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Up, up and away

by Roger Herzler
October 4, 1999
minuteman launch
Copyright Brian Webb 1999. Used with permission
Copyright Brian Webb 1999. Used with permission
map of observers' locations

An October 2nd rocket launch from a couple hundred miles away...

"C'mon honey...its going to start any time." I was waiting with anticipation now. I knew that it wouldn't be long. I could read the time on the microwave: 6:59. It was supposed to happen right around 7:01pm PST. "HONEY" I called out. "I'll be there in a minute." Hey, I knew that a minute was about all we had.

Opportunities Missed

I'd gotten to see a rocket contrail before in the evening, quite by accident. I was driving home from a part-time job I was holding at CompUSA back in November or December 1997. It was roughly 6pm or so, and the sun was long into sunset mode. As I was driving north I happened to peer out of my side window and was treated to a spectacular sight. A brightly lit contrail, with all kinds of colors, glowing on the horizon. My first thought was that it was a high flying jet. I quickly dismissed that one though, because it was just too high and too long lived for that. The snaking patterns of the smoke created a terrific show. The radio later that night proclaimed that it was in fact a rocket that had taken off from Vandenberg AFB in Southern California. My suspicions had been confirmed, although I was unable to see the actual launch. In fact, I'd never seen any launch of a rocket vehicle before. I was on its heels thistime though.


"OK, I'm here, where's the show?" my wife said. She's long teased me about my desire to witness a rocket launch. I get regular updates from Brian Webb's Rawhide web site, but up until Saturday I'd been unable to act upon them due to scheduling concerns or just plain lousy weather. Tonight, however, I was going to bag my first launch. Pacing back to the microwave reveals: 7:00. So close. Have to keep a sharp eye. I only know a general location, so I have to continually scan in the N-NW direction. "Everybody, come out, its almost time!" Soon, my friends, their kids, and my wife have made their way out to the backyard. They all look at me as though to say "well?". Jokes were cracked, and as I turn around to rebut one, my wife shouts "Look!". I whip back around to see the rising contrail. There it is! Right on time; bless military timing. Who knows how bad the jokes might have gotten.


It rose up on a white pillar of rocket exhaust, splendidly back lit by the setting Sun. There was not a closed mouth in the group. We were all in awe, including my 16 month old daughter, Ashley, who had taken up residence in my arms for the event. Although she didn't understand what it was she surely took notice of it. The persistent pointing by Daddy might have helped with that <g>. The fact that we were so far away in San Diego didn't make a difference. We didn't see the vehicle itself, but you could clearly make out the movement as the trail got taller and taller. A "puff" smoke was visible, what I assumed to be a stage of the rocket firing. Climb...rise...the trail began to change. The trail, which had been slim and well defined began to become more diffuse, almost appearing like a shower head, spraying its "water" back to Earth. I can only surmise that this occurred due to upper atmosphere temperatures acting on the exhaust differently, but it could have been another stage or some other unknown event. Then, after about 2 minutes (that's a raw guess because I was too excited to keep track of time) the top of the trail just seemed to stop and it appeared to go behind clouds, although there was not a cloud in that section of the sky.

The Mission

The October 2nd launch that we'd been privileged to watch was part of a new missile defense system test, which according to news reports was a success. The vehicle that we saw was a modified Minuteman ballistic missile. It was launched out over the Pacific ocean and a "kill vehicle" launched from the Marshall Islands intercepted it. You can read more about this launch on


Like a bonehead, I forgot about the launch until around 6pm, and I didn't bring a camera with me to our friends' house, so I was unable to capture any photos of the event. No worries though. I'll be right out viewing the next one, weather permitting, maybe without spousal ridicule.... Look for me - I'll be the one jumping up and down with excitement. :o)


P.S. I love my wife, despite her jokes. She's the sane one...

P.S.S. Special thanks for Brian Webb of Rawhide for providing the 10/02/1999 launch pictures. Those images are Copyright Brian Webb 1999. Used with permission. Visit his web site for updates to the Vandenberg AFB launch schedule -

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