Arrival, Part III

The tricky bit about going to some place like the Kennedy Space Center, is that they rarely if ever have a street number. Heck, if they’re big enough, they often are on their own special street purpose built just for them and these places pretty much universally are without signage. It would be like saying, “What’s the Pentagon’s address?” I’m willing to guess that if you wrote, “The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia” on an envelope and put it in the mail, not only would your letter there with no issues but you’d also get your very own little file with your own name on it in the very same building. It’s huge. Far larger than any puny little street sign or set of brass plated number that they might put out front. The thinking goes that if you can’t seem to take notice of the massive complex to your left, than a small green sign on a post isn’t going to help you either, and this I believe, it true. The trouble comes when you inject a computer into the equation. They want specifics.

If the Space Center has a driveway address, then I couldn’t find it.

What I had settled for was punching in “Titusville, Florida” into the screen and then selecting the button marked, “City Center.” My hope was that with NASA being kind of a big deal with the locals that once there, I could revert to my eyes and brain method of navigation, hopefully without a hilarious-in–retrospect sort of outcome. My worry now was just where in Titusville was the city center versus the place we needed to be. I continued to watch the GPS and follow its direction, but I began to talk back it with the same strange hope that inhabits the minds of sports fans as they watch the game on their TV. Maybe, if I tried hard enough, I could get it to listen to my concerns.

“Turn left onto Route 95 North”

“Really? Are you sure about that? The road sign says that I should keep going strait.”

“Exit right in one hundred yards.”

“I don’t know Erma. (I had named the female voice in the little black box Erma since I felt that I needed something to call her) I think you might be wrong on this one.”

“Exit in fifty yards.”

“I don’t know…”

“Turn now onto Route 95.”

One last thought of independence went flitting through my head like a moth as the exit opened wide to my right, leading to its own dark and unknown path. It was decision time. Who’s smarter: Erma or me?

The triangle of grass delineating the end of the exit ramp came rushing on at highway speed.

“Gah! Alright! Fine!”

A heavier than normal deceleration and swerve quickly followed.

“Who are you talking to Daddy?”

“Ummm. The GPS.”

Then a pause from the back seat. “Can it hear you?”

I shifted a little in my seat.

“Eh, no. Not actually.”

“Then why…”

“Hey Buddy! Look… um… There are some…” I groped for a distraction worthy point of interest in our dark surroundings. Anything to save face for being caught acting like a nimrod by arguing with an inanimate object. “That sign says that we’re almost there!”

And to make matters even better, it was the truth.

As I gazed at the signs telling me that I was indeed approaching the Space Coast, my confidence in Erma renewed and I once again realized that betting against myself was almost always the safe money. In this case I was happy to be wrong. After pulling off the highway and into the more populated areas, signs came with more and more frequency and eventually I was able to thank Erma for all her help before yanking the plug and unceremoniously stuffing her under the driver’s seat. To my right, behind some trees and an embankment, massive shapes suddenly loomed up against the darkness, pointing rigidly as if to indicate there intended destination. They were rockets. Real rockets.

“Hey Short Stack. Look over there. What do you think those are?”

Spotting things that I point out as we drive along is not his strong suit and I looked in the rearview mirror to see if he was awake enough to take direction.

“What? Were? Where are you point…” Silence. Then. “ROCKETS! Those are ROCKETS!” Any of the remaining brain fuzz affecting his performance was burned out of his cranial clockwork with the fire of a freshly lit J-2 hydrogen engine. I heard the seat belts strain against his body as he strained forward in his chair.

“DADDY! Those are ROCKETS! Right THERE! Can we go see them?!?!”

“You bet, Buddy!” The blast wave of pure joy and excitement that erupted from the back seat ripped through the fatigue that had started to pull me down and there was no way I could not join in with my son. I laughed out loud, sharing in the experience of a passion that was to be imminently fulfilled. That jolt was more than sufficient to have us back up at full power and ready for anything.

Pulling into the drive that lead to the vast parking lots, I reached down and jammed the special parking placard that had come with our tickets for the launch. We were waved into our directed parking area and I looked around to get my bearings. I’d need to find this car again in about six or seven hours but things would look substantially different by then. I gazed up at the massive lot identification pole marked that we were only a few rows away from.

