That was a most excellent launch!!
by Brian Lockett
The slightly gibbous moon was setting in a clear sky while I drove to Lompoc. It pointed straight down and was reflected in the Santa Barbara Channel. I arrived at Harris Grade Road at 1:45 A.M., a little more than fifteen minutes before the launch. The lights of Lompoc illuminated a thin layer of medium-altitude clouds. Powerful spotlights were directed at the Atlas IIAS rocket on the launch pad eight miles away. The shafts of light pointed over Lompoc and down the Santa Ynez Valley.
I set up three tripods and cameras, two with 200 speed print film and one with Kodachrome 64. All three cameras were equipped with 28mm lenses. I attached a locking cable release to each camera and aimed them so the launch pad was in the lower right corner of the frame.
The thin layer of clouds grew noticeably thicker in the minutes before the launch. I turned on my scanner and located a frequency with someone counting down the minutes to the launch. When the count reached fifteen seconds, I walked down the line of cameras, locking open their shutters. Shortly before T-minus-zero, two brief flashes of light accompanied the ignition of the liquid fueled first stage. At zero, the entire valley was suddenly illuminated by the brilliant glow of the four solid fuel boosters. The rocket rose slowly toward the cloud deck. It lit up the Lompoc Valley like an arc welder. The rocket's flame cast a bright circle of light on the bottom of the cloud deck. The circle grew larger as the rocket cleared the clouds. When the rocket pierced the clouds, they swallowed up its light. The circle of light on the base of the clouds shrank as the Atlas raced upward. The long, bright yellow flame appeared through a few gaps in the clouds as the first sound of the launch reached my position.
Man, nothing beats a solid fuel rocket for basso profundo! Whammety bammety! Pow! Pow! Pow! Nobody remained asleep in Lompoc at 2:05 in the morning.
Another very high altitude cloud layer glowed brighter as the Atlas ascended toward it. The rocket's yellow flame dimmed and turned orange as the solid fuel boosters burned out. The liquid fueled core of the rocket was only dimly visible through the clouds as the sound of the rocket climbed into the sky behind it, gradually fading away like distant thunder.