Houston, we have a problem…

There were some unforeseen issues with the date we were to leave. Initially, the launch was supposed to take place on March 18th at the height of the afternoon. It was going to be perfect for viewing with a young child. Then, like massive pieces of monstrously complex machinery are want to do, something went wrong on the orbiter. Nothing major. Nothing catastrophic, but just a big enough a problem to warrant rescheduling the “go” date for the beginning of the next month. No big deal, right?

Heh…

The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Oh, thank God I didn’t buy the airline tickets yet.” To say that things are a little strained in the airline industry these days is like mentioning that sticking a rosebush in your pants might be somewhat uncomfortable. With the hysteria that has infused every corner of the airline experience combined with the unadulterated fact that the vast majority of carriers are losing money hand over fist, despite the fact that they charge you for your luggage, your drinks, your food and even (I wish I were making this up) the pillows, then you can see why I suspected calling them up and begging for a date change on our tickets would meet with non-helpfulness on a wide and impressive scale. They might do it, but there would be a charge. My only question was if the penalty fee might be more than the price of the ticket. For this very reason, I had begged off on selecting our flight. That, and I’m cheap and hate forking over large sums of money for just about anything and tend to put it off until I can’t let it go any longer.

The second problem was that our departure date would now fall, not only on Easter Sunday, but also my daughter’s second birthday. Great.

In some ways, it’s hardly a big deal. Though my wife and I were raised Catholic, neither of us are practicing any more. To be fair, after eleven years of parochial school, I feel that I’ve practiced enough and am ready for prime time. As for the birthday, well, that stings a bit. The good news is that this is probably the last time I could ever get away with that. She is after all, very, very young and the concept of birthdays to her means only two things: “Pwesents” and “Cake!”

If it were up to Lulu Belle, every day would include pwesents and cake. For her, the fact that it falls on a particular day in the year means exactly, precisely, nothing. Therefore, we’d be having our festivities a day ahead. Problem solved! Plus, since the Easter Bunny doesn’t actually work for the Vatican, we figured that we could talk him into a Saturday delivery as well. All seemed to be working out just fine, even if it does sting a bit for me to miss her special day. I was already missing her and we hadn’t even left yet.

The last little entertainment that cropped up due to the date change was the launch time. Previously, it was going to take place in the sunny afternoon, and, as luck would have it, just before naptime! How perfect can you get? Too perfect, apparently.

When NASA, or anyone else for that matter, wants to launch a rocket, they don’t just pick the time arbitrarily. It needs to be very, very carefully worked out. The issue is that if you want to make a multi-million (or billion) dollar chunk of technology go up into orbit, any old orbit, then when you press the big, red launch button doesn’t really matter. (I’m assuming here that the “launch” button is red. If it isn’t, then it should be. That’s how I’d make them) There’s a lot of space out there and if the engine on the back of your rocket is big enough and you can get it to fly consistently up, then you’re pretty safe to hit it eventually.

It’s kind of hard to miss.

The trick is when you want it to go into just the right orbit. Like I said, space is really big and if you’re going to wind up in the correct bit of it to say, meet up with the International Space Station, then you’re going to need and plan things just right. The Earth, after all is moving and pretty damned fast at that. So is the ISS. It’s cooking along at 17,500 miles per hour (28,163 kph) and though it might look pretty big in the NASA release photos, it’s barely a speck on the horizon. And then you have to find the right horizon. After all, those lucky few whom are riding it get to see a new sunrise ever ninety two minutes! See how tricky this gets? This is also a perfect example of why I’m not a NASA scientist. I’m much more in the Alan Shepard school of thought, who put it this way to Mission Control after waiting in his capsule for over four hours to blast off and become the first American in Space:

“Why don’t you just fix your little problem and light this candle!”

God love you, Alan.

That might have been how things rolled in the early days, but is sure as heck isn’t how things roll now.

So, with the change in the date of the launch, so comes a change in the time of day for the Shuttle to make its launch window. We were now looking at a 6:22 AM launch. “Not bad” you might think. “I’ve seen worse things than getting up just before dawn.”

Ah, yes, but you’re forgetting something. That’s when the launch actually happens. We have tickets for the viewing and they have a non-negotiable, “arrive by” time. Because this is a highly regulated venue and since we were going to be seeing the launch with roughly sixty zillion other lucky ticket holders, we had to be at the Space Center early. How early?

Midnight.

Wait. Let me say that again. MIDNIGHT!
With a FOUR YEAR OLD!

But wait, there’s more. The hotel we were staying at. Yah, that’s an hour away.

So, I’d be pulling my son, a few hours after arriving in Orlando, out of his soft and comfy bed and packing him into the car to drive, park and then wait for six hours. This would be tough on me but I was afraid that it was going to be brutal on him. What I needed to figure out was how to stuff an Ace up my sleeve.

