When I tell people part of my job is covering rocket launches, it makes my work seem glamorous. And sure, it’s amazing to see one in person—I can’t describe the rush, the feeling of seeing something leave Earth, knowing it’s bound for things beyond the confines of our planet.
But mostly, it’s just a whole lot of sitting around. What gets hidden behind the mystique of being a space reporter is … all the waiting. Rocket launches are boring for hours, days, sometimes even weeks—and it’s all worth it for the minutes you watch it lift off.
The thing is, you never know what’s going to happen until you get there. The week before last, I traveled down to the Space Coast of Florida to hopefully see the launch of Artemis I in person. The Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s new moon rocket, is one of the most powerful in human history, and I wanted to be there for its initial liftoff.
I arrived bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and full of optimism that SLS was indeed going to take off as scheduled on August 29. That never happened. Instead, the ensuing days were spent seeing friends and trying to plan coverage for a launch that kept getting delayed (I was there as a freelancer, and was largely looking to write post-launch pieces about why it matters, because it does matter)—and playing video games.
Until the Steam Deck, I wasn’t a huge fan of portable gaming. I enjoy my Nintendo Switch, but there have never been enough must-have titles to make it an essential travel bag item. The Steam Deck is different, though. I’m on the road a lot for work, and it has gone everywhere with me—including to the SLS launch.
To watch SLS fly at 8:33 am Eastern, when the launch window opened, I had to wake up—let me repeat that, I had to wake up—at 11:30 pm. The crowds were expected to be massive, up to 200,000 people, and I didn’t want to miss the prelaunch events because I was stuck in traffic. Also, there were 700 members of the press accredited for this launch, and let me tell you how the press parking lot and bullpen at Kennedy Space Center cannot hold that many people. I didn’t want to end up in a Hunger Games situation for parking and a seat, so early/late it was.
I arrived at the press site around 1 am, and after claiming my spot in the bullpen, there wasn’t a lot to do. I chatted with some friends, as bleary eyed as I was, and then … well, I just waited.
The novelty wore off pretty fast. It was steamy-hot outside—we’re talking Florida swamp in August—and freezing cold in the air-conditioned press room. And we had hours and hours to wait. My shoes were wet because I’d trekked through the grass to see the rocket lit up at night (an understandable desire), but the varying temperatures meant that my feet were cold and were never going to dry out.
That’s about when I decided to head to my car. I’d thrown a blanket and pillow in the back of the rental upon leaving my Airbnb. I climbed into the backseat, took off my shoes, and put them in front of the A/C vents, got under the blanket, pulled out my Steam Deck, and fired up Mass Effect: Andromeda.
I didn’t get to play for long—everything went to shit pretty soon after. During the tanking process—when the rocket is loaded up with fuel—there was a liquid hydrogen leak. While the team was able to troubleshoot that, they were stymied by an engine that refused to cool properly. (SLS engines have to be very cold in order to ignite, and this one wasn’t. It was later determined to be a faulty sensor.)
But having that escape from the hustle and bustle—especially one where everyone was sleep-deprived, anxious, and uncomfortable—was incredibly nice. And when the rocket didn’t launch as scheduled, it gave me something to do as I waited at the press site for hours while traffic died down.
I never got to see a rocket go up that day, or in the days after. I don’t know if I’ll have the flexibility to make it down for the SLS’s next attempt, but what I do know is that my Steam Deck will be a must-have for any future trek to the Space Coast.