A slightly shorter version of this completely failed to win our writing group’s recent travel writing competition. It’s about America and rockets and snatching moments to sight-see when you can.
Call me Moon Child.
Not because of hippy culture, but because I was born at the height of the Space Race when the US was throwing all of its might at getting to the Moon before the Russians. I grew up surrounded by space toys and books: an astronaut’s helmet, a Lunar Rover, an Airfix kit of the Saturn V rocket as well as assorted vehicles from Gerry Anderson TV shows like Thunderbirds and Space 1999. I was a wide-eyed nine year old when Star Wars was released. Where most kids wanted to go to America to visit Disney World, the only thing I ever wanted to see was Kennedy Space Center.
I never went.
In early 2014 I started working for a US company with offices in Florida and an expectation that I’d cross the pond. But I wasn’t a space-obsessed kid any more, I was just keen to soak up some high octane Americana. When I collected my Dodge Avenger rental car from Southwest Florida airport the sun had just set and the April evening was warm and full of potential. Punching buttons on the radio I moved the station off the rambling, unidentifiable sports commentary and found some music. Window down, I cruised out of the airport to I Love Rock And Roll by Joan Jett with a ridiculous grin on my face. Five minutes later I pulled into a deserted parking lot in an industrial estate, hopelessly lost, and sheepishly dug out my phone to guide me to my hotel.
Even though I’d been awake for over twenty hours and should have just collapsed into bed, I was annoyingly hungry. It wasn’t even 9 pm on a Saturday night and I figured I’d surely be able to get something from the hotel’s restaurant/bar.
“Well, we’re pretty much done for main meals,” said the bartender-cum-waiter, “but I guess we could do you a burger. Or how about a quesadilla?”
Now, I’m not an expert on Mexican food and had never come across such a term. Also, as has been stated, I was tired and a little confused. And his pronunciation didn’t help. To my English ears it sounded like he said, “how about a case of deer?”
I’d heard that Americans had big appetites but this was ridiculous. First there was buckets of chicken and now we were onto cases of deer. I decided to have one, once it had been explained to me with pictures.
I had the Sunday completely to myself. I could have done anything but cruised around nowhere in particular and then got sunburnt on Fort Myers Beach. I wondered if I should have been more adventurous and boldly gone… somewhere else. The next five days were all about work and then I was back home to Blighty.
The following January I was over again with my Welsh colleague, Chris. This time I looked to see if I could get to Cape Canaveral but a round trip of four hundred miles seemed too far. However, we had a free day on the Saturday before flying home and perhaps a distance shared was a distance halved. I suggested to Chris an expedition to see some rockets. He doubted whether it was viable but a local colleague assured us we could get there in under four hours. Chris gave in. In fact he even began looking up whether there were any rocket launches that day. The news that NASA was indeed launching a rocket early that morning made us eager to be in the vicinity when it went off. That meant a really early start.
We met in the hotel reception at 5.30 am and it was as black as space outside. We got into our Chevy Impala and set off on a zig-zag journey across Florida. We were well clear of Fort Myers and travelling along open country roads when the still-hidden sun began to colour the sky above the horizon. It was at this point I realised just how flat Florida is – it makes Lincolnshire look positively rugged. A lot of the roads are tree-lined but when there was a break we could see for miles in all directions, power pylons and telecoms masts blinking red lights at each other in the early morning twilight.
Driving in America is alien and familiar at the same time. Distances are in miles but we were so used to road signs in the European red/white/black style that we kept missing the yellow diamond US speed limits. This made us a little unsure as to whether we were breaking the law, but we needed to step on the gas otherwise we wouldn’t get to the coast in time to see the rocket launch.
A black sedan whizzed past us on a dual-laned freeway somewhere in the middle of Florida. We agreed that, perhaps, the locals were the best source of speed limit knowledge.
“Follow that car,” said Chris. It was like being in a movie.
We tailed the saloon at speeds of around seventy miles per hour (maybe a little more at times) until the outskirts of a town where we slowed and lost him at some traffic lights. As we left the town and picked up speed we noticed the black sedan parked at the side of the road next to a police cruiser, lights flashing. A cop was leaning in through the driver’s window.
“He’s been nicked for speeding,” I chuckled.
“That could have been us,” observed Chris. The idea of two hapless Brits confronted by a gun-toting, stone-faced, mirrored-shades-wearing rural traffic cop helped ease my foot off the accelerator.
