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I ticked ‘watching a rocket launch’ off my bucket list. But it was nothing like SpaceX and Blue Origin missions because the spacecraft took off horizontally.

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Cosmic GirlVirgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl armed with the LauncherOne rocket under its wing.

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

  • I attended a rocket launch for the first time, ticking a goal off my bucket list.
  • It wasn’t like any rocket launch I’d watched on livestreams.
  • Virgin Orbit’s rocket was carried into the sky by a Boeing 747 and then released at 35,000 feet.
I’d always dreamed of going to a rocket launch in person. My dream became a reality on January 9 when I went to watch Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit blast its LauncherOne rocket from Spaceport Cornwall in the UK.The Virgin Orbit Launcher One rocket is displayed on the opening day of the Story of a Satellite summer exhibition at Spaceport Cornwall on Aug 2, 2021 in Newquay, England.

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But it was unlike any space launch I’d seen online. Rockets operated by SpaceX and Blue Origin take off vertically. But Virgin Orbit is different.A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches alongside picture of Blue Origin launch

Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Virgin Orbit, founded by Richard Branson, used a repurposed Boeing 747 plane called Cosmic Girl to carry LauncherOne into the skies. The rocket was strapped under the plane’s left wing.Cosmic Girl

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

At the public viewing area at the spaceport, a life-size replica of Virgin Orbit’s 70-foot-long LaucherOne rocket took center stage.Replica of LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall.

Kate Duffy/Insider

I was surprised to find Virgin Orbit had set up a silent disco and a variety of food trucks in the spaceport. They helped visitors keep warm and pass the time in the excitement before the launch.Silent disco, food truck at launch event.

Kate Duffy/Insider

The atmosphere was exhilarating, and the event would be a historic landmark for the UK’s space industry. But it wasn’t going to look like a rocket launch. There would be no firing engines, smoke, or astronauts.Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, takes off from Cornwall Airport Newquay on January 9, 2023 in Newquay, United Kingdom.

Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

Thousands of spectators turned up to the spaceport to watch the launch, which looked like a plane taking off — though this plane had a rocket strapped to the side and a “payload” of nine satellites inside.Spectators watch on a big screen at Cornwall Airport Newquay as the LauncherOne rocket is launched from Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400, on January 9, 2023 in Newquay, United Kingdom.

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Unlike SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets, Virgin Orbit’s spacecraft is not reusable after launch. The rocket parts burn up in the atmosphere during their journey, leading to concerns about their environmental impact.A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named Cosmic Girl, carrying Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, takes off from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport, Newquay.

Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Emma, who lives a 15-minute drive from the spaceport, told me that people shouldn’t criticize the launch because of any contribution to climate change. “It’s not as if it happens every day,” she said.People set up chairs at fence at Spaceport Cornwall.

Kate Duffy/Insider

Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said in a prelaunch conference that she wanted to do a better job at getting technology into space in a more responsible, sustainable, and ethical way, without expanding on how she planned to do this.Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, speaks during a press conference at Cornwall Airport on January 08, 2023 in Newquay, England.

Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

“You’re going to get some people who are anti-everything,” Sue Nuttall, another Cornish resident, told me. Cornwall is known as a place where British people go to retire, but Nuttall said “we’ve got to forget that now” and give the area a new identity as a space region.Cosmic Girl in distance at Spaceport Cornwall.

Kate Duffy/Insider

Spectators like me watched the plane take off to the Rolling Stones song “Start Me Up” — which was also the name of the mission — blasting from speakers, but we were unable to see the rocket detach from the aircraft because it was released over the Atlantic Ocean, miles away from the spaceport.Spectators at Spaceport Cornwall watch Virgin Orbit launch.

Kate Duffy/Insider

After takeoff, some spectators headed to the food trucks and returned with cheesy chips to warm them up. Others were glued to their phones, tracking the plane’s journey.Spectators check phones at launch to track plane.

Kate Duffy/Insider

When the plane reached 35,000 feet in altitude, the pilots in Cosmic Girl pressed a big red button to release the rocket, which then accelerated into space with the help of its first-stage engine.Virgin Orbit Boeing 747Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl releases a LauncherOne rocket test article in mid-air for the first time during a July 2019 test.

Greg Robinson/Virgin Orbit

But there was a problem. LauncherOne failed to reach orbit because of an “anomaly,” Virgin Orbit said, announcing the technical failure one hour and 45 minutes after we saw the plane leave. The saddened spectators then started to leave the viewing area.Cosmic Girl next to Spaceport Cornwall.

Virgin Orbit

There was supposed to be a celebration when the aircraft crew met the rest of the crowd, but this was called off. I was disappointed to find out the next day that the rocket and its payload of nine satellites had fallen back down to Earth.Spaceport Cornwall

Kate Duffy/Insider

Even though Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed and all I saw was a plane take off, the event was unforgettable. I wasn’t expecting a silent disco and food trucks at a rocket launch. It was also something spectacular for Cornwall, and I could see the residents were buzzing with excitement about the idea of their quiet seaside town making history.Insider reporter in front of LauncherOne rocket replica.

Kate Duffy/Insider

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