In the Name of Science (Part 1)

As little love as I have for Miami as a place, mainly due to the fact that living here without a car is inconvenient 95 percent of the time, there are some advantages that result in very worthwhile experiences.

I was tutoring an ESL student last Thursday afternoon when James called and asked, “Would you be interested in going to see the shuttle launch?”

Now, James lives in a town called Boynton Beach, about an hour and a half north of Miami (around Boca Raton). At the time, all I knew about Cape Canaveral was that it was somewhere on our side of the state. So, without giving it too much thought, I agreed.

Soon after, of course, I learned just what I had agreed to. Here’s a little perspective:

Google Maps doesn’t lie.

Certain I’d be back on Friday night at the latest, I packed only my purse and a small bag with SPF70 sunblock, toothpaste and a toothbrush, and my hairbrush. No more than enough to stay presentable and possibly not get sunburned.

Have I mentioned that I get sunburnt easily?

James picked me up a little after 8pm and we had dinner at Versailles, our favorite place for Cuban food in Miami. It was almost 11:30 by the time we arrived at his house, giving us time for a quick nap before we left at 1am. I think I was the only one who actually got any sleep though, because he hadn’t had the time to pack beforehand. Most of what he brought, unsurprisingly, was food. He also had a large towel, his go set, and his camera.

He doesn’t get sunburnt easily.

(This is what we call foreshadowing, friends.)

James’s friend Charlie came to get us a little after one, and we sneaked out of the house and headed up to Fort Worth to pick up the final two passengers: Charlie’s girlfriend, Liz, and their friend Mike. All the while we kept checking NASA’s twitter for news of whether the launch was even going to happen thanks to the potential of rain. In Charlie’s words, “They don’t like to launch if there’s a cloud in the sky.”

Breakfast was Waffle House. I refuse to relive that experience.

Fortunately, breakfast was also in Titusville, our (almost) final destination. By the time I started to see light in the sky, we were in line with thousands of other cars also making their way towards the tiny strip of land from which we could watch the launch.

Yes, the tiny strip on the left, between Washington Avenue and the water.

The news, by the way, said they expected as many as one million people at the watch party.

We staked out our territory, laid out the tarp, and maintained our sanity by sleeping under towels for the next four hours. When I opened my eyes again, the number of people crowded into that small area between a restaurant and the rocky coast had almost tripled. Lesson 1: Always show up to historical events early.

Lunch was an arbitrary selection of cookies, strawberries and blueberries, and Gatoraide. James and Mike started up a round of go, an Asian strategy game played with black and white stones on a wooden board.

He takes the game rather seriously.

As you might be able to tell from the photo, the sun was at my back almost the entire time. I only had to turn around long enough to find space at the water’s edge, balance myself on several discrete and precarious rocks, and watch all three minutes of the shuttle launching event. Sure, I’d forgotten my oh-so-precious sunblock in the car, but it was really cloudy, and besides, I wasn’t that pale any more…

The launch itself was beautiful. I was expecting the shuttle to hover on the ground for a moment while the engines geared up — maybe it did — but all I saw was a sudden glint of orange light that stretched upward, pushing the shuttle ahead of it, and finally tore away from the ground to leave nothing but a fat column of dense smoke. All too soon, the shuttle tilted to the left and disappeared into the low-hanging cloud cover.

Almost a full thirty seconds later, the sound reached us across the water. I had never heard anything like it: a deep rumbling that contained so much power it was almost incomprehensible. And yet the shuttle’s movements had appeared so smooth, as though throwing itself into space had been natural and pre-arranged with gravity. Only this sound indicated all the power and energy that had to go into the liftoff.

It took a few minutes to dawn on me that no human being would ever see a launch like this again, or participate in one. By the time NASA starts sending people into space again, they’ll have an entirely new way to do it. Teleportation, maybe. In any case, I was one of the lucky few — one of a million, yes, but one of a million in a world of almost 7 billion — to stand in front of the launch pad and see the Atlantis make its final departure for space.

To see James’s recording of the launch, visit his blog, The Foreign Element, and click on ‘videos.’

(Part 2 to come next week. There’s a lot more to the story…)

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