As I scanned across the giant plateau of paved and neatly lined parking lots, I spotted another pole not too far away emblazoned with a Number five and the name Wally Schirra below. Number three, in the distance, was too far away to read, but I bet I knew what it was. Each lot, it seemed, was named for one of the original Mercury astronauts and emboldened with knowledge of these men via a recent viewing of the movie, The Right Stuff, I was tempted to point this out to Short Stack.

But he was four and it was midnight. Once again I felt a bit like the bad parent for dragging my very little boy out at such a ridiculous hour. The fact that he was still dressed in his jammies and had remained barefoot didn’t help ease my mind either. Then I spotted the car next to us and the young couple who had just arrived seconds after we had. They were here to enjoy the launch and so were both their small children, one of whom couldn’t have been possibly more than two. It was then that I realized we were in good company and it was time to get ready.

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.

Looking Up.

Under Short Stack’s bed sit his large collection of earth moving equipment, gathering dust. Next to the forgotten dump trucks, excavators and front loaders are his personal, private sea going fleet. A car carrying ferry, two landing craft made especially for him in my workshop, and a small selection of tugs, barges and whatnot, carefully painted and ready for duty. If they were not made of wood, they would be rusting at their moorings.

I blame They Might Be Giants.

These toys that have kept him happy for hours on end for most of his imagination filled life have been swept aside for a new, all consuming passion.

Space.

The passion of a four year old.

It all started with the arrival of a gift from my blood brother, The Doctor. An educational DVD by the singing duo of John and John that is punchy, fun, well paced, highly factual and was more than an instant hit with our little resident red head. It was all he ever wanted to watch and he would sing the songs with glee. Some were better than others but one came out as the clear winner. The one about the Solar System.

He’d sing about it, ask questions about it, draw pictures of it and then sing about it all over again. For a treat, Action Girl and I took him to a planetarium a while back and I think that might have cemented it.

We didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!

The notion of space in general has totally overridden all his other interests now and no boat or bulldozer has the gravitational pull of a gas giant or the light of a solar flair. They just can’t compete.

At this very moment, my wife is upstairs with him, reading bedtime stories to him before lights out. He gets to pick the book and her words, drifting down the stairs, are as predictable as they could be.

“The Earth is ninety-three million miles away from the sun and completes a rotation on its axis in just one day. Mercury, on the other hand, rotates much, much slower and…”

Our little island library has a good set of kid’s books on the planets, the sun and other celestial bodies and we’ve been systematically going through the collection over the last few months. We’ve done the books on Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Stars and Jupiter. The biggest issue I have is convincing him that we shouldn’t take the whole lot of them out at once. It’s a tough sell.

I don’t know how many times Action Girl and I have read these little space-fact books to him but I’m willing to bet he knows the text by heart at this point. I’m also willing to bet that we could “read” them to him with our eyes closed. Hey, maybe he should be reading them to us!

Then there are the rockets. Ahhhh, rockets.

Belching flames, roaring noise and awaaaaaay they go! What’s not to love?

What little kid wouldn’t get cranked watching a video of that? The object of his purest enthusiasm is for the soon to be retire Space Shuttle. For Christmas this year, “Santa” got him a little, wooden Space Shuttle that came with two detachable rocket boosters and it was far and away the biggest hit of the day and now, though only a few months old, bears the scars of high action missions throughout the house. His only objection was that it was missing the big, orange external fuel tank. For whatever reason, the manufacturers had left it out, which bugged him to no end.

“But daddy, why didn’t Santa make the orange tank? Doesn’t he know?”

“Ummm. I guess he doesn’t Short Stack. Maybe the elves don’t know about the tank. What do you think?” A long pause as he considered this brought him to an unavoidable conclusion.

“I don’t think Santa knows as much about rockets as I do.”

This statement wasn’t said with the smug satisfaction you’d expect to hear from an adult, but rather with a pained, almost regretful edge to it. Santa was missing out. How sad.

