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.
I watched until all that was left was the disintegrating remnant of the exhaust trail.
Seeing it in person can change you. You don’t know what it will make you feel, or think.
Yet it was too far away, and too small, to match descriptions and photographs of NASA’s more powerful rockets. Ever since the first shuttle launch, which I listened to on a portable radio that I’d smuggled onto my ninth-grade class camping trip, I’ve wanted to see one. Oh, of course I’ve since seen launches on color television, and on film in IMAX theaters, where the cameras bring you close to the action. But that just isn’t the same as seeing it yourself, even if you are farther 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 Titusville night is hot, with a moderate breeze unable to lift the sultry blanket of a Florida summer. Clear skies bode well. Already by 8 p.m. 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 ample 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 that it’s a weeknight launch, I suppose.
So with a few hours to kill, 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 spot with a good view of the launch pad, 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 enjoy 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 neighbors 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 that is holding at nine minutes to begin ticking again, and 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 want to observe, and how and when to use my binoculars and my camera and my eyes alone. I do some planning, and even rehearsing. I know the risks. My grandfather used to take home movies of my father playing football in high school. The only problem was that when the play became 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.
The fleeting nature of this experience had come up in conversation a few weeks earlier, in Colorado, at a dinner with other theoretical physicists. Among them was my friend Riccardo, a brilliant, irreverent, and hilarious Italian with a raspy voice and a delightful accent, who’d been my colleague in the mid-nineties. (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 across the street to the neighbor’s to get some. He was so appalled at my not having any on my shelves that in compensation he dumped far too much in the food.)
I’m a person who takes six solar eclipses to eat a chocolate bar, and generally prefers to savor, rather than wolf down, the other joys of life.
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 down, the other joys of life, I winced at his remark, even though it was in jest. He’d hit a nerve somewhere. But I laughed, and responded that he must be right, and that perhaps this explained why my recent relationships with women had all been so short. Silently I thought to myself, Hmmm. 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 find 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 cutoff.
I have to wonder, am I about to be witness to an emergency?
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 they’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 okay, but I have to wonder, am I about to be witness to an emergency?
Thirteen years ago I growled at the television set, as channel after channel offered no coverage of the liftoff of Christa McAuliffe’s shuttle flight. So I ran to the radio, and tuned in just in time to hear the fateful words “obviously a major malfunction.” Returning to the television—instantly all the networks were carrying the disaster— I watched in misery and disbelief 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, McAuliffe’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 they 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 forty-eight hours. I can wait that long.
The next two days are spent working, and wasting time, and watching some strong thunderstorms. That’s Florida for you—Lightning Central. Finally it is time to head back to the coast. This round I go a little later—three hours before launch—and still I’m much earlier than I need to be. It’s even hotter this time, with less of a 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, they say, but we’re watching the weather very closely. Apparently there are clouds off shore that might develop lightning, although they are expected to clear the Cape before launch.
A yellow streak, almost precisely vertical, divides the night sky in two like a knife.
An hour before liftoff I get into position. The continuing natural fireworks far behind me, back over land, lessen the boredom. 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 tonight’s launch window is only about an hour long. The NASA weather forecasters sound concerned; one says, “It’ll be close.” Meanwhile, there’s another flash, like the first, then a couple of flashes higher in the clouds south of the pad. The storm is drifting away, but not nearly fast enough, and it is strengthening. The countdown 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 a twenty mile lightning-free zone for fifteen minutes before the launch. Scrubbed. They’ll try again tomorrow. The weather forecast isn’t good, but you never know. . . .
Okay. I’m game. It’s a stretch for me, but I’ll do it. And I know that it’s my last shot, for now. If they fail yet again to launch, NASA’s schedule forces a postponement for nearly a month, so I won’t have to debate whether or not to go home.
The day passes like the others, inefficiently and hot. In the afternoon I am caught in an exceptional thunderstorm, its clouds twisting and roiling disconcertingly. The rain and wind are strong, the lightning incessant. The clouds shine that uncanny glassy green that means hail and danger. Not far away, the radio reports, many trees have fallen.
