My cousin Sue is a NASA junkie. She actually applied to the astronaut program during college. She has models of the space shuttle and the starship Enterprise on her law office desk in San Francisco. I've always indulged this obsession of hers, but when she suggested we meet at the Kennedy Space Center for a shuttle launch, I was dubious. I live in New York City and define outer space as the roof deck on my apartment building. But she persisted until I booked a flight to Orlando for a recent launch of the Endeavor.
Sue and I both did research--she by logging on to NASA-related Web sites and visiting the agency's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, I by investigating central Florida restaurants and renting Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and Armageddon. (To my disappointment, my video store didn't carry any episodes of I Dream of Jeannie.)
I booked us a room at the Titusville Holiday Inn, a two-story motel on Florida's Space Coast. Our window had a view of the parking lot and, across the Indian River lagoon, of the Kennedy Space Center itself (referred to both in print and conversation as KSC--initials that, to me, always conjure up Colonel Sanders).
For our three-day stay, I'd brought a small carry-on. Sue was lugging a huge suitcase crammed with cameras, binoculars, a spotting scope, a heavy-duty tripod, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and pounds of research material. In our hotel room the first night, while I combed the Yellow Pages for area restaurants, she spouted information about the current space mission, the mechanics of the launch, NASA's mandate for the future, and--most interesting to me--the toilet habits of the astronauts.
"They wear diapers," she told me, "because they have to sit strapped in for five hours or more during the launch sequence and can't get up. And the G force is so intense during blastoff that the pressure on the bladder makes you pee."
Relieved that I was not an astronaut, I turned out the light, ready for bed. Sue, much too excited to sleep, rattled on about inner-ear experiments in a weightless environment. Finally I suggested she put a pillow over her head. I fell asleep to her muffled voice: "Take me along, please; I'm little, I won't take up much room. . . . First lawyer in space . . ."
My cousin had enlisted me for this trip because she correctly assumed I could obtain some press passes that would allow us a closer view of the launch. Early the next morning, we set out to get our press accreditation, stopping first at the Holiday Inn coffee shop for breakfast. Behind our table was an etched-glass mural incorporating palm trees, flamingos, and the space shuttle--a motif we would encounter frequently on the Space Coast.
"Two cappuccinos," we told our friendly waitress.
She shook her head.
"Two lattes?" I ventured.
"Honey, you'd have to drive about forty miles to get one of those." We settled for toast, watery orange juice, and bad coffee.
The press accreditation building is a dreary cinder-block shack plunked down in the middle of the flat marshland that is KSC. The woman who took care of us was friendly, and kept sneezing violently. I asked if she had a cold.
"Nope. I'm allergic to Florida. Been sneezing since I got here."
"And how long ago was that?"
"Nineteen-eighty," she said, deadpan.
Everybody on the Space Coast, we soon discovered, is almost disconcertingly friendly. The guard at the Press Site gate actually leaned into our car and said, "Smile. You're not smiling." Sue decided that they're all really aliens (she's an X-Files fan, too).
We stopped smiling, though, when the friendly lady in the press center told us that the launch scheduled for four o'clock the next morning was a "sixty percent no go" because of a rainstorm moving in from offshore. To cheer ourselves up, we went to the staff cafeteria for lunch. Although it was a humid 86 degrees outside, the menu of the day featured Yankee pot roast, chicken À la king, and deep-fried okra. I dined on yogurt and a can of V8. It started pouring just as we boarded the bus for a tour of KSC. Our guide was very friendly. ("All aliens are friendly at first," Sue whispered in warning.)
We stared as our bus approached the biggest building I've ever seen. It blotted out the sun. The NASA logo and an American flag were painted on one side. Even I had to gawk. "The Vehicle Assembly Building is the second-largest building in the country," our guide told us proudly. (The Boeing assembly plant in Washington State is the largest.) "You could drive our bus up one of those flag stripes."
Next, we rode out to the shuttle landing strip, stopping briefly by a swamp to take pictures of the alligators, which were big and impressive. Depending on whom you're talking to, there are either 1,000 or 5,000 of them at KSC. There are also 1,200 acres of citrus groves, which made me wonder why our morning glass of "Florida sunshine" was not fresh.
The landing strip proved to be just an unusually long stretch of tarmac in the middle of nowhere. A determined Sue got off the bus with her camera and binoculars.
"Don't go far," the guide warned.
"No," he said. "Snakes."
I stayed on the bus, longing for a latte.
That afternoon we visited the KSC Visitor Complex, which looks just like a Florida theme park, because it is a Florida theme park--with a Rocket Garden, exhibition halls, a walk-through shuttle replica, restaurants with names like the Orbit and the Lunch Pad, an IMAX movie theater, and families in Bermuda shorts strolling around eating ice cream cones. While Sue headed for the Space Shop to load up on souvenirs, I visited a display of space-flight memorabilia. Two women stood in front of Gordon Cooper's space suit. "Now, which one was Gordon Cooper?" one asked.
