Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
The first panel shows a rocket launch, which is a critical point in any space mission. Before this moment, a large technical staff has put in years of hard work, but all that work (and even lives) could be destroyed in a second if anything goes wrong during the launch. T-Minus 2 minutes means that there are only two minutes left before the rocket is actually launched, so at this moment everybody is very nervous and worried about the launch going wrong. Other texts from the panel refer to the usual checks before the launch, whose end is to ensure everything is ready.
In the second panel, one of the people controlling the launch sees a "cool bird" on the live feed from the cameras controlling the operation. This should be of no importance at all, given the relatively much more serious matter of having years of work and possibly human lives at stake. However, the technical staff starts commenting on this cool bird and aborts the launch procedure as they are interested in the bird. This behavior would be absurd in real life.
In the third panel, the two controllers attempt to identify the bird; the one on the right guesses maybe it is a hawk. Since the habitat of hawks and vultures overlap almost entirely, a birdwatcher is almost certain to accidentally confuse the two in their lifetime of birdwatching. Obviously having this knowledge of the habitat overlap, the controller on the left asks if the bird was a vulture. The controller on the right accurately notes that it probably was not a vulture since it is commonly known to ornithologists that vultures "hold their wings slightly raised in a "V" when seen head on.". However, this demands that the original sighting of the bird must have included a flight pattern in which the bird not only "flew past the tower" as stated, but also flew towards the tower... even cooler!
The title text goes on with the same absurd behavior: the crew restarts the countdown to launch the rocket, but only to follow the bird and get a closer look at it. The original space mission the rocket was designed for is completely ignored. This is even more absurd than the initial interest in the bird, given that a rocket designed to enter outer space is ill equipped to try to follow a bird and maneuver at the low elevation and at the relatively slow speed of a bird.
This could also be a joke in the well known fanaticism of serious bird watchers, who think nothing of spur of the moment day long road trips (or flights!) in order to get to view an unusual bird.
The vehicle pictured is not clearly identified, and it could also be totally fictional. It could be the Atlas V or the Ariane 4 launch vehicle. It also shows some similarity with the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy launch vehicle (albeit with stubbier strap-on boosters), named after the Falcon, another bird of prey. This would increase the absurdity of the situation.
The bird being referred to by the launch-crew features as a mere mark on the comic-strip, consistent with scale against the rocket, but they are obviously trying to start to identify the rough species or group it belongs to from the wing geometry, the effortlessly soaring carrion-seeking vulture and the hawk that often uses a swooping attack upon its prey typically having very different wing configurations as matches their evolved lifestyle.
- [A rocket is about to launch. A small object is near the top of the rocket.]
- Countdown: T-Minus 2 minutes
- Offscreen Voice 1: Tank and booster are go for launch.
- Offscreen Voice 2: Safety console?
- Offscreen Voice 3: Check. Safety-
- Offscreen Voice 4: Wait.
- [The small object moves to further to the right.]
- Offscreen Voice 1: What is it?
- Offscreen Voice 2: On the live feed- a cool bird just flew past the tower!
- [The launch scene now a background silhouette, the small object of everyone's attention is no longer on-panel.]
- Offscreen Voice 1: Whoa, what kind?
- Offscreen Voice 2: Like a hawk, maybe!
- Offscreen Voice 1: Could it be a vulture?
- Offscreen Voice 2: I doubt it. The wings were flat, not in a "V".
- Offscreen Voice 3: It could be an eagle!
- Offscreen Voice 2: Ooh!
- [The scene is returns to full contrast, with at least a token attention being paid to it, once more.]
- Offscreen Voice 1: This is launch control. We have a possible sighting of a cool bird. Halt the countdown.
- Offscreen Voice 2: Someone get some binoculars up here!
- Offscreen Voice 3: I want to see!
