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Let's do Launch

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.:
BLASTOFF!

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.

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