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My EPIC Experience Watching My First Ever Space Rocket Launch—the Long March 5—at China's Wenchang Space Satellite Launch Center!
I caught my first ever rocket launch of the Long March 5 in Wenchang, China on July 2, 2017, and boy was it a hell of an experience.
First off, I'm a big fan of NASA and anything space related. Black holes, UFOs, sci-fi flicks, space tech; these are subjects that I've been very fond of since I was old enough to read books and watch TV.
And nothing would please me more than to catch a live NASA space shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral. In fact, this dream currently withholds the #1 spot on my list of things to see before I kick the bucket.
It's just something about watching a shuttle or rocket blast off into space. It not only embodies the marvelous advances made by mankind and the possibilities to come, but it also evokes a strong sense of achievement and pride in one's country that is unparalled.
Back in 2015 I made the first 'small step'; I had the opportunity to see a real NASA space shuttle—the Endeavor Shuttle—at the Mission 26: The Big Endeavor Exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Observing a real space shuttle up close was mind blowing!
What was the next step? Catching a live rocket launch—the Long March 5 launch—from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in China, my home of the past five and a half years.
Day 1 of my trip to Wenchang started off with a mid-day, 3-hour flight from Shanghai.
After landing at Haikou Meilan International Airport I hopped on a high-speed train at Meilan Railway Station and arrived at Wenchang Railway Station in less than 20 minutes.
From there I waved down a "taxi" and negotiated a price of 150rmb to take me to my hotel, which was an hour away.
I checked into Moonbay Bedom Apartments, a sprawling complex situated up the street from a beach but surrounded by absolutely nothing else but trees and a highway, just after 11pm. Day 1 was officially over.
Day 2 in Wenchang began around 12:30pm. The launch didn't start until 7:30pm so I had plenty of time to sleep in. I woke up starving so the first thing I did was throw on some clothes and head over to the hotel across the street for lunch.
The menu was riddled with Chinese cuisine that I had eaten a hundred times over but the dishes I ordered managed to taste delicious and fill me up nevertheless.
Next up was a trip to the beautiful beach just outside the hotel. It was blazing hot outside so I'd spend the next hour basking underneath the waves and testing out my GoPro Hero 5 to see if it'd work underwater. Thank God it did!
By 15:00 I had made my way back to the hotel, took a quick shower, put on my clothes, charged up my camera batteries, and left out by 16:00 for the satellite launch center.
The first thing I did was ask the hotel manager to call a taxi for me but she said there were no taxis around. Womp. She said I should try the bus, but a security guard at the front of the hotel claimed that buses weren't running this day. Womp. I was shit out of luck, but I didn't want to give up. Heck, I was willing to hitchhike along the road if I had to!
I made my way outside of my hotel complex when I stumbled upon a group of early 20-something-year-old looking Chinese guys sitting at the bus stop along the road. First I asked if any of them spoke English. Two did, though not that good. Check. Next I asked if they knew if the bus was running. They said it was. Check. Then I told them that I was heading to see the Long March 5 launch. They said they were going there too and I could follow them. H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H! H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H! Did you see the bright golden light shine down from above too?
The bus arrived within 10 minutes and we were on our way, all for a measly 10rmb.
To our surprise, fifteen minutes into the ride we were stopped at a security check that lied about 3km from the entrance of the satellite launch tourist center.
All passengers had to get off the bus, pass through a metal detector, have their luggage screened, and face the presence of 2 dozen or so members of police, the army, and even bomb sniffing dogs all squeezed into a tight area. They weren't playing around!
And then it happened: 15 minutes later we arrived at the Wenchang satellite launch tourist center. I was more than thrilled by the fact that I actually made it, but there was just one problem.
The security at the entrance informed us that we needed tickets to enter, and all the tickets had already been sold out. DAMN!
After some careful "sweet talk" the security had informed us that we could wait around until 6:30pm when more people arrived and he'd see about getting us in. And that's what we did.
Over the next hour and a half we'd step off to the side, chill out, and make small conversation. We chatted about everything from basketball and popular sports in China to famous Chinese actresses and the Kardashians. You heard me, the Kardashians! They wondered why the family became so popular all across the world. And well...oh brother.