We ploughed on up towards Orlando, hoping that we’d still be on track to see something of the launch that was scheduled for 9.20 am. Approaching the city, Disney made its presence known by electricity pylons made of three conjoined circles, mimicking Mickey’s head and ears. We sped past signs for the Animal Kingdom and Epcot, turned away from Universal Studios and headed for the coast.
It was gone 9 am and we were clipping along the dead-straight expressway, eyes flicking above the treeline for any indication of a rocket. By 9.30 we were thinking that we’d missed it. As Chris logged on to NASA’s website to check on the launch, a thought occurred to me.
“You’re sure the rocket was being launched from here? Because they’ve got launch sites in other places too.”
“Oh. It says it launched from Vandenberg ten minutes ago.”
I sighed and relaxed back into my seat. “Right. I doubt we’re going to see it from here, then.”
Around thirty minutes later we pulled into the Center’s car park where our eyes were drawn to the silver and white spacecraft in the Rocket Garden, towering over the entrance turnstiles and giving a taste of what was inside. Up close, it was apparent that these early space vehicles were little more than converted military ballistic missiles. They were tall, but not that impressive. The replica Mercury capsule that sent the first American into space reminded me of a large trash can. The fact that it was stuck on top of a missile and a man voluntarily got inside and was blasted at several thousand miles per hour into the vacuum of space seemed absolutely insane. The early Sixties designs of the rockets all felt very ‘Gerry Anderson’, as if Fireball XL5 and Thunderbird 1 were just a short walk away.
We ambled over to the building containing the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the entrance dominated by a huge orange fuel tank slung between two white solid-fuel boosters that were taller than the quaint silver things we’d just been admiring. This was NASA in the Nineties.
The ‘reveal’ of Atlantis matches the opening of the doors of the Great Hall at the Harry Potter Studio Tour, with expressions of awe coming from our fellow tourists. But this wasn’t magic or showbiz pretending, this was real. And this phenomenal machine had actually been in space. We gawked and took pictures and gingerly touched bits of the spacecraft and then queued up for the Shuttle Launch Experience. Dubbed “the next best thing to an actual space shuttle launch”, there are a few ‘pre-flight briefings’ designed to keep you occupied whilst queueing but with a distinct emphasis on ‘this is not for the faint-hearted’. Our group contained a couple of families and just as we were about to board the ride one of the kids, perhaps nine years old, started wailing that he didn’t want to get on.
Having spent the best part of forty years waiting to get to Kennedy Space Center and savour everything on offer I really had to stop myself shouting at the ungrateful little sod to just get on the bloody ride. Those with the Right Stuff were strapped in and launched ‘skywards’. The simulator vibrated, shook and roared, tilting us backwards to replicate the ‘G-forces of acceleration’ and thumping us in the back when main engines throttled up. All hugely enjoyable but I was acutely aware of both the lack of danger compared to a real launch – and the fate of the crew of the Shuttle Challenger.
With the Shuttle experience behind us we boarded the tour bus to the launch pads and the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building. A bald eagle stared down at us from a telegraph pole and an alligator splashed in one of the swampy pools adjacent to the roads, a reminder that this is a bizarre intersection of nature reserve and cutting-edge human industry. Across the Banana River, where dolphins and manatees go about their aquatic lives, we could see a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket being prepped for launch.
And then it was off to the Saturn V Center, the highlight of the whole day. Walking through the doors we couldn’t help but gasp (and swear) at the sheer size of the thing. We’d seen rockets and space kit all day but this was jaw dropping. Supported by industrial steel pillars so that you could walk underneath the horizontal leviathan, my brain struggled to comprehend how something the size of a warship could overcome Earth’s gravitational pull.
Everywhere we looked we pointed and grinned. A real Lunar Rover; space suits of astronauts who had walked on the Moon, complete with fine grey dust on the boots and legs; a Command Module that had been through re-entry and splash-down; Jim Lovell’s actual flight suit from Apollo 13. The surreal experience of eating a burger underneath a Lunar Module suspended from the ceiling.
In late afternoon we blasted off from Cape Canaveral, destination Fort Myers. The Earth span and the sun slipped away a couple of hours before we docked with the hotel. Shattered but happy we exited the airlock into reception and Chris turned to me with a tired smile. “It’s been a long day but I’m so glad you made me go. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”
Yep. It had been a long journey. Four hundred miles. Eight hours. And forty years.