After the storm passes, the clearing begins. The forecast has improved. Launch looks possible, and it’s time to drive again to Titusville. 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. Again I marvel at the cross-section of humankind, and at the festive atmosphere, and at how a launch brings out the youth in everyone. When’s the last time, I ask myself as I watch the assembling masses, that I shared an experience with such a wide variety of people?
The countdown reaches one minute. My heart starts to pound.
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 usual 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 my plans: where to look during launch, how to hold my binoculars and camera, what to photograph. A swig of water. Damned cicadas start screaming behind me—why are they 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 astonishing how quickly the last minutes go compared to the ones that precede them. Binoculars focused. Camera tested. The cicadas start up again—I violate all my environmental principles 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. Twenty. I notice I’m shaking slightly with excitement, and try to settle down so that I’m able 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!—
The orange burst around the base of the launch tower prompts me to lower my binoculars. My mind blinks. Reality has vanished.
In its place: a midnight dawn.
The entire sky, from north to south, has turned a vivid, rich, gorgeous shade of golden orange. Imagine taking a magnificent sunrise, and spreading 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 created better.
It's all happening so fast. Perceptions are flooding into my senses and most are draining out of my pores before I can store them in memory.
Around me people are cheering and yelling. I hear a slight rumble 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 ingest, 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—no wasting precious moments looking through the shutter). Following my plan, I look sideways for a second, long enough to see that it is bright as daylight and that my neighbors and their excited orange expressions can easily be seen. I photograph them, and then turn back to the water. There are so many surprises. The shuttle itself, perched atop its flaming mount, is invisible, even through binoculars—too dim. The booster rockets’ thick, fiery exhaust column ends abruptly in dead white smoke, 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 there occurred a powerful earthquake in northern California. I was biking home through a trailer park—temporary university housing—when the ground began to move. Coming to a sudden stop, and looking about me, I found my familiar surroundings eerily altered. The loud rattling of the trailers, the twish-twish of trees being shaken like potted plants, the wild gyration of parked automobiles, and the circular rolling motion of the earth all contributed to the sensation that I had been inserted suddenly into a bizarre science-fiction film. 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 that day almost ten years ago, my mind has again abdicated its responsibility. Real, surreal, super-real, unreal—it refuses to say. Its silence leaves me without reference, without footing; my usual ties to the world are severed. Slack-jawed, I stare into the blazing night.
The sound. The sound reaches us. With the launch pad nine miles distant, forty-five seconds pass, and the shuttle is well up in the sky, before the rumble of the main engines arrives. It’s faint, but my disappointment evaporates when the thunder of the booster rockets makes it to Titusville, drowning out my neighbors’ voices. Thunder is the wrong word. I’ve always assumed that the strange sound emitted by my TV during shuttle launches was an effect of loud noise saturating a microphone. Not so. The microphone gets it exactly right. It’s not thunder, or a continuous rumble. It’s more of a rattle, a massive, throaty rattle—the proud and vibrant song of a dragon.
The sun is becoming smaller and higher and dimmer. I had imagined the shuttle would be traveling 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 that 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 gaze up at the great white tower of 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 that 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. It is dropping more and more quickly, 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 that it takes to get my eyes and my glasses in synch, it becomes 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 distressingly my memory isn’t working very well. I can’t recall 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 I do manage to call to mind the most important memory—a clear and vivid recollection of that moment of birth, of creation, when Mission Control said, “Ignition and liftoff,” and there was Light. . . .
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. During the slow drive back to the hotel I listen to a radio talk show 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 rise into my consciousness. I run through them again and again, savoring them, seasoning them.
It’s after 2 a.m. when I reach my hotel room. I drop my camera and my binoculars on the bed, toss my wallet and the car keys on the dresser, and tear off my sweaty shoes and socks. I look over at the mirror above the cheap sink, and smile broadly at my tired and disheveled image. Congratulations are in order. I’ve persevered. I’ve witnessed something astounding and wonderful. I’ve fulfilled a longstanding dream. This is the way to live.
Then my inner child pipes up.
“I wanna do that again.”
Matt Strassler (who never did get to do that again) is a professor of particle physics and string theory at Rutgers University's New High Energy Theory Center. He is also host of the website Of Particular Significance, http://profmattstrassler.com, which covers particle physics and related subjects for the general public.
Art by Paul Swartz.
Photos by Matt Strassler.