December 14, 2021

NS-19 Launch Experience: Part 1

One of my biggest struggles with social media is that I am the type of person that when at an event, I want to experience it… I want to be present in it… and for me, having to disengage from being present in it to post something, well, it’s a struggle.

I will never forget my first ever Space Shuttle launch that I had the great fortune to attend: STS-94. Bit of a long story for another time of how I had that incredible opportunity, but something happened there that has stuck with me for 25 years. I was viewing the launch at the Banana Creek site. I’d wandered to by the countdown clock to watch and I had my camera out. (Now mind you, this was back in the day when you got 24 shots and that was it on a roll of film!) I took a picture of the launch pad in the distance and then, much to my surprise, I heard someone call my name. I turned around and it was Ace Beall, one of the pilots of NASA’s KC-135 aircraft that I had flown on with their University 0-g program earlier in the year. We talked a bit and then he noticed the camera in my hand. He told me to get a picture now and that he would take a photo of me next to the countdown clock and then he said something that has stuck with me all these years… He told me to then put the camera away and just experience the launch. He pointed out that my pictures wouldn’t be nearly as good as the professional ones which I would have access to and that I would simply miss out on part of the experience by impeding being present by trying to get photos. I heeded that advice at that launch and every launch since. But with the changing times and the advent of social media, I have evolved it too.

I had the honor and privilege of attending the NS-19 launch for Higher Orbits as a guest of Club for the Future. What an incredible opportunity. Being able to attend a Blue Origin launch in Van Horn is a unique experience and one not widely open. I definitely snapped a a fair number of pictures overall, but I didn’t post a single social media post that day… honestly, other than to snap the pictures I did I barely looked at my phone. I was just present.

The morning started super early with a 3:15am call time to hop in the van with some extraordinary folks from Club for the Future, Blue Origin, and some wonderful individuals from amazing organizations who are partnering with Club for the Future. Though it was incredibly early, and yes, I was sleepy, I was so incredibly excited to be headed to launch. This experience was made even more special by the fact that one of my nearest and dearest friends, Erika, was there too. We chatted throughout the long (2+ hour) ride to the launch site and before I knew it we were at Launch Site One.

It was a bit chilly but fortunately I had come prepared and was dressed in layers. There was the viewing stand where we would watch launch from and a nice tent full of breakfast and coffee for us to wait for the launch activities to begin. Rather quickly I began to run into friends and colleagues who I was so excited to see and wish good luck to for the flight. One of the things I love the most about our industry is that in many ways we are like a big family.

With Clay Mowry dear friend & colleague in front of Tesseract Viewing Stand

​We received a thorough safety briefing from Audrey (who had flown on the previous New Shepard flight carrying humans) and all was on track for launch that morning. We waited for the crew to be headed to the launch pad and when they did start they journey to the pad we all lined the road with cowbells to cheer them on.

​What a cool tradition! We cheered and made all sorts of noise to celebrate their pending journey. The 6 crew members we driven out to the launch pad in 2 Rivian vehicles  (with a feather on the side of them of course!) and the lead vehicle was driven by none other than Jeff Bezos himself with Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley. I teared up thinking about the experience these 6 humans were in the midst of and how their lives were about to change shortly with their launch.

​We returned to the tent to watch some of the live feed of the crew getting strapped into the capsule and as we got closer to launch, we went out to the launch viewing stand. The excitement of all of us who were there to view this was palpable. We watched as the countdown clock progressed and I continued to chat with my friends enjoying every moment of this experience.

​Prior to launch my friend who I had the honor of training for one of his spaceflights, Bueno, took a picture of me with the launch pad in the background much like Ace did for me at my first launch next to the countdown clock. Then my phone went back in my pocket again.

​The countdown timer hit zero and New Shepard came to life! The engines lit and she roared upwards. I cheered! I yelled! I jumped up and down! I cried! (Yes, I get very emotional about rocket launches. Every. Single. One.) While there were 6 people onboard, they carried hopes and dreams of millions more. These humans were rocketing to space in this new era of spaceflight that are some of the first steps of Blue Origin’s dream of millions of people living and working in space.  This aspect was not lost on me. I also understand firsthand that this rocket was carrying the efforts of all the Blue Origin employees who work so hard to make these flights possible. All of this is what hits me in the feels and makes me emotional for launch.

So I watched launch from on the third level of the viewing stand and watched and watched and heard and felt as New Shepard journeyed upwards. Once she was just a dot in the sky I raced (carefully) down the stairs (per suggestion of dear friend who has seen launches from here before) to the ground level outside of the viewing stand to watch for and spot the first stage as it flew back to land not so very far from the launchpad. We all watched as the New Shepard capsule faded out of sight and admired the cool contrail the rocket left.

​Then we moved into spotting mode! We all scanned the sky to spot the first stage as it came back in for landing. Once spotted we all cheered as the first stage flew back in to land on the landing pad with a roar and sonic boom. Such an incredible sight and feeling.

But wait… There’s more!Then it was time to spot the capsule as it came back from its flight so we looked until we spotted that and once we did we waited for the chutes to deploy. When they did we cheered and we watched as the capsule gently floated down for landing.

​To me it’s truly remarkable to be able to see all these things happen in such close proximity to each other! We saw the dust cloud from the capsule landing, and we cheered some more! Then we headed into the tents to watch the feed of the crew coming out of the capsule. We couldn’t wait to hear what they had to say.

We watched on TV as the crew climbed out of the capsule with smiles and awe spread across their faces. Clearly each and every one of them had been truly moved by this experience. The joy, the excitement, the awe… all of this and more radiated from the crewmembers. Listening to them chatter excitedly about what they had experienced, it was no surprise that some (maybe all) of them want to go again! Michael Strahan expressed this thought and others echoed it. I felt such joy for all of these wonderful humans that they had the opportunity to experience something so special… something so life-changing. And while I obviously didn’t get to fly to space with them, I felt, and still feel, so much joy in my heart that I had the honor of being there to witness in person this extraordinary day. It didn’t change just their lives… it changed mine….

(So here’s where I get even more conversational and say that I know this blog is getting long so I am going to cut it off here and ask you to stay tuned for part 2 where I talk more about the experience as well as the further “festivities” that occurred after launch!)But wait… there’s more! Stay tuned for part 2!

About the author

Michelle Lucas
Founder & President of Higher Orbits

Michelle spent 10 years working at NASA primarily in International Space Station (ISS) Flight Control Operations Planning and as an Astronaut Instructor in the Daily Operations Group. Her passion for inspiring students led to extensive work with other organizations in STEM outreach. She then decided to form Higher Orbits to continue to work to inspire students about the wonders of STEM through spaceflight.

Michelle Lucas

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