Scope Diagram Astrocamera.Net - Astrophotography by Dave Kodama

SpaceX / SAOCOM 1A
7 Oct. 2018

This launch of a SpaceX mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was a first use of a land-based landing pad on the West Coast. A number of successful barge landings have occurred off the California coast, but this was the first try after SpaceX completed construction (refurbishment of a former launch pad) and satisfied environmental and other concerns. Fortunately, this launch was not only (largely) clear of the all-too-frequent Vandenberg coastal fog, but also occurred just after sunset, making for a great spectacle in the sky as the rocket contrail hung in the sky, illuminated at high altitude by the sun against a darkening sky.

From the public viewing area about 9 miles NE of the launch/landing site, the illuminated Falcon 9 and SAOCOM payload were almost completely in view over intervening hills.


Fortunately for the crowd gathered at the viewing site, liftoff occurred right on schedule with light fog apparently starting to move in.


Stage separation and subsequent firing of the second-stage along with first-stage return maneuvering provided a spectacular show since the sun was still illuminating the high-elevation action. Note that this is essentially a rear-end view of the action as the rocket was launched away from us. The fairing halves which were released shortly after second-stage burn started could also be seen falling back to the ocean. One of the fairing halves can be seen as a small dot just below the very bright flame of the second-stage in the photo above. SpaceX did not attempt to retrieve those components on this flight.

Occurring about 10 minutes after launch, this sequence shows the 1st stage return to the landing pad. Note the fog layer which is a very common condition at Vandenberg. It is always a roll of the dice for anyone coming here to view a launch. The tall object to the left of the landing pad is the SpaceX launch gantry.

To view the entire launch and landing, see:

on Youtube. In this video our local ground view and sound have been combined with the SpaceX webcast views from the launch vehicle and SpaceX commentary. Note that because of our distance from the launch pad, the sound of the rocket and re-entry sonic booms are delayed several seconds after the actual touchdown of the first stage.

This composite shot shows the SpaceX / SAOCOM 1A launch with a return of the 1st stage to the adjacent landing pad at Vandenberg AFB. The phases of the launch are labeled as they can be quite confusing if you didn't watch it happen. This was the first landing of a SpaceX booster back on land. The shots for this photo were taken about 9 miles NE of the launch pad. The horizon appears bowl-shaped because a very wide-angle fisheye lens was used so that the entirety of the launch and landing trajectories could be covered.

Note: Video was shot with a Nikon D600 and Sigma 15mm lens. Telescopic shots were taken with a Nikon D850 and Borg 76ED (500mm FL + 0.85x reducer) telescope.

The photo above, taken in January 2017, shows the landing pad to the left of the Falcon 9 launch pad (left of the tall thin tower). At the time of the photo, the landing pad was under construction and had a temporary shelter sitting in the middle of it.