I arrive in Orlando eight hours before launch. Amid the thick Florida air, I go through my short checklist. Rent a car. Find a motel. Buy some food. And drive east.
East, to Titusville. It’s not much of a town. Route 1 passes through the center, northbound and southbound traffic separated by a city block, about a hundred yards to the west of the water. Kentucky Fried Chicken, 7-Eleven, and Eckerd Drugs are the most welcoming sights. Although there are no down-and-outers on the street, and the place seems more sleepy and rundown than dangerous, the Prevent Carjacking signs left by the Titusville police do focus the mind.
But fortune and geography have smiled, once at least, on this place. Titusville is the closest you can be, without a special ticket, to the great temples of technology, the immense rocket assembly building looming as a cathedral to smaller chapels of steel, from which metal spirits are hurled into heaven.
It’s not my first time here. In 1995, I happily discovered that a trip to visit friends in Orlando, and to attend a conference in Miami, intersected with a planned space shuttle launch. On the appointed day, I toured Cape Canaveral, and ate dinner in Titusville in advance of the nighttime liftoff. But a technical problem caused NASA to postpone. Needing to be in Miami the next afternoon, I had no choice but to leave the area in frustration. The shuttle took off the following night.
This time, the shuttle is my sole reason for being in Florida. I’ll need some luck; the odds for a successful launch on any given night are about fifty-fifty. But I’ve brought a small pile of my research with me—my work travels well—and I’ve arranged my life so that I have three or four days to spare. I am prepared to wait.
My conception of the earth, the moon, the universe as a whole, underwent a permanent adjustment. They became something I could fathom, and thereby so much more unfathomable.
When I was ten years old, my parents and my sister and I flew to Florida for the usual reason—to visit my aging grandparents who were wintering there. I sat on the left side of the aircraft, in an eastward-facing window seat. Our flight was diverted from its planned route because, the pilot told us, a rocket was to be launched from Cape Canaveral. We didn’t know exactly when, though, and so I had almost forgotten about it when the pilot suggested we look. What I saw through the window made me gasp. In the distance a little silver needle was riding an ever-growing white thread. It climbed to our altitude, then rose above us, higher and higher. And as I watched, marveling, I suddenly grasped, for the first time, the true meaning of “Space.” Before that moment, it had been a fascinating abstraction. Now, I was watching a rocket actually go there. There. It was a real place. And not very far away. The rocket was ascending just two hundred miles or so, a distance you can drive in a few hours. My conception of the earth, the moon, the universe as a whole, underwent a permanent adjustment. They became something I could fathom, and thereby so much more unfathomable.