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I’m sitting here at my desk, and I have to agree with Joe (names have been changed for privacy) that our adventure to Florida that ended yesterday seemed a somewhat surreal experience.  At noon I am sitting on the beach in Florida reading a book and at bedtime I am crawling into my own bed a continent away.

It began in as surreal a manner as it ended.  I was due to work at 7:15 in Yale-town and had to be out of the house at 6:15 am  When I got out of the shower, Joe asked me if I wanted to go to Florida that day because the shuttle had finally confirmed its launch date for the next morning.  The possibility required a fast shift of perspective because we had abandoned all hope of seeing it before May or June, because of the delays and the fact that we were committed to a 7 day ski vacation to Sol Mountain with a group of people in 3 days.

As it turns out, the moon was full that Monday night, and the planets aligned in such a way that the launch was confirmed and we were given the opportunity to back out of our commitment to the ski week because it was unexpectedly overbooked, and we wouldn’t be leaving any one holding the bag because we backed out at the last minute.

Joe did some research on flights etc, and we texted back and forth between my meetings, and at 11, he let me know that there was a possibility we could get on a flight at 1:30 if I could make it home in time.  I managed to make it home by 12:30, and we madly threw things in a suitcase.  By the time we got into the car, 20 minutes later, we knew there was no way we could make the flight he had found, but we headed to the airport anyway in case there was a delay or something.

When we got to the airport at about 1:30 Joe dropped me off at the curb, and went to park while I ran into the United counter and asked if there was anyway they could get us to Orlando by noon the next day.  They were able to find us a flight to Chicago, and we bought one way tickets, got through customs and were on our way to Chicago by 2:15!

We arrived in Orlando at 1 am in the morning, during Spring Break with no hotel or car rental.  We stayed near the airport that night, were able to get a car and then headed to Kennedy the next morning.  I had to spend part of the morning calling, canceling and rebooking appointments and commitments that we had abandoned.

We arrived at Kennedy, and had time to look around a bit before going for lunch with Astronaut John Creighton.  During his presentation after lunch, someone came up to him and  whispered in his ear.  The launch had been scrubbed due to a fuel leak that had been discovered.

It was tentatively scheduled for the next day and then postponed again until Sunday. We were really nervous that  it might not go before we had to return on Tuesday.

We spent the rest of the day touring Kennedy Space Center.  It was a terrific experience, and one that definitely takes a day or two if you want to see and do everything as we did.  I was very favorably impressed at how compact the place was, which minimized walking and yet, in spite of  its compact size the crowds were very efficiently managed.  All in all it was a great day in spite of the scrubbed launch.  We particularly enjoyed the Imax presentation about astronauts, and the space program.  It made us wish we were younger, because it was so darnn inspiring, it would have been an exciting thing to do with our lives.

While we were waiting to see the launch on Sunday we managed to pack a lot of touristy things and beach time into our days.

We:

  • photographed 50 manatees mating at Manatee park in Cape Canaveral
  • visited 3 different and totally amazing beaches
  • soaked up the 85 to 88 degree weather and got an early tan
  • visited the famous Ron Jon surf shop, which dominates Coacoa beach and is attached to the Ron Jon’s resort etc
  • had lunch in front of a round 6500 gallon aquarium and watched sharks, eels and tropical fish while we ate
  • watched squadrons of pelicans patrolling the beach
  • kayaked through a mangrove forest
  • held a horseshoe crab in our hands
  • saw a huge sea turtle stranded on the beach, which was being checked over by a wildlife rescue officer
  • watched surfers and kite surfers performing
  • had lunch on the Cocoa Beach Pier
  • saw buzzards, and egrets and all manner of birds that I can’t remember
  • I managed to read more than half of Ken Follet’s “World Without End” while I was on the beach.  (I knocked off the remainder on the plane.)
  • and the morning of the launch we took a quick tour through historic Cocoa Village which was very quaint, but largely closed as it was Sunday morning.  They were however preparing for Mardi Gras, and there was a fair setting up for later that afternoon.

