the orbiting laboratory is also stowed on the Dragon for delivery. An explosion or “rapid disassembly” as SpaceX calls it, could mean major setbacks for NASA’s commercial crew program.

As anticipation and general anxiety builds before liftoff, conversations revolve around the prospects of a successful landing, if there’s a backup date in the case of a scrub, and if SpaceX is going to provide refreshments and food while we wait for countdown. They usually do. NASA usually doesn’t. After all, it’s a taxpayer-funded government agency.

Reporters gather at SpaceX Launch Complex 40 to visit the Falcon 9 rocket.
Reporters gather at SpaceX Launch Complex 40 to visit the Falcon 9 rocket.

With three hours left until launch, some members of the media who work the beat together regularly meet for dinner at a restaurant across the street from Exploration Tower. As usual, we discuss collaborations, barter for content, and share sources or info. We speculate if Elon Musk will show up for the post-launch press conference. Everyone wants a quote.

Doors at Exploration Tower opened at 10 PM and SpaceX staffers were waiting in the lobby of the 7-story structure with press passes. We were given a short briefing before being allowed to freely move throughout the building. On the rooftop terrace, over a dozen photographers and cameramen pack together with their tripods in a tight space to set up their shots.

On the 4th floor, veteran space reporters Bill Harwood for CBS and Marcia Dunn for Associated Press prepare to run their stories after liftoff. Among the newer faces at Exploration Tower was The Verge’s spaceflight reporter Loren Grush and Uliana Malashenko, a journalist and Russian national who was surprised by the atmosphere at Cape Canaveral. “I like that they were smiling and making jokes. Russian government-related officials hardly ever do this, they prefer not to be seen as human beings,” she said. “Here, the situation was completely the opposite.”

We spent a couple of hours drinking coffee, typing and setting up shots. A SpaceX intern plays the Interstellar soundtrack to set the mood. The internet works.

Up on the roof with minutes now left before the 10-second countdown, final preparations and adjustments are made to recording equipment and the small crowd grows more and more silent. Multiple phones are dialed into the live countdown broadcast. Downstairs, a giant screen streams live video of the launch complex with commentary from SpaceX HQ in California.

Liftoff is at 12:45 AM.

When the countdown starts, there’s an unusual stillness among the crowd. Everyone is intensely focused on capturing the incredible rising cloud plumes as the Falcon 9 lifts off the ground. Increasing in speed, the rocket pierces the sky through layers of clouds with a vivid flame trailing behind it.

The rocket’s blast illuminates the entire launch complex and lights up the night sky as SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle is propelled to orbit and to its destination, the International Space Station.

The moment everyone waited for was just a few minutes away: The high-velocity return of the first-stage of the Falcon 9—an achievement many of us see as another small step towards Mars. After a few tense moments, the rocket appeared in the night sky above us and caught many by surprise. A graceful approach warranted the gasps and “wows” from members of the media and SpaceX staffers.

The rocket came in with precision and touched down perfectly on Landing Zone 1. The smooth, relatively quiet approach lured us into a false sense of security. Many, including myself, were suddenly jolted by the sonic boom that followed in the split seconds after the rocket’s touchdown. Remarkably, we were able to see the Falcon 9 standing on the pad from our vantage point.

SpaceX now has two ground landings and three drone ship touchdowns under their belt. News hits the wire.

Applause and cheers from everyone in the vicinity began immediately. This lasted a few minutes until we all realized that we’re actually at work. That means attending a routine press conference at 2 AM back at Kennedy Space Center. We did. Elon Musk didn’t.

Reporters make the trek to the space coast to cover these events because the prospect of humanity venturing out into the solar system is an exciting one. If Musk succeeds, we’ll have the beginnings of a city on Mars in less than a decade and if he’s feeling generous, accommodation for a few journalists who could report from there.

Robin Seemangal focuses on NASA and advocacy for space exploration. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. Find him on Instagram for more space-related content: @nova_road.

What It’s Like to Cover SpaceX as They Blaze a Trail to Mars