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Looks like a Falcon Heavy to me. :) So I guess the bird is some kind of falcon. 18.104.22.168 08:21, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
- Could it be related to this? First flight of Falcon Heavy delayed again. 22.214.171.124 10:04, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
If I recall correctly, during rocket launches they use visual inspection to ensure nothing is close to the launch vehicle. I don't know if large birds are an issue for a rocket, but I can well imagine they are. In classical XKCD fashion the characters totally go overboard on that tangent. 126.96.36.199 08:26, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
- Rockets generally produces lot of noise and hot gasses. I doubt any bird is stupid enough to stay around THAT. Also, there is no air intake on rockets - it's hitting the air intake of motors which is dangerous to aircraft. -- Hkmaly (talk) 14:17, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
- Birds have damaged aircraft windscreens. I believe the bipod ramp that brought down Columbia was smaller than a large bird. It's not at all clear that a bird will be able to take evasive action. Rockets accelerate hard, and a birds normal collision avoidance is to dive, which doesn't help when a rocket is headed straight up.
- I believe the bipod ramp was harder than a bird. And I was talking about hitting bird in first phase of start, hoping that when the rocket gets to higher speeds it's already higher than birds fly ... although I have no idea if that's correct. -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:33, 31 October 2015 (UTC)
Unrelated: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/roadkill_prt.htm --188.8.131.52 20:29, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
- Also, Cape Canaveral is a bird sanctuary that actually houses eagles and hawks. So this is a VERY realistic situation. And that's not gas you see, its superheated water. The more you know.
http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=41570 184.108.40.206 02:36, 29 October 2015 (UTC)
It could be a reference to "The Martian" where a bird flies into view on the Live Feed as they are about to launch the supply probe. It later fails when it tries to go sideways. RIIW - Ponder it (talk) 10:35, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
- Reference and coincidence are not synonyms. reference: a thing you say or write that mentions somebody/something else . 220.127.116.11 15:19, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
I changed the transcript a little - it's clear from the comic that there are at least four people involved, as opposed to a back-and-forth between two people.18.104.22.168 17:00, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
Ah... the person who discretely (and/or discreetly!) added the link the Atlas V, regarding the rocket profile, I think you've nailed it. Looks very much more like the New Horizons launch stack than any of the alternatives I've so far reviewed. (I checked Atlas V, when looking around, but must have missed the half-height double-booster-set/large-shroud picture further down that page. For better comparison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NewHorizons_Rocket_Bly.jpg ) 22.214.171.124 18:04, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
I'm sorry, but what exactly does Randall's drawing having a resemblance to a type of real-life rocket have anything to do with the point of the comic? The comic is more centered on the foolishness of Ground Control then what kind of rocket is being used. Or maybe it's that very same Ground Control writing the explanation and getting distracted so easily ( ._.)..... Schiffy (Speak to me|What I've done) 23:27, 28 October 2015 (UTC)
Let us not forget the brouhaha over Space Frog (ABC News Coverage) and Space Bat (NASA Press Release). Twitter exploded over Space Frog. --Run, you clever boy (talk) 00:28, 29 October 2015 (UTC)
I think this might be a joke on live broadcasts of rocket launches. It sounds pretty exciting at first, but it often turns out to be a pretty dull affair, because endless delays mean you end up watching a motionless rocket on the launch pad for hours on end, and you turn desperate for anything interesting happening AT ALL, like maybe a bird flying by. (At least it was like that when I was a child, haven't watched any rocket launches for ages. Guess why) ----126.96.36.199 13:16, 29 October 2015 (UTC)
Might as well be a shot at the habits of telescope related personnel in general. The most interesting objects to look at are often those with insufficient resolution - in this case some pixels of a certain avian variety. In a way, fuzzy white spots on Ceres leave more room for imagination than detailed close-ups of Saturn's rings. Also, the more powerful your telescope is, the more faint the targeted objects are gonna be in return - so when analyzing imagery, you are mostly looking at tiny specks of light, even with Hubble. The title text proposing to change the rocket's inclination reminds me of decisions to chose where cameras of space probes or mars rovers are to be pointed at (respecting limited time, energy and bandwidth). 188.8.131.52 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
The rocket resembles more an Ariane 4 launch vehicle than an Atlas V or the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy. --184.108.40.206 11:57, 3 November 2015 (UTC)
The rocket and comic also resemble Roscosmos' Proton rocket, with the situation being an American/avian version of the [groundhog living at the Baikonur cosmodrome https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0E9kmGKysc ]. 220.127.116.11 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
 Comparison to real rockets
Here's a comparison to the Titan III-B Centaur, the Atlas V 551, the Ariane 4, and the Falcon Heavy. http://i.imgur.com/uU3gPTD.jpg I believe it's a Titan.