“From our orbital vantage point, we observe an Earth without borders, full of peace, beauty and magnificence, and we pray that humanity as a whole can imagine a borderless world as we see it, and strive to live as one in peace.” Willie McCool, Pilot of the STS-107 Columbia Shuttle, January 29, 2003
On this early summer day in mid-June on the Gulf Coast of Florida in 1983, the weather offered an uneventful and typical outcome-sunny and hot. The rainy season, also known as the hurricane season by those in the know, had been late in arriving and only the air, noticeably heavy with moisture, was standing ready to release it's stores. The combination of heat and routine had accumulated from the repetition of scheduled classes and too many days at the beach. We needed a road trip.
My friend Toni and I watched the news to make sure that the launch was going as scheduled for the next morning. Affirmative! So we packed up a cooler, gathered a change of clothes and our swim suits and headed to Cape Canaveral for the 7th launch of the Space Shuttle(STS-7), this time the Challenger. I still have the mission badge.
The route was pretty straight forward from our point of origin in Tarpon Springs, FL. Quite simply, head East towards Orlando until you see the signs to the Kennedy Space Center. No www.mapquest.com back then, you actually had to know how to read a map to get anywhere, or know someone who did. Fortunately, I was an excellent navigator and Toni, who I had grown up with in Illinois, had always been a good driver. In fact, she was one of the few people that I actually trusted behind the wheel as evidenced from numerous road trips that included a jaunt down Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California a few years later. If you have driven P-Coast 1, then you understand the level of trust.
Several weeks prior, I had begun my third semester at St. Petersburg Junior College and was seduced by an elective class in Earth Science. That semester, through a geological vocabulary extension from the class, we came up with names for our imaginary rock bands. “The Igneous Rockers” was a favorite. Another favorite, the instructor, had stood on a chair and spun around first with his arms open and then with them closed to illustrate rotational motion (compactness increased spin like an ice skater), and various effects of gravity. It was a hoot and an effective learning experience but in retrospect, I am very glad that he did not break his neck. Nevertheless, the desire to explore the Earth, or some aspect of it, had been instilled in me. Though I had recalled the Lunar landing in 1969 when I was in kindergarten, for some reason I was overcome by the images of the pictures of Earth from the vantage point of space. I am certain that the idea to travel to see an actual launch had its origins in that classroom.
As we got closer to A-1-A (Astronaut Boulevard), we started to see signs of the pending launch. The words, “Ride, Sally Ride” were plastered on every billboard and message board on every company that had one available to them. From McDonald’s to car dealerships and some questionable business establishments where the words took on less than clean meanings, the message was the same: “Ride, Sally Ride”. Though I had been impressed with Miss Ride’s looming accomplishment, I was even more touched by the support of the country. Apart from interest in disaster, the US Space Program has gone on unnoticed while students learned how to play Pac Man and failed to realize how quickly the world was changing right before their eyes.
Since it was an early morning launch scheduled for the 18th, we had to leave the day before in order to make sure that we could secure a spot along the causeway. But, we were ready. When you go to the beach almost every day, you get good at packing a cooler. Plus, Toni had two extra years of experience on me since moving to Florida with her retired parents after she had graduated from high school. Our friendship since childhood had been one of the major reasons why I opted to head down there.
The excitement has started to come to fruition when we were actually on Astronaut Boulevard and crossed over the long causeway to the Kennedy Space Center. On launch days, the normally public Kennedy Space Center facility was closed to the public. I don’t know if they will let you on the causeway now due to new security standards, but I can tell you that the experience will be worth finding out.
So, we parked on the side of the road and set up camp for our overnight stay. I was overwhelmed with how many people already dotted the roadway and many more were still following behind us. People from all over and different walks of life were gathered together to witness history. It was like a modern version of Woodstock, only without all the deviant behavior and drugs. This was really cool.
In the darkest of night, we looked up at the clear night sky and moved our eyes to the Challenger, lit up by thousands of lights on the launch pad and waiting patiently for her destiny. Amazing, words cannot describe its inherent beauty and absorbing power. For me, it was just awesome. We barely slept because we kept meeting more and more people, including a young man who had allowed us to borrow his flashlight so we could use the port a potty that was a short walk up the road. That was one thing we had not been prepared for since the beach had always offered more permanent facilities. Since then, I have kept a flashlight with working batteries in my car at all times. There was also an amateur astronomer who had brought his telescope and binoculars that allowed us to get a closer look at the launch pad and the stars that could be seen all around it. I think we actually found the port a potty with the binoculars-for a girl who had an aversion to squatting, it was like discovering Atlantis.
After a picnic and another trek to the available facilities, I fell asleep for a bit on a blanket that had been laid out by the astronomer. I was awakened by the sound of the growing number of limousines that were transporting honored guests to view the actual launch. The surprising parade of limos continued all through the night and I believe that was one of the few times in my youth where I had experienced genuine envy. But, I managed to restore my composure when I grasped the sight of the heavens and the machine on the ground that would soon invade it-a testament to God and man, respectively. I became aware that Toni opted for the enclosed heat of the car in order to fen off the bugs that had been dive bombing the spectators all evening. I lie there wide awake until the increasing level of sound from the stirring generated from other spectators reached the height of anticipation as we got word that the launch was going as planned. Beyond my excitement, I became aware of how quickly the summer sun can heat the earth, even in the early hours of morning.
I could hear the countdown on loud speakers. Don’t ask me how, but that is what I remember. Soon after 7:30 a.m., we could see the ignition of the booster rockets, the subsequent flames that it generated, and the familiar plume as it made its way towards space. The rumble, though we were actually miles away, was a shock. The roar of the engines could be felt underfoot and it seemed the very street would fall out from beneath us and we would soon be swallowed up whole. Thankfully, the tremors diminished as the Challenger rose slowly from the pads to the clear, baby blue sky. I was elated. Awestruck. Overcome. My heart was gladdened in the knowledge that I had witnessed this accomplishment, even though it was not me in that launch vehicle.
Shortly thereafter, we said our goodbyes to our new friends and both Toni and I headed south for Cocoa Beach. We were exhausted from the heat, the trip, and the lack of sleep. So, before we headed back across the state, we spent several hours alternating between naps and hitting the Atlantic waves on Cocoa Beach. I got a great tanline that day. The beach, made famous from the television show “I Dream of Jeannie” where the main character-an astronaut, meets up with a magical wish-making Jeannie, led us to do imitations of both as we alternately talked about the previous night and rested for the return home.
Some times hopes, wishes and dreams, even little ones, become reality in perfect scenarios that present themselves in the real world. This day was one of them.
I can only hope that other wishes, like the one brought forth by US Naval Commander McCool, will become a reality, too.