My horror image was of the two of us, standing out in the dark field that’s used for viewing with several hours to go and him melting down because, well… he’s a little kid, tired and without a safe and comfortable place to try and get some sweet, sweet sleep. I needed to bring my own home base. With only a few days to go before launch, I started looking around on Amazon.com and found my solution.

Rush delivery?
“Oh, yes! Please!”

Two days later, my brand new, super cheap, one-man tent arrived.

In its traveling sleeve, it looks almost identical to one of those collapsible fabric and fiberglass pole traveling chairs that you see everywhere. My sincere hope was that if I could get it in, and if I could find a place to set it up and if I wasn’t discovered by a disapproving security-type individual, then perhaps I might be able to avoid my vision of parental doom.

That’s a lot of “if’s”.

Here’s hoping.
Hey? Was I the guy bashing hope just a while ago? I take it back.

I hope! I hope! I hope!

Quasi-happily, I did find out (yet again through Facebook) that tents were sometimes allowed on the Causeway, but no one seemed to know if that would fly at the actual Space Center. It would be, after all, on manicured grounds filled with spectators and exhibits. Kind of like going to an outdoor symphony and setting up camp amongst the other attendees, but in my case, the orchestra would be igniting with over seven million tons of thrust. The Boston Pops might be good, but they aren’t that good.

In some weird way, I actually didn’t want to probe this too deeply. After all, If I couldn’t find a quick “no” to my tent idea, I could possibly beg ignorance and not purer my self. I try very hard not to lie, but there’s not reason I should make a Herculean effort to actually hang my self, right? No harm, no foul! Right?

When the tent arrived the day before we left, I set it up in the front yard to test it out. The consensus? It was cheap. Very, very cheap. In fact, it used something that I thought had died out years ago with innovations to tent technology. guy wires. Two, big segmented poles were used to give it its basic form, but it used actual tent stakes and wires to hold it out to its full length. Still, it was serviceable, relatively smuggable and I thought it would do in a pinch, provided that some poor soul didn’t do an unanticipated forward somersault in the predawn dark. Possibly me. I packed it into the bottom of my suitcase and made ready to head for adventure with my boy.

“Do you really think they’ll let you set it up?” My wife looked at me with a face that managed to appear both sincere and incredulous all at once. I have no idea how she does this.

“Well, I think so.”

“You think so? But you don’t know?” Her eyebrow arched and the arms crossed. Uh-oh.

Must… not… fidget… uncomfortably! At times like this, I have found that the best course of action is to blame others. Not the moral high ground, perhaps, but it seems to work more than it doesn’t. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the first male to use this method of redirecting a womanly gaze of scorn. That, and with its use, I would still be able to pass a polygraph test. “I can’t seem to get a straight answer about that.” I used my very best professorial tone in an effort to add credibility to my words. “Some people said that it would be okay at the Causeway, but I can’t find anything about the Space Center, either way.” I didn’t mention that I hadn’t looked super duper hard to find that information. Again, I wanted to be able to use the Idiot Defense if cornered later on.

“So, what’s your plan then?” This was a test, and I knew it. I’ve been around the block enough times to avoid this one.

My “plan” was the one that so many men had used before me. It’s been in use for millennia and it’s driven wives and girlfriends bonkers, probably since the beginning. I don’t know what they called it before the invention of American Football, but here and now, we have a name for it. It’s called punting. For anyone unfamiliar with this term, I’ll make it brief. Punting is when you kick the holy hell out of the ball and pray that things go your way. It is the ultimate non-plan.

If it were just me who was going, that would be fine with her. She’s traveled with me quite a lot and is actually very good at shooting from the hip when it comes to fluid situations. The difference here was that it wasn’t just me. I would have our very best son with me (actually, our only one, so it’s sort of de facto, but true none the less) and his care was the most important thing. I needed something better to say than, “I dunno. I’ll make it up as I go.”

“Oh, I suppose we could sleep in the car. That would be warm and safe.” To be honest here, I seriously doubted that this would work. I was pretty sure that we’d have to leave our vehicle and would not be allowed back out unless we were willing to abandon our admittance to the grounds. Wisely and weasely, I omitted that part and let her mull it over. I’m not proud of that, but what was the point of panicking her at this point in the game? She could probably see right though me, but if she did, she didn’t let on.

“Alright. Just take care of our boy.” Whether or not she bought it, I don’t know. What I do know is that she helped me pack up our provisions until the suitcase bulged to comical proportions. The next day was the day before our flight and we had birthday and Easter to attend to. With the last few hours rolling by at amazing speed, I started to get that sinking feeling I always do before a trip.

What was I forgetting? Was I forgetting something? I don’t think I’m forgetting anything. Am I?

