After being postponed for over a month, United Launch Alliance (ULA) is ready to launch a secretive space plane for the USAF on its third mission this coming Tuesday, December 11. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) will fly atop an Atlas-V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41. Liftoff time is scheduled for 1:03 p.m. EST, with a five-hour launch window available if the rocket cannot get off the ground right away.
For those in central Florida who wish to watch this launch in person, there are a few locations to choose from. Cape Canaveral covers a lot of ground, so a location that is good for watching one type of rocket lift off might not necessarily be the best place for watching another.
For those wanting to watch this mission launch in person, Playalinda Beach easily offers the best publicly accessible viewing location. The beach offers an unobstructed view of the Atlas rocket on its launch pad, providing a front row seat from a distance of about 5 miles. There is a $5.00 fee to enter the park. The park closes at sunset, which will not be an issue for this launch being that it’s scheduled to lift off in the afternoon. Contact their office at 321-267-1110 for information concerning viewing the Atlas-V OTV-3 launch Tuesday, December 11.
Another popular public viewing location to witness the Atlas rocket take flight is from Port Canaveral. Anywhere along the SR-528 Bennett Causeway or along Route 401 behind the Port will do the job of offering a great view of the rocket’s push to send the X-37B into orbit. However, at a distance of over 10 miles, the sound is not nearly as powerful as a view from Playalinda Beach would offer.
The Air Force Space and Missile History Center is located just outside the south gate to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, behind the port off to the right side of the road (follow the signs). They offer free admission (no access pass required) and a launch viewing area with PA system and live countdown. Keep in mind they close at 2:00 p.m. during the week, so if the launch attempt extends past that time then you will be on your own, but can still view from their viewing area at the water’s edge.
Anywhere along HWY-1 in Titusville also presents some fantastic public viewing areas for this launch vehicle, but again the distance of over 10 miles from SLC-41 will present a viewer with a low rumble rather than a powerful concussive sound people generally associate with a rocket launch.
For those wanting to view this launch from any of these locations, it’s important to keep in mind that this particular Atlas-V rocket will not use any solid rocket motors (boosters). The 19-story tall rocket will climb under the power of its first-stage RD-180 engine, and without any strap-on boosters there will be no visible smoke plume following the rocket during its ascent. The absence of any solid rockets will also be obvious in the sound—anyone who chooses to watch from Port Canaveral or Titusville will hear a low rumble instead of a powerful one, which will be experienced from Playalinda Beach.
HOW TO GET TO PLAYALINDA BEACH: Take U.S. HWY-1 through Titusville and turn right at Garden Street / Route 406. Go across the A Max Brewer Parkway bridge and follow the road all the way to its end at Playalinda Beach. There are lots for parking, just take a walk and choose your spot to enjoy the launch.
HOW TO GET TO PORT CANAVERAL: Take SR-528, or the “Beachline” as it is commonly known, from the west, AIA from the east (A1A turns into SR-528 if you’re coming from Cocoa Beach). Take ‘”Exit A North Terminals” and follow the road (Route 401) across the small drawbridge and around the curve which brings you behind the port. You can watch the launch from the left side of the road. Best part? It’s free! Space is limited, so arrive early. You can also skip the port all together and watch the launch from the grassy field areas along the SR-528 Bennett Causeway, just keep an eye out for other people and vehicles parked along the water’s edge.
So far everything is proceeding as planned with the launch vehicle, with roll-out of the Atlas-V to its launch pad expected tomorrow (Monday) morning, but there is a strong possibility that unfavorable weather will push the launch beyond December 11. A cold front is expected to remain over central Florida through the first half of the week, bringing with it the potential for heavy rain and strong thunderstorms, unstable atmospheric conditions, and lightning—all of which will prevent any launch from taking off. The weather forecast currently calls for only a 30% chance of favorable conditions for a Tuesday launch, and forecasts remain the same for a Wednesday attempt.