Watching a rocket launch is possibly one of the most impressive experiences I’ve ever had. As a feat of human engineering, there’s nothing like watching the rocket defy gravity and rise from the launchpad. For this reason I consider seeing a rocket launch to be worthy of everyone’s bucket list – but certainly for us astrotourists.
If you want to see a rocket launch but aren’t sure how to make it happen, this post will help. It breaks down the steps for planning a trip to see a rocket launch. It also covers planning ahead for the fact that not all launches go as planned.
I’ve planned two trips to see launches: once cross-country to Florida and once in my home state of California. Through those trips, I learned a few tips to help you have the best chance to seeing a launch happen successfully.
Read on to discover what it takes to plan a trip to see a rocket launch. You’ll be all set to plan your own unforgettable rocket launch trip!
Step 1. Choose Which Launch You Plan to See
There are a number of great resources to keep track of upcoming launches as you try to plan your trip to see a rocket launch.
- Spaceflight Now has a great launch calendar that’s updated almost daily; it’s usually a little behind after a launch happens, but is really helpful in planning.
- Surprisingly, Twitter is also a great resource for launch details. Within the U.S., it’s good to follow @SpaceX and the various NASA launch facilities: @NASAKennedy, @NASA_Wallops, and @30thSpaceWing (representing Vandenberg)
- The team at NASA Spaceflight is also top notch – and Chris who runs their Twitter is really good.
- On social media, Emily @thespacegal and Tim @everydayastronaut also both regularly share launch news (and other cool space info too).
As you get used to following these accounts and sites, you’ll eventually have a sense for how far in advance launches are announced. It varies between private companies and government organizations – for example, China basically never announces launches in advance. (Also, I wouldn’t recommend going to see a Chinese launch; they’re known for not worrying too much about crashing near populated areas!)
For private space companies, SpaceX seems to announce several months in advance, Rocket Lab typically announces a few weeks to a few months, and so far, Blue Origin never announces in advance – people keep an eye on FAA airspace clearance requests to know when they plan a test flight.
Step 2. Research the Launch Window & Location
Once you’ve decided on seeing a specific launch, it’s time to research the launch window and location so you can start planning your trip to see the rocket launch.
Most launches have a “window” in which they can launch, assuming the weather and other conditions are good. Most of the time this is a few hours, but some have “0 second” windows, meaning they can only launch at a specific time on a specific day. Often, they also have back-up launch windows on other days in case the launch is scrubbed due to weather or technical issues.
As you plan, keep an eye on the launch window(s) for the launch you want to see. Is it early in the morning or late at night? Are there backup windows on nearby dates? All of these details will help you plan a trip with better odds of seeing a launch even if it doesn’t happen in the first window.
In my case, I saw the Orion EFT-1 launch from Kennedy Space Center in late 2014; the flights were super early in the morning and it was scrubbed the first day. Luckily they were able to launch on the second morning in the back-up window.
When it comes to location, this is thankfully pretty easy! In the U.S., there are three major launch facilities:
- Kennedy/Canaveral – Located on Florida’s Space Coast, there are several Florida communities nearby where you can stay.
- Vandenberg – Located on California’s Central Coast, the nearest town is Lompoc, California.
- Wallops – Located on Wallops Island in Virginia, it’s near Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and a number of smaller communities near the coast.
SpaceX has also been drawing crowds to Boca Chica, Texas for their Starship test flights.
Step 3. Book Your Travel – but be Flexible
Now that you know where you’re going (based on the launch facility) and when you’re going (based on the launch window), it’s time to start booking your trip to see a rocket launch!
The most important thing to consider when booking flights and lodging for your rocket launch trip is to be flexible if you can – or add an extra day or two on the end as a buffer to help you see the launch if it scrubs the first window.
The last thing you want is to have to go home and miss a launch the next day, or not have a place to stay overnight when trying to stay to see the launch. When I went to see a ULA launch at Vandenberg in 2018, they scrubbed early the first day and rescheduled for the next launch window on the following day. I was able to contact my Airbnb host and ask if I could stay an extra night – luckily, they were able to accommodate me! Instead, I should have just booked an extra day and spent the time exploring Lompoc, CA (which is what I ended up doing anyway!).
(In the end, that launch was scrubbed the second day too due to a technical issue, and they didn’t end up launching for another few weeks – so I never saw that launch!)
If it’s possible to book flights or accommodation that has flexibility so you can change them without an extra fee, this is the best option.
Step 4. Figure Out Viewing Spots
Once you’re booked, it’s time to start researching the specific viewing spots where you can see a rocket launch in Florida, California, or Virginia.
For Kennedy/Canaveral: There are some incredible resources out there, but two of my favorites are this one from Kennedy Space Center itself (so you know it’s accurate) and this one from Visit Space Coast, highlighting spots along the coast.
For Vandenberg: We have a resource here on STG about the best places to view a launch at Vandenberg. Because Vandenberg is an Air Force base, close viewing locations are limited – but there are some good ones in and around Lompoc.
For Wallops: NASA has two resources about viewing launches at Wallops (with somewhat different information on each page). This article from Chincoteague also highlights other places in the surrounding area.
For SpaceX/Boca Chica: South Padre Island is the closest community to the Starship test facility, and they have a page on their site dedicated to SpaceX launches.
Step 5. Be Prepared for the Scrub
Last, but not least, it’s important to prepare yourself mentally for the event the launch will be scrubbed. Unfortunately, it’s a reality that launching rockets is hard. It doesn’t always work when we expect it too – and things can always go wrong. Sometimes, the rocket just sits there.
This step of ‘planning a trip to see a rocket launch’ isn’t a specific task so much as just making sure you’re prepared and won’t be too disappointed in the event all your planning doesn’t end with an impressive rocket launch.
The good thing is that there are now many rocket launches and test flights happening in the U.S. every year. There will always be another opportunity! And you’ll have enjoyed a trip somewhere and scoped out the best launch viewing locations for your return trip.
Do you have other questions about planning a trip to see a rocket launch? Let us know in the comments!