"You remember," her friend replied. "Dennis Quaid. The cocky one." They'd done their research too.
At 5 p.m. the skies cleared. We returned to our motel room for an evening nap, then left for the launch at midnight. In our motel's parking lot, a man in a folding chair was selling spaces for $5. The roadside was lined with cars vying for vantage points. I started to get excited.
There are many official and unofficial places from which to watch the shuttle launch, both within and outside of KSC. The media viewing area is a mosquito-infested grandstand beside a swamp, a few miles from the launch pad. Sue set up her viewing scope near the press photographers and TV cameras and ran around talking to everyone. I headed for the NASA Snack Mobile, parked just behind the stands, where a friendly lady was selling doughnuts, coffee, and sandwiches.
For four hours, I swatted mosquitoes, kept an eye out for alligators, and read The New Yorker. But during the final minutes of the countdown, I got caught up in the drama. We all surged forward to the water's edge.
At T minus 19 seconds, an alarm went off in the shuttle and the countdown suddenly stopped. We held our collective breath while they checked it out. Finally, an official voice came over the loudspeaker.
It's a go!
We cheered and clapped. But just as our applause died down, the voice spoke again.
We're sorry. We missed our launch window by two seconds. It's a no go.
The lights blinked out in the stands. Silently, everyone turned to leave. Sue was holding back tears. I was stunned. It was like the curtain not rising on the opening night of a Broadway show, only worse--and far more costly. Fortunately, the launch was rescheduled for the following night.
Up at nine and loopy from lack of sleep, we ate breakfast at the Lunch Pad, KSC's fast-food restaurant. Sue went back to the Space Shop to buy astronaut flight suit pajamas with little feet. I relaxed, watching alligators slink around the lagoon beneath the Astronaut's Memorial. I was having fun.
Then we joined a tour to the Saturn V display. The bus had a taped commentary by, among others, Sally Ride, Sue's hero. The Saturn V display is hands down the best thing at KSC. It begins with a film on the history of the space program that makes you feel good about being an American--and then, just when you're ready to belt out the national anthem, the doors swing open to a huge hangar where an actual Saturn V rocket (which took "our men" to the moon) lies on its side like a giant Sleeping Buddha. Sue wept with emotion--though she did object to the term manned spaceflight, insisting it be replaced with peopled spaceflight.
By now I was having latte withdrawal. So after the tour we headed down the coast to Cocoa Beach, where I Dream of Jeannie was set. It now appears to be one long strip mall. Our first stop was at Ron Jon, "the world's largest surf shop." Sue wanted to buy something called a "rash guard" for her surfer-lawyer husband. Ron Jon has a café with pictures of lattes on the wall, but the friendly countergirl informed us that they have only the pictures and not actual lattes. Fortunately, one of Sue's NASA contacts had recommended Roberto's Little Havana for good Cuban food, so it was with great relief that we slid into a booth and ordered shrimp with "mucho ajo" (we got a snowstorm of chopped garlic for our linguistic efforts) and delicious café con leche.
We went to sleep at 8 p.m. and again woke up at midnight. Tonight, though, there was no man selling parking spaces at the Holiday Inn, and no traffic on the road. And the press stands were virtually empty when we arrived. Where was everyone?A local newscaster told us he'd seen worse. "Once we had seven no go's in a row. By the last one, no one bothered to show up."
At 3 a.m. people did start trickling in, and the atmosphere was again a strange mix of excitement and insouciance: TV cameras perched next to buckets of Slurpees from 7-Eleven. The mosquitoes were relentless. Sue loaned me some 100 percent deet repellent that melted my plastic pen. She asked me to take her picture in front of the famous countdown clock that we always see on TV. I had her take my picture in front of the NASA Snack Mobile.
T minus nine minutes and holding. Coffee and greasy doughnuts churned in my stomach. Once more, we all pressed forward to the edge of the swamp. T minus three minutes. Two minutes. One. Thirty seconds.
Finally, at 3:36 a.m.:
The ground shook beneath my feet and the sky lit up, bright as the sun. The shuttle, a heroic, gleaming white, seemed to rise so slowly that I doubted it could truly fly. All that bulk and weight! Everyone there--strangers brought together to witness what suddenly appeared to be both a primitive ritual and a futuristic miracle--seemed to be willing the shuttle aloft with faith and good wishes. Standing in the dark on this antediluvian marshland, we were awed into silence--except for one lone voice, which repeated over and over:
"Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God . . ."
Later, Sue told me the voice was mine.