Tickets, Part II

I don’t actually remember seeing the launch on TV. I was, after all, in fourth grade and memories from that far back in my life tend to get either super specific and highly detailed or so out of focus, it’s like looking trying to watch a ballet through a fog machine. You know that stuff is there and that things are happening, but beyond some blurry shapes moving in the mist, you’re pretty clueless as to the actual story. Though the initial liftoff is lost to my own personal history, I can easily recall the buzz that it created around the playground, and it was BIG!

Rockets still had a use, naturally. We needed them to nuke the Soviets into radioactive grit at a moments notice, or at least that’s what The Gipper told us, but in the most gentle, kind, patriarchal way possible! The Space Shuttle though was all about peace, science, exploration and most importantly, giving us the foolish hope that some day when we were big, that we too might be strapped in and blast off to the stars. It lit not only the fires that propelled the two thousand ton Shuttle into space, but those of our imaginations. Suddenly, television shows like “Space 1999” didn’t look so far fetched and we began to see our selves as the brave young explorers who would strap in and ride the column of fire to the edge of our atmosphere. It might just be possible! Now, we had a rocket plane!

What impressed us the most was that it was reusable! The same Shuttle could go up again and again and again. We’d have our promised moon base in no time flat. Now if we could only get the personal helicopters and jet packs worked out. Things were even looking up on that front as well, ever since Sean Connery had been spotted with one during a weekend TV special reairing of his 1965 Bond flick, Thunderball. We were pumped, and we were not alone.

With this new super cool looking launch vehicle, NASA went from being a place where a bunch of dedicated American and *ahem* newly naturalized German rocket engineers made stuff explode and zoom off the ground; to becoming the place where we might someday work and zoom into space ourselves. Enough of America’s youth looked skyward with reflections of actual stars in their collective eyes for something truly unique to be formed. Something that took that little, kindled hope of becoming an astronaut and poured high octane jet fuel on it.

Space Camp!

With a surprising, visionary look forward, a whole camp dedicated to space in general and the Space Shuttle in particular, had been devised, organized and opened. All you needed was to be nuts about space, have parents willing to foot the bill to send you, and the willingness to go. Sadly, I had only two of the three requirements.

As an only child, I benefited from having the full attention of both of my parents at all times. I didn’t have to divvy up anything with other siblings and in turn, my parents had the financial ability to take their only child places few larger families got to go. I got to do some pretty awesome stuff that most of my friends could only dream about. It was an amazing gift and one which I never looked at without full appreciation of what I had and thanks to my folks for making it all possible. It was great!

When they offered some time around sixth grade to send me to Space Camp though… I balked.
There was a very simple problem.
I was afraid.

As an adult, (and even back then as a kid, I think) I have no problem admitting that I wasn’t terribly brave about leaving home. To be one hundred percent honest, I was a big ole’ chicken. I wanted my own bed. I wanted my own room. I wanted to be home with everything that was familiar and safe and where I was sure of every step I made. I’d happily go out for the day at a friend’s house, but come evening, I was pointing the front tire of my trusty bike back to familiar lands. I never spent the night. Why? I have no idea. But there you have it. My folks had to practically force me to attend the long weekend getaway run by my Catholic school for fifth and sixth graders, and that was going with everyone I already knew with teachers I trusted and liked! When I did go the first time, all the way to that far off and exotic land of Boston Harbor, I was terrified and my terror, much to my embarassment, manifested itself physically. On the one, pre-addressed and stamped post card that my Mother had sent me with, I wrote the following after my first night at camp.

“Last night, I throw up. Am better now.
Love, Matt”

How’s that for a letter home?

Even with the allure of buildings filled with space stuff to tempt me, the idea of getting on a plane and crossing half the country to attend a week long camp with nothing but strangers was just way too far outside of my comfort zone. There was never a chance it would happen. I never went.

I wish I had.
Boy, do I wish I had.

Short Stack is way too young to attend Space Camp and by the time he can, I have no idea what it will be like or if it will exist at all. Hopefully, unlike his dad, he’ll have stronger guts for such adventuring and you can bet that I’ll do what I can to facilitate that for him. I might have to push him and he might not like it at the time, but from this vantage point won by time and experience, (or lack thereof), I can see the size of the payoff for him in the future. Hopefully, he won’t throw up.

With the largest hurdle vaulted, getting the Mom-Seal-Of-Approval, it was time to take a running leap at the next one on our track to Cape Canaveral: Tickets. How hard could it be?

Answer: Stupidly hard.

With a whiff of “our tax dollars at work” in the air, I started to discover that getting to see the launch was going to be trickier than I expected. Now, naturally, simply watching the Shuttle take off could be done from just about anywhere in the state. For those who’ve never been to Florida and don’t live in the Great Plains region of the U.S., you’ll need to redefine the word “flat” for your self. Florida is flat. Really, really, flat. For someone who grew up in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains, my first reaction to this geographical pancake was to actually sort of freaked out. It made me feel uneasy, like I was on some endless movie set. It didn’t feel real. The best vantage spots for looking at the landscape are the highway overpasses. Want to be see farther than anyone else not in a multi-story building? Stand on a stepladder. The upside to this single plane of existence living is that if something is in the sky, you can see it.

