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Cocoa, Florida, lightning by Chris Kridler
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SpaceX Falcon 9 launches a two-man crew to the International Space Station on a mission for NASA, resuming human spaceflight from the United States.


Human spaceflight is back in the United States.  Since 2011 and the retirement of the space shuttles, Americans have been flying to space aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. But today, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket for NASA with the Crew Dragon capsule in a two-man test mission to the International Space Station.

I was happy to see the launch … though I wasn’t ambitious in terms of where I photographed it. Here on Florida’s Space Coast, we had massive crowds during a scrubbed attempt earlier this week, and during this plague, I preferred not to tangle with them. But the view was still good from my neighborhood along the Indian River Lagoon, where many people showed up just in time for lift-off.

My emotions are pretty strong when it comes to human spaceflight. I was at the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center when Columbia failed to make it home and worked long hours covering the aftermath and mourning the crew. Later that year, I went to Russia and Kazakhstan for Florida Today to cover Americans’ first full crew exchange via Soyuz, when the returning crew was briefly “lost” when it went off course in a ballistic landing. When they were found, I called back to my editor from Moscow’s mission control and could barely get out the words “They’re OK.” I’m well aware of the risk and deeply respect the astronauts who are willing to step up and face it for missions like these.

That said, I also believe strongly in uncrewed science missions, and I wish our country’s priorities included more funding to explore our solar system and beyond. The benefits are not just esoteric. What we learn goes to the heart of our own survival. Although there doesn’t seem to be much consideration of our future or our planet’s future these days.

This is a day to celebrate. And to remember that science helped get us here … and can help us go forward, too.

Back in 2001, when I’d been chasing storms for just a few years, Dave Lewison and I met up with Scott Blair and Jason Politte on May 30 and headed into northeast New Mexico in pursuit of supercells. We found one that formed on the high plains. There were cold temperatures aloft and the perfect ingredients for rock-hard hail. We knew the storm was producing this hail – we could see it, falling from the cloud like a white waterfall – and we were determined to get ahead of it.

Even now, chasers get caught by hail. Hell, some chasers rush into it. But back in the days of no in-car radar data, when we’d “go visual” to figure out where to be in relation to the storm, it was even easier to screw up. And boy, did we screw up. We got on I-40 and were caught by the storm just inside the Texas Panhandle, with no exits or shelter in sight. Our cars were bombed by sideways-blowing hail for about ten minutes, including stones up to baseball size. To this day, I avoid chasing storms on Interstates because of this experience.

I’ve posted a new edit of the video from this day. Be warned: THERE IS CURSING. This was also way before everyone was shooting in high-def. And listening to my angst makes me cringe a bit. But because of this experience, I kept my cool when I got into an even worse hailstorm on May 12, 2005. You might say I’ve become a bit hail-avoidant since then.

I had a strong case of sleep deprivation for a couple of days last week thanks to getting up in the wee hours to get out to the beach at Cape Canaveral for a rocket launch. Rocket launches are a bonus of living on the Space Coast of Florida, and the pre-dawn launches have the potential to be especially spectacular. This Atlas 5 launch on August 8 by United Launch Alliance lived up to its promise!

Note the “sparkles” in the detail shot of the end of the plume. Those are the rocket boosters tumbling back to Earth after separation.