My first question to myself, last night, was, “What is this?” Is this a comet? Seems too low… too close... to be a comet. It can’t be a meteor (or is it meteorite?) because the burn is too long. Perhaps a large satellite reentering the earth's atmosphere? I wasn’t seeing multiple pieces so it didn’t seem likely it would have broken cleanly, in half, unless by deign. But I couldn’t figure out the plume. It wasn’t debris. It seemed more like gaseous smoke or contrails. A long, thin jellyfish stretched out behind it, with some event that had happened a minute or so before I looked up into the sky; that event seemed to produced the puff of smoke. I imagine that was the reason why there was a second piece trailing and falling behind the lead object.
I was trying to figure out if the object was burning up from reentry or still burning fuel and climbing up. This is when I wondered if it was the sun that was illuminating the object's contrail. It was hard to judge direction. I couldn't tell if it was moving up and away, or was it moving up and to the direct left.
What was the second object, chasing it? For pure emotional reasons, it felt to me like it had been a part of the the other object. Then I realized it was definitely the sun illuminating this slow, powerful, silent dance in the sky. It didn’t seem at all like danger or a demonstration of war. All these thoughts went through my head in the course of 90 seconds as I snapped photos and recorded video.
What if this had to do with North Korea? We'd have nukes in subs on their doorstep, so this rocket wouldn't be outgoing. Hopefully not something from over there, headed in our direction. I don't want to be in a war that I'm not a part of. Plus, this didn't have the feel of a surface-to-surface ballistic missile.
I calmly got back into my car realizing that I would soon know what I saw since I was witnessing this with thousands of others.
These were my candid thoughts as I posted to social media while explicitly discerning fact from speculation. Social media lit up with photos and videos of the same event. At this point, this event had become a shared experience as I saw other’s view points. No one speculated conspiracy theories, that I saw. Although I did see comments that the vapor trail was self-illuminating, there was a pilot ejection, and someone thought they saw a chute. No reasonable person would think they saw the ejection, etc, if they actually knew what it was they were looking at. This is how human brains work – we speculate to fill in the blanks. We want answers – that’s a big part of what makes a loud cell phone conversation in a restaurant more annoying than two patrons speaking at the same volume. The listener can only hear one side of the conversation and the more of the conversation missed, the more annoying it becomes.
I realized that this didn't feel like a bad thing. It was an experience to share – it couldn’t help but be shared. This was a big event in the hands of a small number of people, so it better be good because otherwise we'd be glimpsing of the power of the gods as they battled it out over our heads.
About 20 minutes after last night's event, I learned that I witnessed a SpaceX rocket launch from Vandenberg AFB. It was seen from Southern California to Arizona to Santa Cruz. I got a little annoyed at myself for not even considering that it could be a rocket launch and staging. In 1996, as I was driving from San Clemente to UCI, I saw what I mistakenly thought was an F/A-18 flying straight up – I thought it came from El Toro MCAS. But it kept going up and up. It, too, was a rocket launch from Vandenberg into orbit.
It’s a huge production to put a vehicle into orbit, which many got to see, last night. And when it catches you off guard, it feels alien.