Attend the launch of a rocket
It's June 13, 2009. I'm 19. I'm in Titusville, Florida. It's hot - really hot. And humid. I've been here since the early morning, staring into the east with thousands of other people, trying to make out shapes against the sunrise, staring off across the Banana River at the narrow, flat spit of land just off the coast, the one they call Canaveral. Now that the sun is overhead everything's a lot clearer - a stoic gray shape, marked in a corner with a little Red White & Blue, beyond it two mounds a little less clear, one with -- dare we see it - some orange peeking off the cap. Traffic is stopped along South Washington Avenue, lazy, winding street of gas stations and old, old barbershops and tall sandy grass tangled with driftwood. No one's honking their horns. In fact, it's pretty quiet, here on the shore: there's a rumble of car engines, sounding far-off, the susurrus of wind in the grass, and the grainy sounds of a man's voice over a hundred radios all tuned to the same frequency: there's been a hydrogen leak on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Today's launch is a no-go.
The crowd moves wearily, like a kid that doesn't want to get out of bed. We've been here for hours. Some of us have come from states away. We're here for this, STS-127. They're sending up some pieces of the Japanese module of the International Space Station, which module is called Kibo. It means hope. I learned this from a Japanese couple from Fukuoka. They're retired and they've come to watch their country's contribution to the most expensive project ever undertaken by humans leave the Earth. They've got a big RV with like a patio that sticks off the side. I wonder where they got it, if they're on vacation.
The drive back to Orlando, where I'm living at the time, usually takes about an hour, but the thousands of people trying to get back to the hotels choke the single-lane highway so tightly the whole clot of cars comes to a stop. People turn off their engines, pull over to the side of the road and drag the coolers back out. No one seems to be in a hurry. It's pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I just want to be home. It takes almost 4 hours, in the end.
The launch is pushed back to the 17th, but I don't intend on sitting in traffic again, so I don't go. The hydrogen leak hasn't been fixed by the 17th, anyway, and another rocket - something piddly, putting another GPS satellite or something in orbit - is going up within the week, so the launch is scrubbed again and rescheduled for July 11. But the Shuttle is struck by lightning on the evening of the 10th, and it's cancelled again.
I head out on the 12th, but weather forces another scrubbing. NASA reschedules for the following day. I head out on the 13th. There's an air of fatalism about it. I know what the sunk-cost fallacy is, at 19, and I know that I am operating under it. I'm vaguely aware that statistically my time would be better spent elsewhere.
The crowds are noticeably thinner than they were mid-June, almost a month before. There's a sense that the remaining crowds are all purists, wearing shirts emblazoned with Space Shuttles and Air Force insignia and that old worm-looking NASA logo from the eighties. I'm starting to get the feeling that I'm one of them, one of these Shuttle purists, someone for whom the value of seeing the Shuttle go up is worth any amount of time (or someone for whom time is worth so little it doesn't matter either way). I've never seen a Shuttle go up before, though. It feels like an act of faith, sitting here in the sun, waiting for a word from NASA. Faith in the waiting of other people, faith in what they love, faith that it lines up with what I love.
It occurs to me that there are probably a couple of astronauts with me in the crowds. The one astronaut I had met by that point had been brave-looking in an average-joe kind of way, normal, but wearing this bright blue flight suit and looking heroic, up on a podium of brushed metal at the Kennedy Space Center. I had been on a field trip, some four years earlier. I realize, there on the beach, that the whole experience had been more or less groomed and manicured and declawed for me, for the hordes of other high schoolers there with me. There was no one in the crowd that matched what I thought an astronaut looked like. Instead: paunched-out older guys, old t-shirts, kinda stubbly, with cheap beer and cheap camping chairs and big decals on the backs of their pickup trucks. Huge RVs with carbon footprints equivalent to the entirety of some smaller towns. Locals looking tired of tourists. Tourists looking tired of waiting.
There are concerns that the next Shuttle flight is going to be pushed back because of the delays. Endeavour is looking lonely out there, on the other side of the river. Someone nearby has a countdown timer loaded on one of those industrial, shock-proof laptops: the timer sits at T-minus 9 minutes, but it's stopped there. This is normal - it's where they hold the countdown before the go or no-go, before they start the launch checklist. But it's been that way for days. People keep looking over at it. The radios are pretty quiet now. I have this weird expectation that when I look, the timer will have started counting down, as if the guy on the radio were delayed in reporting a go for launch. The timer doesn't move. The radio crackles, clicks to life. The launch is scrubbed. We all go home.
