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.