Of Particular Significance

Sunrise (older version)

I arrive in Orlando eight hours before launch.  Breathing 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, 7-11, and Eckerd Drugs are the most welcoming sights, and
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 cathedral to the smaller chapels of steel from which metal
spirits are hurled into heaven.

I’ve been to Titusville once before, more by luck than design: a visit
to Florida, to visit friends in Orlando and to attend a conference in
Miami, happened to coincide perfectly with a scheduled space shuttle
launch.  I toured Cape Canaveral during the day, and explored
Titusville in the evening to choose a location for the nighttime
liftoff.  But a technical problem caused a delay, and as I had to be
in Miami the next afternoon, I had no choice but to head south.  The
shuttle took off the following night.

This time my sole reason for being in Florida is to see the shuttle,
and I’ve arranged my life so that I have three or four days to spare.
Although I certainly hope the launch occurs on schedule, I know that
the statistics on any given night are about fifty-fifty.  I am
prepared to wait.

When I was ten years old, my parents and my sister and I went 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, there was going to be a rocket
launched from Cape Canaveral.  We didn’t know exactly when, though,
and so I had almost forgotten about it when the pilot came on and told
us to look out the window.  What I saw was simple, yet riveting.  In
the distance a little silver needle was riding a ever-growing white
thread, climbing to our altitude, then above us.  Higher and higher.
And as I watched this lovely, magical sight, 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.  It wasn’t very far
away.  It was human scale. The rocket was only going up a couple of
hundred miles.  You can drive that far 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.

I watched until all that was left was the disintegrating remnants of
the exhaust trail.

Yet it was too far away, and too small a rocket, to match photographs
and descriptions of shuttle launches, and so I’ve been wanting to see
one for a long time, ever since I brought a radio along on an
eighth-grade camping trip in order to hear the first launch of
Columbia in 1980, and watched the first landing on a black-and-white
TV in my science classroom.  Of course I’ve seen many shuttles lift
off on a color TV, and in IMAX theaters, where the cameras bring you
close to the action.  But it isn’t the same as seeing it yourself,
even if you are further away.  That’s one of the things I learned that
day watching out the airplane window.  Seeing it in person can change
you.  You don’t know what it will make you feel, or think.  The
experience of the reality all around you is different from having
reality piped to you through a box, with your couch and books and
dirty laundry in your peripheral vision.

The night is hot indeed, with a moderate breeze unable to lift the
sultry blanket of a Florida summer.  Clear skies bode well.  Already
by 8 pm there are crowds lining the private pay-parking areas facing
the river.  I have to wonder why people pay.  Go deeper into
Titusville and there’s tons of on-the-street parking.  And as I learn,
I’m far earlier than I needed to be.  Streets are still empty, and
there is plenty of beachfront space to watch from.  It helps to have a
weeknight launch, I suppose.

So I have a few hours to kill, and I make phone calls, and do a little
work, and listen to the radio a bit, checking the news every hour to
make sure the countdown is still on schedule.  I wander about looking
for a good spot to watch from, and chat with some of the people who’ve
already staked out their turf and are sitting on lawn chairs with
their friends or families.  Everyone is here.  There are old folks and
new folks, local teenagers, foreign tourists, family groups of all
sizes.  Pregnant women, and women who just look pregnant.  Men who
look pregnant.  Healthy-looking children, and others who seem
undernourished.  Friendly people in bent up old sedans, hot shots in
loud trucks, groups in minivans, couples in fancy convertibles.
Shuttle launches are democratic.  You can be deeply philosophical,
even religious, about their significance, you can be fascinated by the
technology, you can be overwhelmed by the demonstration of human
achievement, or you can like loud noises and great spectacles.  I’m in
all of those categories myself.

Finally the time is coming close, and I find my spot.  A pile of
rocks, a breakwater, on the Indian River, makes a perfect perch.  No
obstructions block the view across the water to the pad where the
shuttle, hidden behind a metal tower, sits nine miles away.  Atop the
rocks I have no other people within twenty feet, although there are
crowds on the raised ground behind me.  All I have with me are my
binoculars and my lousy camera, and some water.

