R is for Rocket
This shot from NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" archive reminds me that yes, there are things that I occasionally miss about living in central Florida.
Back in the mid-1990s, I'd take every chance I could to go see a space shuttle launch, and it was always just flat-out incredible.
During one of the years when I worked the 4:45 p.m.-1:15 a.m. shift in the composing room at The Orlando Sentinel, Jenn and I got up way before dawn one morning to go see a launch, and later, I wrote the following essay. I submitted it to the paper as a guest column, and they accepted it, which was absolutely jaw-dropping since I was still working on actually getting my writing published.
Then someone up in editorial realized I worked at the paper, and they withdrew their acceptance, giving me some bullshit about how the paper couldn't run "My Word" columns by employees, which I thought was a total crock.
Re-reading it is kind of weird. Its "then-present" tense wants to pull me in a lot of reminiscing directions, for starters. And even though it's in a voice that I recognize as my own, it's also a voice that's changed in the decade-and-a-half since this was written. Both of those things make me happy that I've kept it.
4 a.m. Shrill alarm. Bare feet and a cold floor. Maybe I shouldn't have gone to bed at all instead of opting for the two hours of sleep I managed to sneak, despite being excited after getting off work at 1:30.
Rubbing my eyes, I shuffled to the kitchen and managed to start a pot of coffee without spilling too many grounds. That done, the jittes of the night before (hours before?) slowly returned as morning stomach butterflies.
I've lived in Orlando about two and a half years, and during that time I've watched about five space shuttle launches from various place: my apartment balcony, a friend's swimming pool, a downtown parking lot, and the shore of Lake Ivanhoe.
I even watched one go up at 1:15 a.m. It set the Orlando sky ablaze and amazingly rumbled the warm air.
But I've never seen one from up close in Titusville. ("Up close" being a relative term, I suppose. The locals tell me their town lies about eight miles from the launch pads across the Indian River, give or take.) And that's what Jenn and I were after, stumbling half-awake in the darkness before dawn.
We threw some blankets and pillows in the back of the car, and the binoculars and camera, too. Then, under a chill and stardust sky, we cracked the windows of the car and headed out an empty State Route 50 eastbound.
Well before the I-95 interchange, we could make out a far beam of white stabbing the horizon, marking the great lights around Atlantis. Arriving in Titusville at six, and turning left at the river, we stared over the dark water at the cluster of lights and inky silhouettes of Kennedy Space Center, their silence and stillness masking the skittering of an army of workers in preparation for the space shot.
We saw a few cars parked on the wide grassy berm, and pulled over next to a small Rotary park facing KSC. Two men with video cameras sat chatting softly in the square pavilion.
While Jenn made a breakfast run to the McDonald's just up the road, I chose a grassy spot above the rocks at the water's edge, and spread our blankets in the thick dew. When she got back, we took turns eating and looking through the binoculars at the sparkling tangles of iron and light, catching glimpses now and then of the gases venting from the tip of the shuttle, fluttering in the slowly brightening sky.
The water lapped the mossy stones, stirring a not unpleasant tang of seaweed and fish into the cool salty air. Bulb-bellied pelicans skimmed the water for breakfast as the sun finally broke the horizon in a hot glow of red.
More people began to arrive, disheveled and bleary, toting lawn chairs and radios and cameras, and driven by the same caffeine thrill of watching real people, just like us, ride a rocket to the sky.
I'd be a tremendous liar if I said I wasn't disappointed to the core when the launch was scrubbed at T-Minus five minutes or so. And if I said I wasn't bitter at the reason: bad weather overseas at all three emergency landing sites. I was crushed. Even more so when the launch went as scheduled the next morning, since I couldn't make the trip.
But I know the reasons, and they're good ones, really. Going to the stars doesn't leave room for mistakes. And I know I'll get my chance to see another launch.
And all in all, there are far worse ways to spend a morning than sitting cross-legged on the ground, sharing food, and watching the sun rise over the ocean.
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