Three, two, one, zero, and lift off for the Space shuttle Atlantis!

“If we die, we want people to accept it.  We are in a risky business . . . conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
~ Gus Grissom ~

On Friday morning, last week, we left our house and headed north, to the space coast.  We were off to watch the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, on what is supposed to be her final voyage.  The space shuttle program is scheduled to come to an end this year, with two more flights planned, though a third may be snuck in, if Congress sees fit.

Watching the space shuttle take off was one of the things which we had promised ourselves, and we suddenly realized that we were running out of time; thus Kate took off a few days, and we headed north.  We were told to arrive by 9 o’clock, in the morning, for a 2:20 blast off, we were there early enough to drive through Titusville first, where we saw fellow spectators positioning themselves along the beach to watch Atlantis lift off into space.  They had the right idea.  We had heard that the Titusville beaches were one of the best places to watch the launch, and if we get another chance to see a shuttle, this would be our choice of vantage points.

Driving through the city, though at the moment it is dealing with some major street construction, was uplifting and joyful; it was one of those experiences which make you feel proud to be an American.  We had coffee and scones at a downtown café and bakery before heading back to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is part of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.  We had previously been to the Space Center, in 1992, on a vacation to Florida, while we were still living in California.  My Aunt Helen had mentioned that she had always wanted to go – she had worked at Rockwell, in Columbus, Ohio, and was deeply engaged and fascinated with the space program.  Thus, on that trip, we had taken off from the same little city in south Florida, crossed Alligator Alley, toward Port Charlotte, where we dropped my Mother off, at her brother’s home.  Mother visited with Uncle David and Aunt Roxanne, while Aunt Helen, Kate and I crossed Interstate 4 and headed toward history.

That had been a wonderful trip; and I highly recommend a stop at the Space Center, if you are planning a Floridian vacation.  I am old enough to remember the Apollo missions, and I Dream of Jeannie.  Coco Beach was fine, but I did not see Astronauts running around in Corvettes, nevertheless, it was memorable.  The museum is outstanding, and being able to go out to the launch building and sites where the Apollo missions actually launched was quite remarkable.  We also saw the immense crawler which inches the shuttle toward its launcher.  The Rocket Garden lets you touch the actual rockets which took man into space; and one is able to view the inside of a shuttle.  Perhaps the most moving part of the visit was the Astronaut Memorial Space Mirror, a black granite monument which holds the names of those who perished in mans venture to explore the heavens.   This monument was paid for by Florida residents who purchased Space Shuttle Challenger license plates – my Aunt Helen was one of those Floridians.  It was impossible not to think of Aunt Helen as we headed toward the Hall of Fame, which we had not previously visited.  She would have loved this day.


Launch Site, Rocket Garden, and Memorial

 Arriving was easy, there were dozens of people to direct us where to park, and we sorely missed those people in the afternoon when we were ready to depart, as what had taken us two minutes in the morning, took a solid hour in the afternoon – thus those beaches in Titusville seem very appealing.  At nine o’clock in the morning, the place was already crowded, though the seasoned viewers came much later.  We toured the museum where I especially enjoyed a display regarding the Apollo 11 mission, we walked the grounds, rambled through the crowded gift shop and picnicked as we waited for the launch.  As the hours passed the crowds both within the compound and on the streets continued to grow.  There was a large projection screen which kept us informed of the launch progress, with the same information playing inside, in air-conditioned screening rooms, with comfortable seats.   It was an event.

As the moment of the launch drew closer, we jockeyed for the perfect vantage point – of course that was not actually available to us – those tickets, at the Space Center, had sold out.  Nevertheless, once the countdown began, the pounding hearts of the crowd made us feel like we were sitting atop of the shuttle.  There were hundreds of people who seemed to have never missed a launch, and many were eager to share their knowledge, pointing us in the right direction as we looked through binoculars or offering their inside information about what we might think we were observing.  We were told that sound travels slower than light, we would see the shuttle before we heard its vibrating noise – they were right.  The countdown began, and it was just like in the movies, with everyone joining in at the ten second mark.

Suddenly, looking up what I saw was the flaming rockets and the plume of smoke, which demanded a collective awe.  They were off, our astronauts were off (it is true; I have to confess that all week long Kate and I have followed the Atlantis, feeling rather vested in this endeavor).  Within seconds, the Atlantis released the rockets which had helped propel her into space, and a few minutes later the smoke began to fade as she was off to rendezvous with the Space Station.

It had been a hot day, my feet were black from the dust in the semi-grass covered area where we had been directed to park.  We were out of water and I was hungry; our three o’clock, in the morning, wake-up call had caught up to us, and we were sleepy and tired.  The crowds now felt suffocating instead of exuberating – so was it worth it, we asked each other simultaneously – totally!  We were ready to come back, the next time we would go to the beach with the seasoned viewers and leave our spot at the Hall of Fame to a novice.  That is all for now.

Kate standing in front of the Apollo 11 Command Module, “Columbia”. (At the Smithsonian)


Aunt Helen taking pictures of the shuttle, inside and out.

To watch the launch for yourself:

For more information on the Space Center:


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