As I sit there, waiting for the clock, holding at 9 minutes, to begin
ticking again, listening to the nearby loudspeakers in a Titusville
park that are broadcasting the countdown, I am acutely aware of how
quickly this is all going to happen.  The shuttle’s ascent is only
visible for a couple of minutes.  I will have been waiting for almost
five hours, and then it is going to be over before I have time to
think.  I consider what I wanted to observe, and how and when to use
my binoculars and camera and my eyes alone.  I do some planning, and
even rehearsing, of what I want to do.  My grandfather used to take
home movies of my father playing football in high school.  The only
problem was that when the play got really exciting he’d instinctively
lower the camera and watch with his eyes.  I’m not sure there is any
footage of my dad making a tackle.  I’m not going to let this happen
to me.

The fleeting nature of this experience had come up in conversation a
few weeks earlier.  I was in Colorado, at dinner with a few physicist
friends, among them Riccardo, a brilliant, irreverent, and hilariously
funny Italian with a perfect Italian accent, who’d been my colleague a
few years before.  (Riccardo still complains about the night when he
needed salt to complete a dish he was cooking at my house, and I had
to go to the neighbor’s to get some.  He was so appalled at the fact
that I didn’t have any on my shelves that in compensation he dumped
far too much in the food.)  I started talking about my plans to see a
total solar eclipse — also a two-minute affair — and my possible
plans to watch a shuttle launch.  Riccardo looked at me in his
inimitable way — he never quite smiles, he smirks endearingly with
his eyes and cheeks, tilts his head back slightly, and looks down —
and laconically observed that I seemed to be really excited, to the
point of spending lots of money and time and preparation, by extremely
brief and intense experiences.  Now this wasn’t fair of course — it
isn’t MY fault that shuttle launches and solar eclipses are of such
short duration — but I had to admit it did look that way.  Since I’m
a person who takes six solar eclipses to eat a chocolate bar, and
generally prefers to savor, rather than wolf, the other joys of life,
I was a little distressed by this somehow, even though it was in jest.
He’d hit a nerve somewhere.  But I laughed, and answered that he must
be right, and that it probably was the reason why all my recent
relationships with women had been so short.  Silently I thought to
myself, hmm, I guess that’s the nerve.

The clock ticks down to five minutes.  My heart ticks in stride.  Four
minutes.  Three.  Two.  Turn on the camera.  Check the binoculars to
make sure they’re focused.  One and a half.  Make sure the binoculars
are hanging correctly from my neck so I can grab them with one hand.
I’m amused to see that I’m participating in the countdown, with my own
technical schedule.  One minute. Final swig of water.  Camera steady
on my knees, facing the pad.  Thirty seconds.  Raise the binoculars to
eye level.  Ten seconds.  Nervousness.  Nine.  Eight.  Seven.  Engine

Uh oh.  That’s not good.  It’s one thing to abort the countdown with,
say, thirty seconds.  That usually means a computer glitch.  But when
you’re down to ten seconds, gasses are flowing, heat is building,
rockets are about to ignite.  There is danger there.  Maybe a fire.
Probably everything will be ok, but I have to wonder, am I about to be
witness to an emergency?

Thirteen years ago I growled at the television set as the liftoff of
Christa McCauliffe’s shuttle flight took place without any Boston
television coverage. Instead I turned to the radio, and tuned in just
in time to hear the fateful words, “obviously a major malfunction.”
I turned back to the television — instantly all the networks were
carrying the disaster — and watched in disbelief and misery as the
camera followed a large piece of the shuttle, twisting and
flip-flopping brutally in the air, descending with horrific
inevitability and finally crashing into the sea.  I remember it
clearly, McCauliffe’s family being led away from the viewing stand,
the children at her school being sent home, the smiling group photo of
the lost astronauts.  How awful it must have been to be in Titusville
that day.  In the back of my mind, earlier in the evening, I had
wondered what it would be like to see the unthinkable.  What would it
do to me?  What would it be like to go home and see my family and
friends? What would they say?  What would I say?

