I’ve been chasing rockets for over 7 years now. Last Saturday I witnessed my 83rd one, and while it wasn’t my first time visiting Starbse by any means, I think I can easily say it was the most inspirational rocket chasing expedition that I have ever undertaken. Integrated Flight Test 2 was the most incredible and humbling spaceflight event I have ever witnessed.
This is my Starbase Experience.
The sound. The view. The atmosphere.
But most importantly, the people.
Much like during Integrated Flight Test 1, thousands crowded the southern end of South Padre Island. Isla Blanca Park was packed to the brim with spectators, hardly a parking spot to be found, and all in the early hours of the morning; the park having opened at 5 AM, hours earlier than its usual call tiime.
The sky still gradually lightening with the coming sunrise. Everyone there with anticipation over one common interest. A common interest all coming to a head for what was scheduled at 7 AM on the dot.
And then SpaceX held the count at T-40 seconds for range clearance. The 20 minute launch window began to whittle away.
But the crowd would only need wait an extra 2 minutes.
At 7:02 AM Central Standard Time, November 18th, 2023 Superheavy Booster 9 roared into life, all 33 Raptor engines putting their force into the water cooled steel plate of the launch pad’s new deluge system.
The crowd roared in unison. Cheers, screams and excitement erupted from Isla Blanca Park like an earthquake as Superheavy and Starship took to the skies.
Higher and higher the stack climbed, the cheers only continued. Excitement at all 33 Raptors successfully performing without a single failure. Max-Q came, and another roar from the crowd.
Then the time came for the big uncertainty for this flight, hot staging.
From 33 down to 3, B9’s engines shutdown in sequence as Ship 25’s came to life, a massive plume of fire and gas erupted from the hot staging ring atop Booster 9, clearly visible to all watching below.
Separation. Ship 25 moved on, and Booster 9 began its flip. The crowd its wildest at this point, all shouting and cheering in excitement.
B9’s engines began to relight to bring it back closer to home until one by one they began to failt, and then…
The crowd cheered and hollered for this too, even though most knew what had happened. Hey, who doesn’t like a good mostly harmless explosion?
What followed as Ship 25 faded into the horizon before meeting its own end was a park full of spectators coming to terms with what they had just witnessed.
I myself was pretty frankly in disbelief. Prior to liftoff I had been extremely skeptical this flight would be anything other than either a catastrophic failure in flight, or a near perfect flight. I was fully ready to see the full stack detonate on the climb upwards, or have serious problems. Much to my surprise, all of the Raptor engines on Booster 9 performed seemingly flawlessly up until relight. Color me impressed beyond belief after having seen Integrated Flight Test 1 firsthand back in April.
IFT-2 was my second time seeing Starship fly, but for many this was their first time experiencing the full stack.
Derek Wise and I were together for most of this run to Starbase. We shared a hotel room, and worked together helping each other with each other’s coverage when needed. It was their first time to Starbase since SN-15 years ago, and their first time seeing a full stack in person. They were lucky enough to make it to Starbase on November 15th right ahead of what everyone had presumed would be the final stack before flight, and were able to watch and capture that event. I would eventually arrive later that evening and meet up with them for the forthcoming activities over the next few days.
Fast forward to the morning of the launch. Ignition. Flight. Hot Staging. Pop.
I thought my excitement was through the roof when I finally took my eyes away from the skies and the fading wispy clouds where Booster 9 met its end, but the look on their face said the whole story.
Mouth agape in a huge open mouthed smile, eyes wide, and the look of sheer disbelief at what they had just witnessed was on full display. Starship’s impressive might and power had blown another person away in quick fashion. High fives and celebrations were exchanged.
Meanwhile, we were next to a father and his daughter who’s shared excitement was well on display. These moments are more than just this unbridled excitement. They’re bonding moments for colleagues, families, friends and strangers.
These moments are about so many people sharing a common interest and mission.
These moments are about instilling inspiration in the newer generations.
These moments are about the future.
The future of humanity. It only takes one person to change the world, and if events like these can inspire the right person, then who knows what’s possible.
Inspiring however, takes a certain breed of people. A people who go out of their way and take the time from their day to day lives to document and capture these moments for all to see. For those who couldn’t be there to see. For those who were there to remember. For humanity as a whole.
That breed of people is the group of people who are accredited spaceflight media. We go by many names. The media corps, rocket chasers, spaceflight photographers, photojournalists and so on.