This held true for my father as well whom, when he was a schoolboy in Homestead, Florida, was ushered outside with his entire class one May morning in 1961 to see Alan Shepard’s Mercury space craft lift off and push him into the history books as the first American in space. They all watched as a small speck of light trailed by a plume of smoke arch across the sky and out of site. They were 254 miles away. That’s how flat Florida is.

For Short Stack, I wanted to be a little closer. Actually, I wanted to be a lot closer. I wanted us to feel the roar and be able to make out the Shuttle with the naked eye. Ok, let’s be honest here. I wanted to feel the roar. It’s been a long time since I dreamed about that sound as I stood as a starry eyed pup on the playground sand. This was my chance too. There were two options:

The first was to be at the viewing area on The Causeway. The Causeway is a strip of land that, if you’ve watched footage of a launch before, I guarantee you’ve seen. It’s the big, grassy lawn with the oversized bedside clock on it. It’s where all the news networks set up and once, long ago, Walter Cronkite had his broadcast desk incongruously sitting on the grass in the fresh and open air as he described to the world, just what was happening six miles behind him.

The second option was to view the launch right from the visitor center at the complex. There, we would be surrounded by rockets of old, displays of other rocket related stuff, vending machines and most importantly, functional, plumbed in bathrooms. This sounded good, but for one thing. You can’t see the launch pad. From the visitor center, the actual launch pad is obscured by a line of trees and, unfortunately, is a mile or two farther away as well. The visitor center tickets were cheaper, but was this the time to cheap out? I needed to do some research, and by that I mean “ask some people on Facebook who belonged to the ‘Friends of the Kennedy Space Center’ page.” The consensus was quick.

“You need to try and get on the Causeway. It’s the best view!”

“You’re closer on the Causeway and you can feel the engines in your chest!”

“Get Causeway tickets if you can. They are harder to buy, but worth it! You’ll need to be quick, no matter what you decide.”

Harder to buy? Quick?

Naturally, I understand the concept of tickets selling out and needing to be timely, but there was something about the last post that raised a red flag. I still wasn’t sure about keeping a four year old out on a grassy, buggy strip of mown swamp land for a launch that might or might not actually happen on time, but the warning about getting tickets, any tickets “Quick” worried me. The answers to next post on the site was one that made me sweat.

“How fast do tickets sell out?”

“About two minutes”

TWO MINUTES!?!?

Okay, that was a shock. Obviously, I needed to call the Space Center and see what the deal was. Now, the Visitor Center, much to my amazement, is not a government run or funded institution. It’s actually a private enterprise and it advertises this fact proudly on its website. I noted this when I was looking through it for a contact number to call and ask about tickets. I prefer to do things like this in person if possible, but since I live in Maine, phoning was the next best thing. I find that Email, though often preferred by places like this, is notoriously ignorable. I discovered the number and within moments, called.

“Kennedy Space Center ticketing. This is _______. How may I help you?”
“Hello, yes. I was wondering about getting two tickets for the next Shuttle launch. How do I go about that?”

“Yah, they aren’t available for sale yet.”

“Yes, I understand that from the web site. I was just wondering when they would go up for sale and how I should purchase them?”

“The time of sale has not been released. You should check back often.”

“Ahhhh, I was told that they sell out pretty fast.”

“Yes, that’s true. About two to five minutes.”

“So, how am I supposed to get them if I don’t know when they will be on sale?”

“Just check back often.”

I was working hard, I SWEAR, to maintain an even tone in my voice and keep things convivial. After all, you catch more flies with honey… though a fly swatter was starting to sound good too.

“So, wait… You’re telling me that they sell out in under five minutes but that you can’t tell me when they will go up for sale. Is that correct?”

Yes sir.” she droned on in a voice utterly devoid of caring “ Just check back often.”

A little mushroom cloud lifted off the top of my head as I visualized the endless loop of doom. My mental clutch burning, I tipped my hand. They might not be governmentally run, but she had the personality pegged.

“Every five minutes?!? How is that supposed to work? How does anyone have the slightest chance of a shot at getting tickets?”

“Just check ba…” She was in full bureaucratic-stuck-record mode and I was too far away to nudge the needle.

“Thanks.” And with that, I did something that I’ve only done a very few times in my life. I hung up on her.

This was a problem. Tickets were needed and it was time to try out some unorthodox channels to get some. My first stop wasn’t far from home at all. Actually, it was next door. I needed to call the neighbors.

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