But no emergency is declared, all seems safe, and so my second concern
emerges — when you abort with less than ten seconds, it usually means
a real problem, one that might take a week or more to fix.  Maybe this
is it.  Maybe they will delay a week, and I’ll be going home tomorrow
without seeing the launch.

This seems likely, and I try to keep my disappointment at bay as I
walk back to my car and start fighting the traffic back to Orlando.
But as I’m driving, I hear the good news — they’re already pretty
confident the whole incident was due to a faulty sensor reading, and
they think they can try again in 48 hours.  I can wait that long.

The next two days are spent working and wasting time and watching some
big thunderstorms.  That’s Florida — Lightning Central.  Finally it
is time to head back to the coast.  This round I go a little later —
I get there three hours early — and still I’m much earlier than I
need to be.  Even hotter this time, and less breeze. Again I call some
friends, and also I am treated to a spectacle of a big thunderstorm
off over central Florida, with frequent flashes of lightning
illuminating a great voluminous cloud.  No flashes over the sea,
fortunately, but as the launch gets closer the warning signs go up: no
technical problems, but we’re watching the weather very closely.
Apparently there are clouds off shore which might develop lightning,
although they are expected to clear the Cape before launch.

An hour before liftoff I get into position.  The boredom is lessened
by the continuing natural fireworks back over land.  The time grows
short.  Then, as I am looking out toward the shuttle, a yellow streak,
almost precisely vertical, divides the night sky in two like a knife.
My heart sinks.  That can’t be more than a few miles south of the
Cape.  At best, it means a delay, and they only have a window of about
one hour to launch the shuttle.  The NASA weather forecasters sound
concerned; one says, “it’ll be close.”  Meanwhile, another flash,
like the first, then a couple of flashes higher in the clouds south of
the pad.  The storm is drifting south, but not nearly fast enough, and
it is strengthening.  The clock ticks down to five minutes, and they
hold it there.  The weather does not improve.  Finally, near the end
of the hour, the word comes. The storm is still only eight miles south
of the shuttle, and they need twenty miles distance for fifteen
minutes before the launch.  Scrubbed.  They’ll try again tomorrow.
The weather forecast isn’t good, but you never know…

Ok.  I’m game.  It’s a stretch for me, but I’ll do it.  And I know I
won’t have to wait any longer, because if they fail to launch
tomorrow, NASA’s schedule forces them to postpone for nearly a month,
so I’ll just go home at that point.  At least I won’t have to worry
that they’ll launch it the night after I leave the area.  I hate it
when that happens.

The day passes like the others, inefficiently and hot, and this time I
watch a powerful thunderstorm, its clouds twisting and roiling in
disconcerting and even frightening ways.  The rain and wind are
strong, the lightning incessant, and the clouds shine that eerie
glassy green that means hail and danger.  The radio tells us that
trees have gone down not far away.  It’s a spectacular sight.

After the storm passes, the clearing begins.  The forecast has
improved.  Launch looks possible, and it’s time to drive there again.
I arrive just two hours beforehand.  This night the weather is cooler
and much more pleasant.  There’s still plenty of time to make some
phone calls and walk into the crowd for a while.  A cross-section of
humankind. When’s the last time, I ask myself as I watch the
assembling masses, when I shared an experience with such a wide
variety of people?

