Liftoff!

When one pitches a campsite, the first thing you don’t think is, “I’ll set up right here next to the porta-potties!” What you want is a not too far, but not to near sort of geography s as to avoid all the joy of being potentially down wind but also within sprinting distance when needed. This instance definitely called for some serious sprinting.

Looking at the throng of tightly packed space junkies anticipating imminent rocket fueled bliss, I realized that there was only one way this was going to happen fast enough if we were to see the launch ourselves and not merely hear it through the thin plastic walls of a pubic toilet. Throwing on our shoes and grabbing my son under my arm, I bolted through the crowd, weaving between the darkened shapes and preying that I wouldn’t slip on the grass. The entire way there, I tried very hard to ride the edge of being encouraging to my son about being quick with his business and explaining in bare terms how bad it would be to miss the Shuttle because he was not focusing. Sort of a carrot AND stick approach. Thankfully, with only a few minutes to go, there was at least no line to contend with! A very few minutes later, we were back at our outpost and waiting like the rest for the rocket science to noisily begin.

The night before, I had received a bit of photographic advice from my playground chatting companion, Tom.

“When the moment comes, don’t take pictures of the shuttle taking off.”

“Really?” The idea seemed sort of… killjoyish.

“Nah. Resist! Any pictures that you take will look just like any pictures that anyone here will take. Plus, it’s hard to keep in frame, especially at night and you’ll spend that great moment looking through your viewfinder rather than looking at the liftoff. Shoot a movie instead and rather than point it at the launch the whole time, point it at your son and you. I’ve seen a lot of these launches since we moved to Florida and I’ll tell you, for me, the best part is the look on everyone’s face. That’s where you see the magic.”

That was some pretty solid reasoning.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll try it.”

And so, with things at Launch Control progressing as it should; with the astronauts strapped in and ready for the moment and with uncounted thousands watching and waiting, I set my little camera to movie mode, held it out at arms length and pressed play. It was show time!

Panning the camera around the dark sky, I looked for things that would stand out and would be recognizable before the event. It was hard enough to see with the naked eye and my less than top of the like, point and shoot digital camera was having some serious issues finding anything that it could focus on. Turning clockwise where I stood, I passed over the well lit rocket garden, its inhabitants standing like proud sentinels to the history they beheld. Turning further the horizon went again to blackness and then eventually, to a well lit and very large structure off a little way in the distance. It was something that we hadn’t gone to visit yet and in all honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, at least on this trip: The Space Mirror Memorial. The monument to those who have fallen on their way to the stars.

Right there, in the middle of all the excitement, a cold, damp wave passed through me and I remembered with a void in my stomach, what could go wrong. Now, here I was with Short Stack, ready to watch and hope that he didn’t get to witness anything like the footage that I, first as a child and then later as an adult, had seen over and over again.

Challenger.

Columbia.

There have been many more lost in the pursuit of space than just those fourteen souls, but at the moment, they were on my mind and I consciously worked at pushing the thought away, focusing instead on the moment, our moment, of happiness.

I panned back to the stage and the giant screen with the video feed.

As the thump of circling government helicopters reverberated through the air, the loudspeaker boomed. “The final test of the flight control surfaces is being conducted.” On the screen, massive rudders swung back and forth to check movement followed by the engine cones themselves swiveling on their gimbals. It was all looking good.

“T Minus three minutes, fifteen seconds remaining…”

Short Stack, now lifted to my shoulders and enjoying the best viewing I could personally provide, was uncharacteristically quiet. He may be a lot of things, but the quiet type, he is not. Naturally, I couldn’t see him but I guessed that after all we had been through and with all that was now happening, he might be a tad out of touch with what was about to transpire. To him, I surmised, it might look as though the stage in front of us was the show, and what a horrifying let down THAT would be! I decided to do some explaining while I could.

“The Shuttle is going to take off right over there, Buddy. Right over those trees!”

Silence. His grip on my ears told me that he wasn’t asleep, but probably just overwhelmed.

“But…” He was coming up to speed now, “the Space Shuttle is right over there.” I followed the point of a small pudgy finger to the giant TV that stood next to the stage. He could see the Shuttle there. Where I had indicated was simply a black row of trees. I could understand the confusion.

“That’s a picture. The real Shuttle is over that way.” I pointed again.

“T Minus two minutes, twenty seconds and counting…”

We all watched the video feed avidly, not daring to blink or hope that the countdown would actually get to zero. I could feel my heart actually beating faster and the chatter that had filled the field just a few minutes ago quickly ebbed as if turned down on some unseen stereo. It was just the audio link from Launch Control now and the interjections of quick explanations from our astronaut on stage.

“Ninety seconds away from the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery.”

BEE-BEE-BOO-BEE-BEE-BEE! BEE-BEE-BOO-BEE-BEE-BEE!

My pocket was talking to me. Well, actually, my cell phone.

Do I look? Do I not?
Look?
Don’t? Gah!

It was still pre-dawn. It had to be family. Giving in to curiosity I balanced Short Stack on my shoulders and with my camera-free hand, fumbled out my phone and looked at the waiting text message.

It was my wife.

“Watching too!!!”

I smiled, popped it back in my pocket and looked back to the action.

“T minus one minute, and counting. We are now transferring to orbiter internal power. Discovery is now running on its three onboard fuel cells. T minus thirty-eight seconds and counting. Coming up on a go for auto-sequence start.”

At this point, standing in the face of hundreds of tons and billions of dollars of high technology, I suddenly regressed to a primitive belief… and crossed my fingers. I doubted it would help, but if nothing else, it wouldn’t hurt.

Launch Control: Go for auto-sequence start.

Up front, our astronaut in the spot light was visibly getting excited, obviously reliving his own experience and living it again, vicariously through those seven in their orange flight suits who were strapped in for the ride of their lives. “T minus twenty seconds! GET READY!” Thundering through the sound system, you could actually hear the grin on his face. A handful of seconds later: “We have a go for main engine start!” Sparks lit up the screen and briefly illuminated the heads of those standing with us showing to good effect that the astronaut on stage was not alone at having a smile plastered over his face.

Remembering my possibly bewildered child perched high on my back, I tried to help fill him in, but words started to fail me. As the emotion of the moment started to take control, my own childhood, still living deep inside me, began to reemerge. I was a kid too. I was looking at the Shuttle, about to take off! As I stood there, then, I felt as though I my age could have been measured in the single digits again and I was taken by surprise as I actually began to tear up. “There is goes!” Was all I could muster.

“Main Engine Ignition!”

and a rumbling roar.

3…

2…

1…

LIFTOFF!

“Lift off of Discovery, blazing a trail into…” Ignoring the rest, I swung us around to where a sunrise sized fireball had started to light the horizon. As the source came into view and the thunder began to endlessly roll, I totally lost it.

I yelled, “AND THERE SHE GOES!” at the top of my lungs.

With nothing else to intelligibly add, I simply broke into wild laughter in the pure exuberance of the moment. It was an expression of the purest joy and exhilaration.

I was someplace else.

Six or seven seconds later when the concussive thud of the engines blasted over us, I began to laugh all over again. It was like being submerged by a rolling wave of sound and I, and everyone else there, bared our teeth into the storm and reveled in it.

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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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