I'm back on the 15th. I don't have a choice by this point. My dad's Pathfinder, with the weird Japanese name, is drawing fewer stares among the Fords and the Chevrolets and the Dodges and the only-in-America RVs. I'm the only kid there. An older guy points this out to me. He has a white mustache, and he says, "You here on your own?" I say, "Yeah, I came to see the launch," as if I might be here for anything else. He says, "It's good to see a kid here, appreciate what they do," they presumably referring to NASA. He looks like he wants to talk more, but I'm awkward and I don't know what to say, or how to gesture to indicate friendliness or openness to conversation, because I don't want to talk, really. I'm just there. I only remember this moment because as this guy is looking around for something else to say, I look away, trying to politely like duck out of the conversation, and look at the timer on the laptop, which now reads 8:55. The radios are quiet, but someone else has noticed, other pockets of people, elsewhere, and a cheer begins to go up. It sounds like the home team is making a great play, or something, after a game of losing for a while. It sounds like hesitant hope, hoping in fear of disappointment.
The man on the radio says, "We are go for launch."
Tension builds in the crowd. It's a trite way to say it but it's also the best. People who were sitting are standing, now. Beers are forgotten. Everyone has goosebumps. It's still hot, brutally hot, but my spine keeps shivering. I count at least two other people whose shoulders tremor with what I have to assume are similar spine-shivers. We're all looking through the shimmer of the water at the shape, muddled in the heat, of Endeavour at Launch Complex 39. I catch myself holding my breath, for some reason. The radio voice announces that the access arm has been pulled back. I assume this means for the crew.
It feels like time has stopped. No one's moving. People are talking quietly, as if at the movies or a lecture, as if talking is interrupting something else, bigger than us. Nothing moves out on Cape Canaveral. Nothing that we can see.
The wind turns. It's partly cloudy. The sun goes behind a cloud, then comes back out. Someone opens a beer. I hear the chick sound. The radio guy says something about a beanie. It's only here that I realize that the program we're tuned to isn't an official NASA broadcast. I think about people all over the state watching the televised version of what I'm about to see. Then I stop thinking about it. I'm present. The wind turns again.
The radio guy tells us the orbiter is running on its own power. The timer on the laptop is at 42 seconds. The water on the beach below us wrinkles with wind, like goosebumps, then I get goosebumps, then the wind dies completely. There's a pressure of nervousness in my lower abdomen, like I'm about to go on a rollercoaster.
At around 13 seconds, people start counting down, aloud. Like New Year's. At 10 or 9, the radio guy stops talking. At six, all of a sudden I see a little light on the pad. Some people stop counting --just a few. It's the main engines. They light up at 6 seconds. I know that the whole Shuttle tips forward at this point, with the thrust. It's called 'the nod.' It rights itself before we reach zero -- but we can't see any of it.
We all say, "Zero." I think I say it, too, but I don't remember if I'm actually counting or not. It gets tremendously quiet. I hear a bird, but that's it. There's a huge light, impossibly bright, from the pad. You can't see the pad at all. It looks like a candle sitting on a table in front of me. A year later, I'll see a night launch, and the light will look like a sunrise. Like the sun, it will cast shadows. Like the sun, it moves slowly, tentatively, unstoppably, into the sky. It's still totally quiet, by the way. There's a long white trail connecting the light to the ground. I have to start moving my head to follow the light. I feel the sound before I hear it. In my chest, like good bass at a concert. Then the sound of white noise, but healthy, deep, animal. The light is almost 45 degrees from the horizon at this point. It's moving faster than I've seen pretty much anything move through the sky before. It passes behind a cloud but doesn't dim, shining right on through. Then behind some more clouds. It flickers. It's not ascending anymore. The curvature of the Earth is pulling it back down towards the horizon. The light goes out behind a cloud. A tail of white hangs in the air, like a falling rope ready to coil onto itself. The crowd isn't moving, still craning their heads. A woman somewhere says, "Can ya see it?" I don't think that anyone can, but we're still looking.