Falcon 9 v1.1
30 September 2013
This weekend Quynh and I travelled down to Vandenberg Air Force Base to watch the launch of the first Falcon 9 v1.1. This was a high-risk launch from a new pad, with new engines, a new thrust structure, stretched tanks, new payload fairings, and revised software. The FAA even had to grant a safety waver allowing SpaceX to conduct this test flight. Given the number of things that could go wrong it wouldn't have surprised us if all we saw was a big fireball at T-0.
But the launch was prefect. The Falcon lifted off with an awesome slowness I don't think has been seen since the Saturn V. By my calculations its thrust to weight ratio is about 1.5:1, so it's basically just crawling off the pad until it can lighten itself enough to really fly. The RP-1/LOX flame is a brilliant white that's the same length as the rocket and expands as the altitude increases.
Shortly after launch the rocket flew through a moist atmospheric layer that produced a brief contrail. This contrail cast a shadow stretching across the sky pointing away from the early morning sun. From our perspective the rocket flew just under the Moon as it approached stage separation.
The above video (not mine) shows the launch is great detail, including the partially successful flyback experiments they tried with the discarded first stage.
Local police blocked off the road prior to launch so we couldn't get close enough to see the pad. Instead we watched for the rocket to pop up from behind a nearby hill. However, once the rocket had safely departed, the roadblock was lifted. The launch pad was still smoking half an hour after launch.
An interesting detail of the road leading to the pad is the plateau cut into either side of the hills in each of the cuttings. These are remnants of an effort in the 1980s to launch the Space Shuttle from California. The shuttles' wingspan was slightly too wide for the road, resulting in the unusual widening. (I happened to catch Quynh looking like a flamingo while climbing up to the cutting.) Here are some pictures of Enterprise on the same road in 1985.