“I feel like the future is here”
On Friday, April 23, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station for a six-month stay. The Intrepid Museum’s Senior Adviser for Space Programs and former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino was on the ground at the launch as a guest of astronaut Megan McArthur, who he flew with on the STS-125 mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. Read below as he describes the experience of watching the launch in person, and what it’s like to see his “space sister” and close friend go back to space 12 years later.
What happened during today’s launch?
“Today I got to watch my close friend Megan McArthur take off alongside her family. It was my first launch as a non-astronaut so it was interesting being on the other side of things. We woke up really early and arrived at the Visitors’ Center between 2:30am-3:30am to check-in. Buses took us out to the Banana Creek Viewing Site at the Johnson Space Center where we waited about two hours for the launch. A lot of my old astronaut friends and NASA colleagues were there.
“The SpaceX vehicle got loaded up with fuel almost right up to the last minute, which keeps the fuel colder and is a more efficient way to go. Everything worked like clockwork, which was a little different than the shuttle launches. The shuttle had a couple of holds in the process, where you would go into a hold for a few minutes before the countdown resumed, but today the countdown just continued all the way down to launch.
“For the launch itself, it was 5-4-3-2-1 – BANG. It was dark out, and I saw a bright light in the distance, then felt the rumble from the rocket – not quite as powerful as what we had with the shuttle, but still impressive. It rose up in the sky, and we were able to see it for a long time, all the way until it got to orbit. After a few minutes, the first stage came back down and landed in the ocean on a platform. So we could see two lights—one going towards space and one coming back down which is the first stage rocket that’s going to land and be re-used.”
What did you take away from the experience?
“Overall it truly is great to be launching from the United States again. Feeling the excitement and pride of sharing in this major accomplishment, there’s nothing like it. One of the things I loved about my shuttle flights was how I felt like I was taking everybody with me. I think we lost a little bit of that when we stopped launching from the U.S., but today it was back in full force. This sense of hopefulness and positivity for the future, I really felt it strongly here today, and I feel very excited to see what’s coming next.”
What is launch day like for the astronauts?
“The whole day is like Christmas. You’re excited when you go to bed and you wake up with a lot of anticipation. You’ve practiced the routine, but now it’s actually launch day. So you get up and eat breakfast, then you get dressed and go to the suit room to check out your space suit. It’s the same suit room that the guys who went to the Moon were in. There are a lot of traditions throughout the day. For example, the commander usually plays a hand of poker with the chief of the NASA office. They play until the commander loses because you want to leave all your bad luck in that room. Then they go out to the launch pad, load up and wait and go through all the different checks you gotta do before launch.
“At launch, it’s zero to 17,500 miles an hour in 8.5 minutes, so you feel a huge rush of acceleration. I think this is a pretty smooth ride compared to what we had with the shuttle. The shuttle had solid rocket boosters which shook us up a lot. The SpaceX vehicle does not have solid fuel, it has liquid fuel, so it should be a smoother ride, but they still get the G-Force and the acceleration nonetheless.”
How did this experience compare to your own launches?
“What struck me today was what a launch does for your family and friends, the whole NASA team, and the whole country, and the pride that we all have in our space program. Today felt very similar to my launches in that way.
“I think what’s different is that today felt like the future. The shuttle was older technology, there were certain upgrades here and there but it was hugely manually intensive for the crew. There’s so much that the crew has to do to interact with that vehicle. It was a great spaceship but really complicated. With the SpaceX vehicle, there’s a lot of automation, it’s really sleek, it’s doing things that if you had told me back then a shuttle could do, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s almost like science fiction. To me, it feels like the future is here and this is something that is going to continue to open up opportunities for space exploration. We have a lot to look forward to.”
Learn about the history of the U.S. space program and get an up-close look at NASA’s original orbiter, Enterprise, in the Intrepid Museum’s Space Shuttle Pavilion from Thursday to Sunday, 10:00 am - 5:00 pm.