It has become a ritual. We set the alarm, bundle up, go outside, and stand on the deck looking westward and up, sometimes feeling silly. Why are we so drawn to these spectacles in the sky that we rouse ourselves from good sleep and a warm bed to watch? I think of it as an acknowledgment of wonder, and whether it’s a meteor shower, an eclipse, or a rocket launch, I feel compelled to be present, observing.
This morning the show was the launch of the SpaceX Starlink Falcon 9. Vandenberg Air Force base is about fifteen miles from here, just over the mountains, and although these space age launches seem to contrast oddly with Gaviota’s bucolic hills and cattle ranches, proximity to the coast and low population density render the area well-suited for the purpose. The base launched its first ballistic missile in 1958 and soon became the regular site for test firings of strategic missile weapon systems and polar-orbiting satellite launches.
I remember my friend Bob Isaacson’s description of the surreal sight of an Atlas missile launch during a post-branding barbecue he attended at Las Cruces Ranch in the 1960s. Cowboys fell silent as the white column collapsed and spiraled in the winds, and then someone stood up and booed. “We knew things would never be the same,” Bob said.
Decades later, the launches still seem somehow dissonant and incongruous, but there is also something undeniably exciting about them. It was cold outside this morning, but we were filled with anticipation. We heard the sound of a canyon wren as we opened the door, and the sky was already growing light, and at the precisely scheduled moment, a fiery shape emerged above the hills, soaring into the sky, followed by a long white plume, curling and swirling and shifting shape.
We watched until the exhaust grew pale and dispersed, and all pieces of the rocket faded away above the sea, and the rumbling gradually subsided, but one morning planet-star still glimmered bright. (Jupiter, perhaps?)
Then we lingered as dawn unfolded in rose tones above the hills.
And I actually intended to go back to bed, but there were far too many distractions. Sunlight was streaming into the kitchen, and there was a beautiful grapefruit on the counter, and Monte made me coffee and himself a cup of tea, and I watched the steam rising above his cup as though it were amazing.