Then, the buoyant solution that brought his smile back in a flash. “Maybe I could tell him about them!”

“I bet you could, Buddy.”

To remedy this egregious oversight on St. Nick’s part, he rummaged around in his play kitchen set and came out with a wooden carrot, which made a reasonable, if not vegetable substitute. The Space Shuttle made regular launches from our living room floor, carrot and all, for about a week before I couldn’t stand it any more. One afternoon when I could safely make a racket with a variety of power tools without waking any nappers or be remiss in my munchkin watching, I pounded down stairs with the mission of making a better fit for his space exploration vehicle. A few well placed screws and magnets, and his ship was complete and correct, thus making two detail nerds very happy indeed.

The solid rocket boosters aren’t correct, but it’s what it came with and honestly, he doesn’t seem to mind, so I’m letting this one go. For now, anyway.

Short Stack has always been interested in getting thing just right, and he wants to know everything he can. I’ve been quizzed on the details of the Apollo landings. I’ve had to scrape my personal memory banks in an effort to dredge up information on the Mercury missions. I’ve explained to the best of my ability how the Shuttle works and the work that is does, and Short Stack, he just wants more.

And more.

And more.

In the past, when the questions finally wore me down, I’d come back at him with a correct but highly detailed answer in the best science speak I could muster. Normally, he’d just stare at me for a few seconds with a look that said, “ I know that what you said answered my question, but I didn’t understand it” and then go wander off to ponder. With space, that strategy isn’t working. When I try my old method, he just stops, thinks about it… and then ask me to clarify.

Possibly five or six times.

I try not to start crying.

It’s been since some time back in November that space exploration took over our son and it shows no hint of releasing. His room, once a haven for heavy equipment and books about bunnies is now bent in devotion of the physical heavens. A picture of a rocket, painted by his own hand, hangs on a wall and just last week, a full set of three dimensional planets took their place, hung in order and radiating away from a suspended tennis ball playing the roll of “The Sun.” The books on the floor are almost universally devoted to objects in the sky.

He’s obsessed. He’s also deeply appreciative for what ever you can tell him about it. Anything. Just get it right.

That brings me to my master plan.

The Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired permanently at the end of this year and since the latest budget proposal has come out, it looks like the end of NASA powered, manned space travel for a long, long time. Like it or hate it, it is most defiantly the end of an era.

Short Stack’s birthday is just around the corner and with my deeply indulgent wife’s nod; I have something special in mind. Tonight, this very night, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is to take off on what will be the last nighttime shuttle launch. I would love him to see that and considered flying to Florida with him so he could watch, but it’s scheduled for lift off just after Four in the morning. The prospect of getting him up at that hour is to horrible to consider. Waking a four year old at two am for a four AM launch? Do I look THAT nuts?

So, I’m shooting for second best.

Tentatively scheduled for the Eighteenth of March, the Shuttle Discovery will be blasting off at around One in the afternoon. That, Short Stack can swing and so, that’s what I’m planning. I’m just waiting for the launch time to firm up so I can buy the airline tickets.

I haven’t told him yet because I don’t want to disappoint if it doesn’t work out for what ever reason. Even once the two of us go, I’ll keep mum about the launch, lest it get scrubbed. I’ll build in a few extra days and see what happens. He’ll be bonkers about visiting the Kennedy Space Center and inspect each and every display with a multitude of questions, I’m sure.

He’ll want to KNOW.
I’ll try not to break down, begging for help after a few days of this.

It’s an ambitious move on my part. I’ll be solo with one of my children, far from home and without a net. He’s a great kid and I trust him to do well. Honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this adventure if that weren’t true. Still, you just never know how these things will play out until they do.

In the end, his contagious excitement is enough to make me want to do this. For him, it’s about the love of the thing. It’s what fills his dreams at night and powers his play all day long. It’s worth the risk. And someday, he’ll be able to tell his children or grand children, “You know, I saw the Space Shuttle launch when I was just a kid. My dad took me there to see it.”

With some luck, they’ll be interested to hear more.

With some real luck, they might even put down their toy trucks and boats and be impressed.

Wish me luck.

I’m nuts, aren’t I?

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