Ten-year-old Sonya Moreno and Morgan Delira didn't sleep.

Growing up in Lompoc, the La Cañada Elementary students said they have seen a lot of rockets and missiles lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. They're normal, they said, and not usually that big of a deal.

But early Saturday morning, the friends and classmates were two of thousands of people flooding the airstrip at Lompoc Airport, eagerly awaiting the launch of NASA's InSight mission to Mars.

"I normally wake up at noon," Sonya said, "but I wanted to wait for the rocket to launch. I'm excited."

"I'm really tired," added Morgan, "but we had to move. This one is historic. It's pretty crazy."

Making the drive from Riverside, Arthur Noguera said his family came to Lompoc to witness the launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base — and wish his daughter, Abigail, goodbye. When the lander touches down on Mars later this year, Abigail Noguera will be one of several million earthlings to land symbolically on the red planet.

"My name is on the rocket," explained Abigail Noguera, referring to two specially designed microchips containing the names of NASA's "frequent flyers." The list, which opened for registration in 2015 and again last October, drew 2.4 million names to be included on InSight's groundbreaking mission — more than the 1.38 million who signed up to "fly" on Orion in 2014.

Leaving Santa Barbara at 2 a.m. with his children, Anya and Kylan, and members of his astronomy club in tow, Erin O'Connor, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Santa Barbara City College, said he brought his group to witness a piece of astronomical history.

"We're very excited about the InSight mission," he said. "What can be more exciting than the interplanetary mission from Vandenberg?"

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"He definitely tries to embarrass us the most he can," chimed in Anya, adjusting the multicolored blanket draped over her head and shoulders. "I'm partially excited — I'm not embarrassed but I'm slightly mad I can't sleep. That's why I brought my bed with me."

When the launch window opened at 4:05 a.m. and the low rumble of an engine could be heard from a distance, Sonya and Morgan, the O'Conners, the Nogueras and all the other stargazers craned their necks to the east — and again to the sky — in hope of catching a glimpse of the Atlas V rocket carrying the InSight lander to new heights.

The runway fell silent as the rumbling grew louder. Thirty seconds later, it was over. 

All the indications that a rocket had launched — the engine rumble, the control room chatter playing in the background — were there, minus the visual of a rocket blasting off. The fog blanketing Lompoc made sure of that.

Some let out confused cheers. Others gave misplaced applause and, at times, a bit of nervous laughter. As the crowd made their way to the gates, groans and grumbles could be heard between the rumble of cars starting.

"This had been on my bucket list all my life," Don Wisebrod, who drove from Castaic with his wife Dianne, said after the launch. "I've got to do it again, so we'll actually see it."

While she believes they may have been able to see the rocket from their house, Dianne said she was not disappointed by the spectacle.

"We're with family and friends — it's the whole experience. That's what we're here for."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga



Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.