When a Rocket Launch Is a Cultural Event

SpaceX’s online broadcast brought a different tone to space exploration.

A time-lapse photo captures the Falcon 9 launch and landing. (SpaceX)

I have watched a lot of rocket-launch live streams. I know how they work.

If it’s a big American launch, there is a rocket, a marsh, and an ocean. The rocket sits between the marsh and the ocean. The camera focuses on the rocket and does not move. Sometimes there are two cameras: one behind the marsh, far from the rocket, and another in front of the marsh, close to it. The producer cuts between the two cameras for visual drama.

As the launch time approaches, a calm-sounding, Midwestern-accented male voice lists various technical systems and what they are doing (“Cooling umbilical separated—check check.”) and counts down to take off (“30 seconds to my mark—mark.”)

Another calm, male voice provides some commentary. (“That’s 30 seconds to launch. They are greatly anticipating this at the International Space Station.”)


After the rocket ignites, slipping the surly bonds of gravity through the artful application of Newtonian physics, the camera lifts to follow it. The first voice says, “We have lift off,” then resumes checking technical systems. The second voice says, “And the rocket is on its way.”

If it’s a Russian live stream, there is no marsh or ocean, because Baikonur Cosmodrome is in the middle of the Kazakh steppe. The two men are also speaking in Russian, not English. Otherwise, everything is exactly the same.

On a crewed mission, sometimes the camera will cut to a view inside the Soyuz capsule after launch. The astronauts, under tremendous force, all make faces that look like this emoji: 😑. And sometimes you can see the “zero-gravity indicator” (a small, stuffed toy) float in the cabin as the craft falls into orbit and the crew experiences weightlessness.

Sometimes, if you see the NASA version of a Russian launch, that same calm voice talks in English over the Russian commanders. So the rocket lifts off, a Russian voice says something brief and stoic-sounding, and then the American says: “And the Soyuz is on its way.”

* * *  

On Monday evening, a SpaceX rocket did something no craft had done before. After depositing its second stage into low Earth orbit, the rocket’s first stage landed upright and intact on an old launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, had finally pulled off a successful “VTOL,” a vertical take-off and landing. The feat could pave the way for a new era of reusable, and therefore much less expensive, rockets.

It was a historic moment in aerospace engineering. And if you tuned into SpaceX’s online live feed Monday night, you would have seen something else unprecedented. If you have ever seen Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve—or if you can imagine the likely vibe of a major-network broadcast called Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve—then this was Elon Musk’s Rockin’ Private Satellite Deployment.

There was a pregame. There were cheering crowds. There were tours of the SpaceX manufacturing and launch facilities before the main event, which felt very Olympics-on-NBC-esque. It was, in short, a way of treating a rocket launch not like a dry engineering procedure, but like some combination of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Super Bowl.

You can see the entire thing on SpaceX’s website. It looks long—45 whole minutes!—but there’s really only a 20-minute pregame, and then the rocket takes off, and then it flies and the stages separate and and then it lands.

And what a show! First of all, there was a title sequence, with pumping synths and clips of cool space sounds and Thoughtful Elon:

“What is the animal who walks on four legs in morning?,” Elon wonders. (SpaceX)

And cheering crowds:


And then we meet our many hosts, who are also all SpaceX engineers. There were four of them, all charming and knowledgable onscreen. (Their high school’s performing-arts curriculum, finally vindicated.) They ranged from Lauren Lyons, a mission integrator at SpaceX who played the MC role well—


—to John Insprucker, the Falcon 9 product director who delivered technical information about the launch’s status.


There was even a celebrity guest: Tim Urban, the writer and cartoonist behind the phenomenally successful nerd website Wait but Why. One of Urban’s most popular series is entitled “Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man,” which runs across six posts and concludes with a 20,000-plus-word opus about why Musk is simply different than you and I. Urban was on hand to play, essentially, the amazed straight man, and he could be counted on to say how awesome things were and why SpaceX’s work was so important.

Tim Urban, center, addresses the camera. (SpaceX)

I’m not sure what role Urban was playing—personality? journalist? pitchman? stand-in for the viewer?—but it was a little odd.

A lot went right about the live feed. The timeline at the bottom, which filled in live as mission events transpired, was a better visual representation of what happens during a satellite deployment than any I’ve ever seen. And the heads-up-display-style countdown clock and information box in the top-right corner improved the broadcast.


After the rocket, one of the SpaceX engineers said, “I’m going to walk you through some of what you’re seeing and hearing.” He then delivered better annotation than I’ve ever heard for another rocket launch, describing the difficulty and importance of the Max Q period that follows launch.

But it was also an infomercial for SpaceX. There were digs, subtle and not as much, at Jeff Bezos and his puny, non-orbital reusable rocket that pulled off VTOL last month. “A lot of what people think when I say ‘space’ is just going real high and then coming back down, which is a lot of space tourism,” said one host, implicitly invoking Bezos. “What we’re trying to do is deliver satellites.”

Urban’s post on Wait but Why about the live stream even included a digression on why the Falcon 9, not Bezos’s New Shepard, was more notable. “One way in which Blue Origin has bested SpaceX is by somehow making their rocket even more dick-like than the Falcon 9—something no one in the space industry thought possible,” Urban wrote.

And in a larger sense, it was sports as filtered through the contemporary lingo of Silicon Valley. SpaceX, we heard, was super awesome, super important, and the raddest. Lots of things were very cool. And after the craft took off, and especially after it landed, the crowd (assembled in SpaceX’s headquarters and composed mostly of SpaceX employees) went wild. There was even a (mercifully) brief “USA, USA, USA” chant.

What it has me wondering most of all, though, is whether This Is How Space Will Be Marketed Now. Few events are as binary as a launch: The rocket either sits stationary, on the ground, or flies, out there, beyond. It is a chemical reaction as a spectator event, with all the finality and irreversibility of thermodynamics. At no other time do we take a break from working or watching TV or doing laundry to go watch sheer propulsion take place, a propulsion made in the name of science, advancement, and exploration.

Right now, SpaceX is working with an ESPN aesthetic of chipper hosts and flashy graphics. But the great space broadcasts of yore came closer to approximating a church, not a championship. The novelist William Styron writes of watching the astronauts of Apollo 8 broadcast from lunar orbit while standing at a holiday party: “A chill coursed down my back and an odd sigh went through the gathering like a tremor or a wind.” As the pseudonymous writer George Lazenby put it: “The Apollo Program was an elaborate demonstration of how even the blandest among us are under the heel of the spirit.” SpaceX will not be the only private space company to realize they can market the excitement of a launch. As they and others hone their technique, I hope they realize that lift-off is as much an awe-inspiring event as an awesome one.