We meandered our way from there back up to Kennedy Space Centre around noon and took a tour of the Space Centre including the Apollo Saturn V Center where there was an apollo rocket on display, as well as a couple of very moving video presentations that really go us in the mood for the launch that night.  We cut the tour short and returned to the Space Centre because we also wanted to ride the Shuttle Launch Experience, which was worth the 15 minute wait.  We grabbed a quick lunch, and had to forego a second viewing of the IMAX film because there was a two show wait for the 40 minute movie, and we wanted to get on the bus for the launch site so we could get a good viewing place.

We bought ourselves some folding chairs and then were shuttled out to a causeway about 10 km from the launch site, which is the closest public viewing area.  The VIP viewing area that you see during launches is near the shuttle barns and is about 6 km from the launch site.  We saw that earlier in the day on our tour.

We were dropped off on the causeway next to the Banana River which was roped off.  We were given several dire warnings before we got off the bus.  Parents were warned not to let their children near the river, as when the alligators came out they could move at close to 30 miles an hour.  Secondly we were warned if anything happened during the launch, we were to immediately come back to the bus to take shelter from toxic fumes.

We arrived an hour and a half before launch time at dusk, and managed to stake out a spot one row behind the rope, facing the launch pad.  It was really windy, and I knew that would cause some problems for picture taking, but we did our best.  Joe was taking pictures and I decided to video on my camera, as I had no tripod to steady myself.

The one thing we would do differently would be to take a VHF radio in order to listen to the countdown.  There were speakers up and down the causeway, but we couldn’t hear them because of the crowd and the wind, so we had to rely on those few folks that did have radios.  Unfortunately I missed the very beginning of the launch because I was struggling to get the video going.  But as soon as I did, I just held the camera up and let it do its thing while I tried to soak in the experience.

It was such a larger than life experience, that it defies words.  The ball of flame and billowing clouds and then as shuttle begins climbing into the sky you are hit in the chest with the roar of the engines.  The shuttle trail began in the dusk, and as it climbed higher in the sky was turned a fiery red-gold as the setting sun stuck the column and then cast a shadow across the sky.

It is a surprisingly emotional experience and brings tears to the eyes it is so awe inspiring.  Witnessing such a momentous human endeavor and accomplishment makes your heart swell with pride for simply being a part of the human race, and gives you pause for thought about your personal contribution to the world.  It also immediately addicts you and makes you consider moving to Florida and working at IHOP so that you can continue to watch rocket launches.

Joe asked our bus driver how the launch rated on a scale of 1 to 10, and she replied a 20.  She had been driving for launches for 12 years, and she said it was the best launch she had ever seen, as it was the first time that you could actually see the fuel tanks with the naked eye as they fell away from the shuttle.

We were still thoughtful, emotional and in the afterglow on the short ride back to Kennedy.  From there it took us two hours to get from the parking lot to the exit for the interstate so we could turn south.  The road back to Orlando was a solid ribbon of red lights.  When we turned back west to return to our hotel to the coast, there was another 20 mile traffic jam of headlights coming from Cocoa Beach and Merrit Island, towards Orlando. We got back to the hotel, about 11.

Joe spoke to a fellow at the hotel that drove in from the airport and checked in at 2 am that night, and said there was still bumper to bumper traffic from Orlando to the coast!  We heard a story from another shuttle fan who told us that after the last launch he watched it took him more than 6 hours to get  home!  I have no idea how many people watched that launch, but I was thankful that we had bus tickets and were probably one of the first free from the traffic jam.

That left us with Monday and Tuesday morning to fill before our flight left home.  Monday morning we went for an airboat ride on the St. John’s River with Captain ‘Gator’ Bruce.  He spoke so quickly and had an accent so thick that I think I only got about half of what he said.  We saw hundreds of alligators, and stopped in a beautiful cyprus forest while he regaled us with stories and political diatribes that I barely understood, except for when he slowed down to share some interesting facts on the history of the cypress grove and hurricanes.

We stopped off for lunch and a bit of shopping in Cocoa Village-before heading to the beach once more.  We had a last dinner out at a great italian restaurant that night.

Tuesday morning, we went for a final laze on the beach for a couple of hours and then headed home.  I wasn’t ready to come home, but we were able to bring some great memories with us, and a determination to do it again sometime.

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