An Early Goodbye to an Old, Mistreated Friend
I got a chance to go out to Kennedy Space Center with my son and a good friend of mine the other night to watch one of the shuttles travel by crawler from the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) to the launch pad. Unfortunately due to lightning in the area they didn’t take it out of the building but the whole experience really got me thinking.
I was born and raised here on the Space Coast of Florida. I do, and for the most part have always, lived within fifteen or twenty minutes of the space center. If I had clearance I could drive to the launch pads within half an hour or so. I remember as a child being enthralled by the shuttle. Every time it was going to go up we would have the news on watching in anticipation as they counted down, always wondering if it was really going or if they would have to scrub it at the last second. We would watch the close-ups of the steaming Orbiter on its pad as the commentators made their comments in between launch control checks. Then, as the countdown reached ten, my mom would open the front door and my sister and I would go running out into the yard, necks craned, eyes to the northern sky, mouths stuck in a permagrin as that little white dot followed by its orange glow and brilliantly white tail forced its way upward, cracking the sky in half in its wake. It would reach about a quarter of the way up when the sound finally reached us, a constant low rumble that shook in our stomachs and screamed of power and majesty.
It didn’t always end with the launch either, occasionally it would land in Florida too. If you knew it was coming in you might glimpse it in the sky gliding back down but I seem to remember it always coming back at night, probably because it would always wake you with its double sonic boom that shook every window in the house. I never seemed to of minded.
This excitement lasted until I reached the second grade. I remember our class going outside to watch a launch as we always did. My teacher was new to the area and had never seen one before, it’s a real shame this was her first. It was January 28th, 1986. The shuttle was the Challenger, and it was its last lift off. I remember watching it climb and then watching it explode. The large white cloud left behind and the two branching white trails from where it split and continued upward. I remember my teacher saying it looked cool and all the kids saying something was wrong. However I was only seven and I can’t say I was upset over it. I remember as the days went on and every paper was full of front page news and full-page pictures, of found parts, and stories of the astronauts. I remember talking about it in school and about the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was on the flight. As the days went on I remember the gravity of the situation kind of sink in but I don’t think it was close enough to a second grader to of affected me a lot then.
After the Challenger incident it was another two years, I believe, before another shuttle was launched. Hell I was nine by then, I’d forgotten what it was all about. Once it started it up again I remember being excited for a bit, but it faded fast. I was older, I’d seen a ton of launches, even with its hiatus. I had lost interest. I remember a time in the cafeteria when there was a launch and most of the children in the room running to the windows. I was one of the few who didn’t. It was old news to me, not worth my time.
There was the occasional launch that I took interest in. I remember being 16 or 17 and heading to the top of the Albertsons I worked at to watch a night launch. They always interested me. They weren’t all that common and they are absolutely stunning. You go from an all black sky to the whole sky in the shuttles direction turning a bright purple illuminating all around as if it was a cloudy day as opposed to a balmy Florida night. Outside of night launches though, I still didn’t care.
It wasn’t until my son was born and a bit older that he started getting into studying space that brought a bit more interest in me. I’d take him out to see the launches and I enjoyed them. It didn’t hold the awe it did when I was younger, but they are nice.
Back to the present. The shuttle program is almost done, only two more launches from what I understand and here I was, just a 15 minute drive from my house, standing in the middle of a government facility/wildlife refuge, staring at the fuel tank side of an amazing testament to mans invention and ability. It was only the second time I’d been able to see the shuttle this close (about 100 yards or so) and I was in awe. It dawned on me with the force of rocket (bad I know) that I was deeply going to miss the Shuttle program. It had been such a huge, overlooked part of my life for so long. A part that only a small part of the population could relate with. How we take this amazing show for granted. How many people in the world have never experienced a launch, outside of on the t.v, and while yes you can see it closer on the television, it does not come close to feeling the rumble and knowing that you have a space vehicle sitting almost as close to you as your local mall. I’m not explaining it well but, know it or not, those of us on the Space Coast have been blessed. A part of my child hood is about to come to an end an I am regretting not having spent more time with that part.
But that is life. The future of NASA is up in the air. Many people are going to lose their jobs and the economy of this area is going to sink farther into the shitter. It sucks but we will survive. I think what we are loosing in the smile of that little, brown-haired, skinny, awkward boy, looking up to the sky and knowing that anything was possible because he was watching it from his very front yard, is the hardest loss to recover from.