by Beth Higgins, Public Relations/Development Coordinator, Fort Collins Museum
In 2006, my mom and dad retired and did the quintessential mom-and-dad-are-retired thing, and bought a house along the Florida coast – the “Space Coast” to be exact – on Merritt Island, just three miles from the Kennedy Space Center. Although my mom died in late 2006, dad kept the house, and our family has managed to make the trip from Colorado to Florida a few times since then.
Our last trip to Merritt Island earlier this month was above and beyond the normal fantastic. This time, we got to watch the space shuttle Discovery launch from the Kennedy Space Center on March 15. From the back of a boat. At twilight. “Wow” doesn’t even start to describe it.
Originally we weren’t even going to be there for the launch – it was scheduled for Wednesday, March 11th and we weren’t arriving until Friday. But, there was a problem with a fuel cell requiring, I’m sure, more than one trip to Ace Hardware. And then they had to launch by the 12th in order to meet up with the International Space Station before the Russians were scheduled for their rendezvous. Apparently, to our great surprise, the Russians were caught in traffic and running late, so the launch was re-scheduled for the 15th.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. We made our way on Dad’s boat through the canals just before dusk. The launch was scheduled for 7:45, a twilight launch, supposedly the best kind. We joined a line of boat traffic at the Barge Canal…pontoons, sailboats, fishing boats, small motor boats, big boats. We all churned or sailed our way to the channel to get a good spot. We successfully anchored (yeah, Dad!) and turned on the radio. We had about 15 minutes to wait. On the boat was my dad Paul, his wife Karen, me, my husband Gary, my 8 year old son Brennan, my brother Paul, my sister Megan, and her friends Ashley and Chris. Chris, Megan and Ashley are teachers – Megan and Chris teach science. Chris brought his video camera (thanks, Chris! You can see his video below). We all sat in the back of the boat, taking picture after picture of a gorgeous sunset, when we heard we had one minute to launch.
You couldn’t see the shore from the boat, so we just peered north and waited. Suddenly, it seemed the sun had come up in the west. A huge fireball sat on the horizon, just hanging there for a few seconds. And then it lifted. We screamed, as did everyone else on all the boats around us. We hooted and hollered, and fell into stunned silence as the bright, orange light climbed higher. Then hooted and hollered again. Boats sounded their horns in that low, wailing complaining sound. Brennan watched through binoculars, while we all snapped picture after picture. About a minute after the launch, just as it seemed the shuttle would fly right over us, we heard the thunder. The sound shook the boat and vibrated in our chests. The smoke from the shuttle turned shades of orange, and pink, and purple far above our heads as it passed through the path of the setting sun. We watched the booster rockets fall away, and then, the fire disappeared. Instead, there was a long trail of smoke and what looked much like a star heading north. We were speechless. We felt that great sense of participation. We knew that we were incredibly lucky to have been a part of the launch, and that none of us would ever forget it.
After a bit of effort we pulled anchor and merged into the line of boats heading back to homes along the canals. We couldn’t stop talking about the launch. We laughed, and replayed it over and over again: Did you see when…? Did you hear…? I couldn’t believe…!
I know we’ll go back to the Kennedy Space Center again, especially now that we’ve been a part of this. And I also know that while I may never have the desire to hurl myself skyward and rocket through space, I was struck by the beauty and magnificence of the shuttle launch. I felt like part of a larger community, knowing that thousands were watching from streets and backyards all over Florida, and I was part of a smaller boat-bound community, yelling over the waves. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and I hope you, too, have an opportunity to experience it someday. Let me know, though, so I can reserve your spot on the boat.
Today, space shuttle Atlantis is rolling out to the launch pad for its upcoming mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. You can track its progress here. Also, don’t forget to check out the Virtual Space Community events at our very own Discovery Science Center! The next one is scheduled for this Saturday, April 4, from 12-1pm. In partnership with Space Center Houston, the program is broadcast live from Texas to DSC. During the broadcast, you can interact with the presenters and ask questions about space and the space program.