SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Shawn Williams works for Anchorage-based Pacific Dataport, which launched the “Aurora 4A” satellite last month in Florida. He traveled to watch the launch with his family. This is his report.
Recently, I traveled with my family to Orlando, Florida. Our objective: to watch a special rocket launch from Cape Canaveral scheduled for Wednesday, April 26.
This Space X “Falcon Heavy” launch was important for many reasons, but mostly because one of three satellites onboard was built for Alaska. The Aurora 4A – a satellite built for Alaska-based Pacific Dataport, providing more broadband access throughout the state.
We “launched” our family adventure on Sunday, April 23. After arriving in Orlando on Alaska Air, we headed to our hotel directly across from Universal Studios. We planned to spend Monday there, but we shifted and headed to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, which is open much later.
I enjoyed seeing the rides I remember from previous visits as a kid. Now it was time to make new memories with the whole family.
Some of the new rides, like the “Tron”, require you to download the Disney app and register for a place in their virtual line. I recommend taking your own snacks (especially if you’re a healthy eater). Be sure and leave the park before 9pm fireworks show. You must take the ferry or tram between the parking areas and the park entrance. Leaving the park after the fireworks means you’ll have an additional 1-2 hour wait.
Tuesday afternoon, we headed to the nearby “Space Coast” for the launch. The weather was turning bad, so we worried that the scheduled Wednesday launch might be scrubbed. We stayed in Titusville, aka “Space City”. There are plenty of hotels and every chain is represented: Bonvoy, Hyatt, Hilton…all within 15 miles. Prices ranged from $100 to $500 per night. You won’t find many home rental options, although there are a few on the higher end.
Titusville loves rocket launches! Businesses with catchy rocket names and local bars all have their special drinks. It absolutely adds to the fun atmosphere. We enjoyed the Space Bar at our hotel, the Courtyard Titusville Kennedy Space Center, a Marriott property (Bonvoy). The rooftop bar is open to everyone. The bar has an amazing riverside view of the launch areas and the stars shine brightly when they retract the deck cover. I recommend it!
If you enjoy breweries, Playalinda’s Brix Project Brewpub is nearby. We met plenty of travelers there who came to see one or both launches planned for the week. The second, a Space X Falcon 9 launch, was planned for early Friday evening, so we hoped to catch that one, too.
The launch pad for the Falcon Heavy Launch is called Launch Complex 39A. This is the largest launch pad in Cape Canaveral and it’s famous. Thirty-nine-A has hosted every launch where humans left earth for the moon. This includes the very first trip to the moon on Apollo 11, July 1969. It also hosted the Space Shuttle and Saturn V programs.
The Visitor Complex at the Kennedy Space Center is a must-visit. There’s plenty of shopping and dining, but the history and science displays are real highlights. Major attractions include the U.S astronaut Hall of Fame, the Rocket Garden, the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Be sure to consider the 2-day pass if you’d like to visit again within 6 months.
Our Wednesday launch was delayed due to a technical issue and rescheduled to Thursday, which was delayed by extreme weather – this included a lightning strike on the launch pad.
On Friday, the weather was looking good. The Falcon 9 launch was scheduled for 4:00 pm hour, so we ran to the beach to see it. It was a perfect launch. We watched the Falcon 9 rocket lasted for about two minutes before it disappeared in the clouds. You could hear it rumble much longer.
All signs were “go” for the 7:29pm Falcon Heavy launch (with the Alaska satellite on board). We took our places, with our cameras ready. The countdown came – 45 minutes, all systems go. 30 minutes, all systems go. 5 minutes, all systems go. Then, 59 seconds and the launch system auto-check procedure triggered the launch to stop. #SCRUBBED
The launch team took Saturday off. We headed to the nearby Apollo/Saturn V Center. Here, you can walk under a full-sized Saturn V rocket and see how large it really is. There’s also a space shuttle on display. This is one of three places on earth where you can touch a moon rock!
SUNDAY = LAUNCH DAY. The skies were clear with a slight breeze. We set up near the edge of the water and had an amazing view. The countdown began, the SpaceX YouTube live feed started, and the hosts walk us through the checklist. We had our GoPro setup and did the traditional 10 second countdown.
Finally, SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy loaded with an Alaskan satellite!
We tracked the rocket’s progress on the SpaceX YouTube channel. Within a few hours, we watched each satellite release and head into deep space. We watched the Aurora 4A satellite release at 21,511 miles above the earth in just five hours! (You can watch here.)
The Aurora 4A satellite is the first micro-GEO (geosynchronous) ever launched into space. Designed and built in San Francisco, California, this satellite was purchased by a Anchorage-based Pacific Dataport. The Aurora 4A will connect about 10,000 rural Alaska residents with broadband about 6 weeks after launch. These are folks who either have no option for broadband or the only option is incredibly expensive and slow.
Overall, it was very exciting. If you’re visiting the Florida theme parks anytime soon, add on a launch viewing and visit the Space Coast. Everyone will love the Kennedy Space Center Complex and Apollo/Saturn V Center, too. Take advantage of Florida’s newest attraction – space tourism!
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