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Florida Guide > Miscellaneous

T Minus 10

I don’t know about you but ever since I was a small child I have always watched the launches from Cape Canaveral and vowed one day to be there to witness the raw power and the spectacle for myself.

I used to be green as a Martian with envy watching the Apollo program footage and can still remember where I was when the Columbia space shuttle first launched.

I was totally gripped by the idea and would have changed places with those astronauts in an instant.

Well I’m 38 now and I still feel the same.

I guess you need “the right stuff” to be an astronaut and pushing 40, being slightly chunky, short-sighted and an accountant by profession probably just about rules me out of having any stuff never mind the right stuff. Still if the lottery numbers come in and Richard Branson delivers on his Virgin Galactic promises, then there’s hope to cling on to.

But I can still make it to watch a launch, right?

I can still get to hear the roar and feel the noise and watch the sky catch fire.

My first opportunity came in January 2001 when there was a night launch scheduled.

Only problem – I’m getting married the next day! Having seen so many shuttle launches postponed at the last minute, I had visions of my wife to be in full wedding regalia waiting with the minister, whilst I sit at Kennedy Space Center chanting “I can still make it back, I can still make it back”.

Anyway I made the right decision that night (OK I was told I definitely wasn’t going) and in the morning heard that indeed the launch had been postponed until after our holiday ended.

We’ve been to Florida every year since then but our timing seemed to be out every time. The tragedy of the Columbia explosion and NASA’s subsequent caution made the chances even slimmer.

Finally, the Return To Flight launch in December 2006 was all set up to coincide with our last trip to Florida. Not only that, but a night launch too, which would be truly spectacular.

As the day approached, the weather was turning the chances of a launch into a lottery. 50% chance of a launch was often quoted.

That was good enough for me and so I dragged the family kicking and screaming off to Cocoa Beach for the day knowing that the time had finally come and that at long last I was going to really be there when it happened. My wife was less than enthusiastic having none of the “science geek” tendencies that I seemed to have developed.

It was a freezing cold day by Florida winter standards and the beach is not the best place to hang around for a whole day when the warmth of the sun has unusually taken a leave of absence. Still, we managed several rounds of mini golf, some great food and set about hunting for shells on the beach to keep our five year old busy, with the promise of seeing a “real spaceship” which I’m sure, Star Wars obsessed as he is, he expected the Millennium Falcon to come swooping overhead. I was confident reality would be no less spectacular.

As daylight faded away we found ourselves on Cocoa Beach pier, which we had heard was one of the best spots to see the launch. From the restaurant on the pier we could see the astronauts getting suited up on TV, hardly believing that this was all happening just across the water from where we sat.

With three hours to launch we headed for the very end of the pier to try and get the best seat. The cold wind was really biting into us now and we huddled up together at the bar and soon got chatting to people from all over the US and UK who had all converged on this place to experience this one spectacular moment. The atmosphere was saturated with anticipation. So many were here to fill a lifetime’s ambition. Even Mrs J was starting to get into it. There was an instant camaraderie as we all swapped stories to ward of the chill in the air. One guy had travelled down from Boston just to see the launch, convincingly refusing to go home until it went ahead, no matter how long it took.

From across the bay we could see the flashing red lights of the two launch gantries.

The initial party atmosphere gradually changed as we became more focussed on one of those lights in particular as the moment grew ever closer.

Our five year old had a whole day thinking about this moment and as his excitement peaked, I looked over with only ten minutes to go to see he was suddenly sound asleep swaddled in a beach towel in his mum’s arms. I knew I’d have to wake him when the moment came.

We were all primed now, cameras at the ready, breath hushed. Any second now the night would erupt with fire and furious energies would be unleashed before our eyes.

Any second now, any second now…………………

“It’s been scrubbed! ”

With seconds left, the launch was postponed. The message had come by mobile phone so for a while we could hardly believe it. Still peering into the dark in case it was a momentary delay. Gradually the realisation dawned and the crowd started to disperse and we began our journey home.

The launch went ahead the next night as we were midway across the Atlantic I think. I really hope the guy from Boston fulfilled his promise.

Although disappointed, the greater memories I took from the day will be how for a few hours a group of complete strangers on the end of a pier felt like nothing of the sort, as we all shared a common dream.

I know for certain we’ll be back when another opportunity presents itself and I know there will be a warm welcome on Cocoa Beach pier.

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Page added on: 22 July 2007
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