Atop my favorite rock, I am cheered by the good weather report and by
the absence of serious technical difficulties. The T-minus-9 mark is
reached, the hold is declared, the various technicians are polled, all
say the shuttle is ready to go.  The clock restarts, and again, as
three nights before, I go to work.  Rehearsal of plans of what to look
at during launch, and how to take photos.  Swig of water. Damned
cicadas start screaming behind me — what are they doing making such a
racket at this time of night?  I throw a rock into the bush, which
shuts them up.  Two minutes until launch.  It’s amazing how fast the
last minutes go compared to the ones that come before them. Binoculars
focussed. Camera tested.  The cicadas start up again — I violate all
environmental rules and throw my plastic water bottle into the bush.
Silence. The countdown reaches one minute.  My heart starts to pound.
Check camera and binoculars and comfort level of butt one last
time. Thirty seconds.  Fifteen.  I notice I’m shaking slightly with
excitement and try to settle down so I’m not unable to take pictures.
The voice of Mission Control intones.  Ten.  Nine.  Eight.  Seven.
Six we have main engine start.  In the binoculars I can just barely
detect the white exhaust cloud.  Four. Three. Reality begins — Two —
coming apart. One — Oh — We have — my God — booster — it’s really
— ignition — happening — and Liftoff —

Seeing the orange burst around the base of the tower which hides the
shuttle, I lower my binoculars to get a wider view.  My mind blinks.
Reality has vanished.

In its place: a midnight dawn.

Across my entire vision, from north to south, the sky has turned the
most vivid, rich, gorgeous shade of golden orange imaginable.  Take a
magnificent sunrise and spread its molten hues thickly and evenly,
like honey on toast.  Then place a misshapen, rapidly rising, pulsing
and vibrating sun in the center of it.  Dali himself could not have
imagined better.

Around me people are cheering and yelling, and a slight rumble is
heard through the loudspeakers, along with concerned astronauts and
Mission Control technicians who are having some kind of problem, but I
am not registering them very well.  There is so much to see, so much
to observe, and it’s all happening so fast and changing drastically
from second to second. Perceptions are flooding into my senses and
most are draining out of my pores before I can store them in memory.
All I can do is stare in awe, and click away with my camera (it’s on
my knee, I’m not going to waste precious moments looking through the
shutter.)  I remember my plan, and look sideways for a second, long
enough to see that it is bright as daylight and that my neighbors and
their excited expressions can easily be seen. I photograph them, and
then turn back to the water.  So many surprises.  The shuttle itself,
perched atop its fiery mount, is invisible, even through binoculars —
too dim.  The orange booster rocket exhaust extends down a long way,
but below instantly turns dead white, with no leftover glow.  The sun
rises, the sky darkens.  The trajectory is vertical with a slight tilt
away toward the Atlantic.  The acceleration is amazing.

In 1989 I was in Northern California during the earthquake.  I was
outdoors, a fortunate circumstance both because it spared me from the
fear of being injured and because it gave me the opportunity to
observe what was happening around me.  The experience, which lasted
but fifteen seconds, was completely surreal.  I was in a trailer park
(Stanford University temporary housing.) The rattling of the trailers,
the circular rolling motion of the earth, the twish-twish of trees
being shaken like potted plants, the intense bouncing of the
automobiles on their springs, all contributed to the sensation of
being in a weird movie.  Nothing was as usual; everything around me
was strangely altered.  My mind was open, and absorbing, and yet
unable to stamp the experience as “real” or as “dream.”  It simply
opted not to decide.

For the first time since then, almost ten years ago, my mind has again
abdicated its responsibility.  Real, surreal, superreal, unreal, I
don’t know, but I do know that it is beautiful and awesome and the
rest of the universe just doesn’t matter right now.

The sound reaches us.  Nine miles is a long way.  Forty-five seconds
or so after the launch, with the shuttle well up in the sky, the
rumble of the main engines arrives.  I’m a bit disappointed it’s so
faint, but that disappointment vanishes a few moments later when the
thunder of the booster rockets makes it to Titusville, dwarfing the
human voices.  Thunder is the wrong word.  I always assumed that the
strange sound emitted by my TV during shuttle launches was an effect
of loud noise saturating a microphone.  Not so.  That’s exactly what
it sounds like.  It’s not thunder, or a continuous rumble.  It’s more
of a rattle, a massive throaty rattle — something a great dragon
would be proud to sing.