The media are a group of people who are the fortunate few who are granted closer access, and given the honor and privilege of special behind the scenes access. I am lucky enough to say I am one of this group of people.
As accredited media, I have special access to be able to do certain things in relation to launches like these, whether at Starbase or Kennedy Space Center. For this mission, I was once again accredited as I was for IFT-1 which meant I was given permission and access to be able to leave my cameras remotely at specially assigned locations on SpaceX property. We were given two sites for this, the same one from IFT-1 where the infamous NASAspaceflight van got beamed by flying concrete, and then another a mile and a half away next to the Astropub.
Just days before IFT-2, I was home having just returned from Florida covering a Starlink, CRS-29 and o3B mPower missions. I’d been home for no more than 3 hours by the time Elon made a post on Twitter/X indicating approval for flight was imminent. So it was back to prepping all of my cameras and gear to roll out for Starbase after a day of rest.
In that day of rest, with the help of my father, I prepped a solution for the close remote site, as I was skeptical of even leaving a camera there after the IFT-1 eruption decimated everything in the vicinity. Thankfully I’d escaped IFT-1 with all my gear intact, even while they suffered some hits.
This aforementioned idea was not mine, as all credit goes to my colleague and friend Scott Schilke, as he had successfully utilized Ammo cans to protect his cameras and gear at IFT-1. He had set inside of the pad gates then, and is the only member of the media who can claim they had a camera from inside the pad that still functions.
Scott’s ammo can deployment spurred my want to use the same idea, and so the Unripe Coconut was born. It would be deployed only 3 days later on the sandy grounds of Starbase, ready to do battle with Starship for the first time, the Canon EOS 80D and 55-250 lens it housed both returning to the place they had attained their battle scars at Integrated Flight Test 1. The hope for this camera, to finally attain the elusive close up engine shot.
Meanwhile, my Canon EOS 70D and another 55-250 lens went to work from by the Astropub, set for a wide shot, their first outing shooting rockets in South Texas. Needing far less protection at 1.6 miles, they were simply bagged to protect from any environmental exposure, with an added layer of aluminum foil to keep the scorching sunlight at bay, my first time using such a measure. I affectionately called this setup the Baked Potato.
Both setups were left with their MIOPS Smart+ remote triggers counting down until 6:55 AM the following morning, where their sound activated modes would engage to capture the moment.
The last layer of both setups being 18 hour hand warmers strapped to both lenses, as a preventative measure to keep morning dew and moisture from fogging the lenses over.
The Unripe Coconut and Baked Potato were ready to do battle.
SpaceX let us loose from their private property, and all we had to do now was wait for showtime.
Now I’ve gone on about the technical side of the setup here, but there is one side I cannot go without mentioning. It’s the entire point of this entire piece I am writing. That side is the human side of it all. The cameras don’t just get up and walk to their remote spots on their own after all.
The media corps are a breed all their own, a blend of obsession, passion and a dash or more of insanity. None of us are truly normal people. Hell, we drive and travel sometimes thousands of miles to bring these fleeting moments, just mere minutes of time to those who cannot be there. Scott, John Kraus, myself, Derek Wise and many others traveled clear from Florida by car in a last minute dash to make it to Starbase for IFT2. A journey of over 1300 miles / 2090 kilometers. Right around 20 hours of driving if done nonstop.
Remote setup for Starship IFT-2 felt very much similar to IFT-1, but with the added experience of what all of us had experienced that first go around. The vibe around the media pool was one of anticipation and excitement. Excitement for yet another test flight of Starship so soon, and anticipation of what was to come, given what those of us who had been there the first time went through with our damages from the explosive eruption that was IFT-1. Even so, setup went much the same as it usually does for us, whether at Starbase or KSC. Everyone getting hard to work once allowed on site at our setup locations.
Unlike the usual 20-30ish minutes per location at KSC, we were granted 90 minutes for setup at Starbase; a luxury compared to our usual allotted time at Kennedy. For many of us, we didn’t leave much gear at our closer location (the one that was practically a shooting gallery at IFT-1), but even so many of us still took the risk as the water deluge system was still yet unproven in a full launch environment.
With most of us limiting the gear we were leaving out there, we were left to just talk and take in where we were and what we were doing. Laughs, smiles, nervous shrugs, uncertainty were just some of the emotions on display. Camaraderie was well on display as well, as many of us are more than just colleagues, we’re friends.
