Shooting stars streak through the night sky above Florida's Space Coast as the Perseid meteor shower approaches its peak. Mars glows red in the predawn hours, hovering over the crowds of onlookers. But the people gathered here at Kennedy Space Center have not come to view these astronomical phenomena.
On the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the 30-story-tall Delta IV Heavy is already loaded with 460,000 gallons of fuel. An ominous warning about security responsibility blares over the loudspeaker. The $ 1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe sits atop the rocket, ready for its 3:31 am. liftoff.
In the minutes before the building-sized vehicle attempts to break the grip of gravity, the crowd goes silent. Then suddenly the countdown begins over the loudspeakers. Before the clock hits zero, a bright orange blaze engulfs the lower half of the rocket-a quirk of its RS-68A engines firing up-mimicking the sun itself and illuminating the surrounding area.