The sun is becoming smaller and higher and dimmer.  I had assumed the
shuttle would be travelling far more horizontally by this point, but
in fact its path has been nearly vertical and I’m leaning my head
quite far back to see it.  Yet gradually it is beginning to curve over
the ocean, the exhaust more and more foreshortened from my
perspective.  “Fourteen miles elevation” says Mission Control.
Fourteen miles?!  Suddenly the flames turn white.  A cheer goes up.
Wow, I think, have two whole minutes already passed?  Indeed they have
— I hear the loudspeaker say “good booster separation.”  I look
quickly through my binoculars and am treated to a sight which I have
watched countless times on TV but never thought I would be able to see
with my own eyes: the bright white spot of the shuttle’s main engines,
just below and between the twin faint red dribblings of the spent
solid rockets, drifting and falling back behind the bird they’ve
helped to fly.

Just then the shuttle, now merely a large dot of white light heading
over the Atlantic, stops climbing in the sky and begins dropping
toward the horizon.  It disappears behind its exhaust cloud.  I stare
up at the great tower of white smoke, which reaches from the launch
pad into the firmament, and feel as Jack must have felt looking at the
beanstalk.  Fourteen miles straight up.  That’s seventy-five thousand
feet.  Higher than any mountain.  Higher than any commercial jet.
Higher than any cloud.  The tallest object I have ever seen.  It is a
giant’s rope, a god’s staircase, the pillar of smoke which guided the
Israelites.  It is a scar that the rockets have burned into the air.
It shines in the moonlight.

The shuttle reappears.  It’s been three minutes since launch, and the
point of light is no longer brilliant.  The acceleration is dramatic.
It is dropping quickly now, and the light is dimming and reddening by
the second.  A few moments behind a cloud, and then it reappears,
rushing headlong toward the horizon.  As it threatens to become too
dim to see, I try to find it in my binoculars, but in the few seconds
it takes to get my eyes and my glasses in synch, it already is too
faint, and I’ve lost it.  Five minutes into the flight, the spectacle
is ended.  A minute later, the engines cut off. The shuttle is in
orbit.  So is my head.

The winds are very calm, and the towering exhaust plume is just
beginning to be massaged out of shape.  I watch it for a few minutes,
as it gradually and delicately comes apart.  I’m not ready to leave
yet.  My mind is starting to treat my perceptions as reality again,
but I’m a bit distressed to discover my memory isn’t working very
well. I can’t recall very much of the launch.  I can’t remember the
reflection in the water, and I can’t remember the way the sky became
dark as the shuttle climbed.  I was watching intently, yet apparently
my perceptions were running off like rain on parched ground.  But a
few aspects remain.  I easily find in my head the most important one
— a clear and vivid memory of that moment of birth, of creation,
when Mission Control said, “Ignition and Liftoff,” and there was

I walk slowly back toward my car, listening to the sounds of excited
youngsters and satisfied adults, raucous teenagers and cooing lovers,
with my overloaded mind simply repeating superlatives and trying to
reconstruct events.  Gradually my memory is working better; I’m
remembering more and more as I walk.  The drive home is spent
listening to a radio station carrying a talk show that is taking calls
from people who saw the launch.  I like hearing other people talk
about it.  It makes it more real for me, and it makes the experience
more communal and less solitary.  Additional memories become available
to my consciousness.  I run them again and again, savoring them,
seasoning them.

Back in my hotel room, I drop my camera and binoculars on the bed, throw the car keys and my wallet on the dresser, and tear off my sweaty shoes and socks.  Looking at myself in the mirror over the cheap sink, I smile broadly.  Congratulations are in order. I’ve fulfilled a longstanding dream, done something a bit crazy and fun, seen something astounding and wonderful. This is the way to live.

Then my inner child pipes up.

“I wanna do that again.”

Matt Strassler
August, 1999
All Rights Reserved

6 Responses

    1. Thanks! Someday I will scan and upload one or two (this was back in 99 before digital cameras) — but you can’t really photograph that kind of light show unless you have professional equipment, and even then it would be tough. The photos help to jog my memory, but that’s really all you can hope for, except the color, which is more or less right.

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