Friends all tied together through this common bond and mission to bring this monumental event to our outlet’s readers and followers. Scott and John, grabbed a selfie, others moved about searching for just the right shot, and the rest hung about talking and making friendly chatter about the happenings going on.
There are too many of us to name us all in one story, but aside from myself I will name a few of those individuals and groups who were present for IFT2, and all share this passion to record and document spaceflight.
Max Evans, John Kraus, Scott Schilke, Josh Dinner, Derek Wise, John Pisani, Trevor Mahlmann, Adam Bernstein, Tyler Gray, John “Das” Galloway, Jack Beyer, Chuck Fields and so many others. Some of these individuals part of organizations and groups like NASAspaceflight, Everyday Astronaut, Cosmic Perspective and various others.
The mission for all of us though remained the same. We were there to document this Test Flight. Record history in the making. That is why we do what we do. We are the artists telling the story of this era of spaceflight.
I can’t finish this writing without mentioning the greater space community of creators and influencers as a whole either. People like Jade Boudreaux through her incredible artwork. And while not present for IFT-2, teammates, friends and social media users turned media, Brandon Berkoff & Nick Boone. Friends and colleagues who traveled far, Astrid Cordero, Adrian Ruiz, Dhanushka Nilanga. Not to mention the countless others out there all working towards one common goal. Capturing, documenting and sharing in their own ways.
Whether it’s Starship, the Artemis missions, a run of the mill Starlink launch or anything in between, we are the people recording all of this. We are the people weaving the web of this story. We live and work inspired by not only one another, but by those who’ve come before us and told the story of eras gone by.
We understand, appreciate and embrace the field we’ve chosen to cover, and for many of us this is a labor of love. We do not do this for money, as there is little to be made in this field. Some of us travel thousands of miles from far fling corners of the country to witness, cover and record these events. We do this not because it is just important, no, but because it is imperative to document these events. To leave the record for those to come after us, as those before did for us.
We cannot allow all of this that is happening to go by and be forgotten.
We cannot allow all of this that is happening to not be appreciated.
We have to document this so humanity remembers.
We are the storytellers, and this story has to be told.
This is what the Starbase experience has really instilled in me with the second Integrated Flight Test. I think I’d always known this deep down, but witnessing Starship and Superheavy take to the skies in such an impressive and improved manner brought it to the forefront in my mind.
I haven’t felt this changed by a launch since either Demo-2 or my very first, CRS-9.
Years ago before I was ever part of the media or even going to Florida or Texas, I saw these images and stories on social media and new sites and never really thought about or appreciated them. I just thought of them as cool pictures and just informative bits of knowledge.
Then I went to see my first launch, CRS-9 as aforementioned. My life unknowingly at a crossroads there in the dark night on the side of US-1 in Titusville on July 18th, 2016. Little did I know it would take the path to a greater purpose, or to quote my favorite Marvel character, a Glorious Purpose.
My life changed that night, and 7 years and 81 launches later (some 65 as media now), I think it all really came into focus on that clear November morning in South Texas. A sharp clarity I’ve never really had until now.
November 2023 has been an incredibly exhausting month, with Starlink 6-27, CRS-29, o3B mPower 5 & 6. I was initially complaining about having to go to Starbase as I’d just gotten home from Florida, but the decision to do so may very well be my best decision in years. Now over 4400+ miles down into my travels for this month and yet to return home at the time of this writing, I can unequivocally say it has all been worth it. Not just Starbase for IFT2, but my entire career of going and covering spaceflight and chasing rockets.
As I finish this writing It is now the early hours of the morning on Thanksgiving Day, and as I conclude this monologue I want to close it out with some final words.
As I left Starbase and set out for home mere hours after the second Integrated Test Flight of Starship and Superheavy, I left renewed. I left inspired. I left humbled.
The Starbase experience is a special one, and one I didn’t truly appreciate until November 18th, 2023. It has given me a renewed outlook on what I do. It has shown me the true good and purpose of what I and we media members do. Most importantly it has shown me that it is about far more than just taking pretty photographs and making fleeting social media posts.
It is about inspiration.
Inspiring the future generations and reminding the future generations of these inspiring times.
We cannot allow this era to be forgotten or swept away with the sands of time.
This is the gateway to the future of humanity.
The rocket chasers are here to tell the story that needs to be told.
The story of humanity making their way to becoming interplanetary.
The story of humanity working together for a common goal.
The story of humanity paving its way into the future.
Credit: David Diebold