By 6pm we made our way back to the entrance and the security told us it was okay to go in to buy tickets. Yes! However, this time around he suddenly mentioned that as a foreigner I wasn't allowed to go too far in at some point to watch the launch. C'mon man!
Before arriving into Wenchang I had already known that China's space program was very secretive and that foreigners weren't allowed to visit most launch centers scattered around the country, including the Jiuquan and Xichang facilities. Yet, my Chinese friends had done some research and told me that the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center was open to all tourist; well, at least it's viewing area.
Nevertheless I was committed. One of the guys from the group went in, bought our tickets for 30rmb a pop, and we made our way to the security check.
"This is it", I thought. They'd probably say turn around and leave as soon as they saw me.
I went first. A guard looked at me with surprise then asked for my ticket. I walked through a detector and within 5 seconds I was still alive and kicking on the other side. THAT was it! I didn't need to show my passport, answer any questions, or anything. We all made it in without a problem.
Now I must admit, the satellite launch-viewing center was definitely not what I thought.
Inside there was a massive open space riddled with thousands of chairs, a stage, and a large screen showcasing a live shot of the Long March 5. What the f@#!
I could see the command center and actual launch pad of the rocket but it lied in the far distance; I thought it'd be closer.
The guys had found out that there was in fact a closer viewing platform somewhere in the area but those tickets were definitely unattainable at this point. So, we grabbed our seats and took in the sights.
The party began around 6:50pm, where we had the chance to watch a few entertaining musical acts on stage. I wondered if the launch site at Cape Canaveral was this entertaining?
After awhile I made my way around the premises and stumbled on a few interesting items, including a mini-museum that housed real artifacts from China's satellites and rocket ships, and a large replica of a rocket ship.
I also made my way over to some booths that sold delicious fruit drinks and pancakes. I couldn't resist grabbing a mouthwatering coconut milk drink, after all, I was in Hainan.
By 7:15pm everyone's eyes were glued to the big screen as an announcer began a countdown initiation.
5...4...3...2...1 and boom! Jets of fire unleashed below the rocket and lit up the screen. Within 5 seconds the whole audience stood on their feet and turned to catch the first live glimpse of the Long March 5 rocket slowly lifting off into the sky.
Everyone in attendance had his or her phone out to record the scene, including me. I used one hand to record video using my Canon camera and the other to take pictures with my GoPro Hero 5.
Within the first minute of the Long March 5 lift off I had felt extremely elated. I was watching my first ever rocket launch ever in China and I could feel the sense of pride and accomplishment spewing from the thousands of locals around me.
What's more, it was the coolest thing in the world to actually see this massive object being propelled into space. I couldn't help but think of all the science, tech, and manpower that went into preparing for such a momentous occasion.
Additionally, one thing I'll never forget was that the first 15 seconds of the launch produced the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life, especially considering how far we were viewing it from. The entire experience was incredible!
Before long the Long March 5 had become a small burst of light miles above us and it had gotten so high that even its smoke trail had almost disappeared.
With that the guys and I agreed that we'd hurry up and leave the premises before the crowds.
Strangely enough, there were no taxis or illegal cab hawkers waiting for visitors outside. In fact, it was a pretty dead scene. That was a first!
Furthermore, the guys couldn't pick up a Didi, aka Uber, and so I convinced them to walk towards a bus station we had passed on the way to the site. They wound up hailing down a taxi but they insisted that the driver take me home first—he'd charge me 100rmb, which was ridiculous—and then return to pick them up. No kidding, these were some of the nicest people I had ever met!
Just then a motorcycle taxi pulled up and after letting him know where I lived, he offered to give me a ride for a mere 30rmb. B-O-O-Y-A-H! I said my thanks and goodbyes to the group and made off down the pitch-black highway at 60-70km an hour for 20 minutes straight on the motorcycle. I feared for my life quietly!
Watching my first ever space rocket launch in China was an experience of a lifetime, and I was very lucky to have had everything go as smoothly as it did along the way. One day I'll make a journey over to NASA's Cape Canaveral launch site to watch some real American power blast off into the cosmos. And when I do, you better believe that I'll have another story to tell!
Safe and happy travels!
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