Is it worth it?

7 02 2010

The first time I ever got to watch a shuttle launch was January 1986, I was in the third grade.  I remember being in Ms. Brightwell’s class and all of us kids turning our desks to watch the old Zenith television on a rolling tray to see the shuttle resting against its tower.  I remember watching the launch and seeing it explode but not really grasping that it had exploded.  The teacher turned off the television and left the room and we could see all of the teachers talking dramatically in the hall way.  She came back in crying, but didn’t explain anything and I didn’t really know what to make of it all.  It wasn’t until later when my parents explained it all that it sort of made sense.  I didn’t watch any other launches until my adult years.

The first time I watched a re-entry was February 2003.  My daughters and I sat on the living room floor with our laundry that Saturday morning, folding and waiting and watching the news.  The reporter interrupted himself with footage from Texas that resembled asteroids falling to earth against the bright blue sky.  It didn’t take long to add two and two together and I sent the girls off to their room to play as I sat dumbfounded with tears as the reality took hold.  It was stunning and heartbreaking and I wished I had never even tuned in.  Somehow seeing news in hindsight as opposed to real time would be more comforting; you already know the outcome, the details, the dirty truths.  But watching this catastrophe occur you can only wait, gnawing your lip anxiously and hoping for the best.

So given my crappy luck, I was a bit hesitant at the idea of going in person to watch a shuttle launch.  It isn’t that I really am superstitious or such, but I don’t really have a successful history in regards to the shuttles.  Statistically speaking, NASA launches shuttles on schedule only 40% of the time; as of July 2009, out of 126 launches, only 47 were launched at the scheduled time, one third of all delays caused by weather.  But there remains only a handful of launches of the shuttle and this was the last scheduled night launch.  If I got to select the perfect first time, it would certainly be a night time launch without the blaring glimmer of the sun to interrupt my visual absorption of the event.

We contacted my mother in law, who can probably count on two hands how many launches she has missed since the realization of space travel.  My husband’s brother and his wife and my mother in law were going to be making the trek across the state to witness the event and we planned our convoy.

We took to the expressway, a toll road and thus began the night.  How many drivers would set off the alarms for failing to have toll money.  You got on the toll road, it was an option.  You have no money.  Really?  Why are you on the toll road if you are broke?  To see still drivers who take more than thirty seconds to find money to pay the toll was too irritating.  No less than three times we waited behind drivers at the toll booth for over a minutes’ time, awaiting them to find the change to pay the toll.  Funnier still was when we rang up my mother in law to say they would need to pull over and wait on us.  Her vehicle is equipped with a device that allows her to fly through the toll booths, ours is not.  We were miles and minutes behind her when we called and asked her to wait up for us.  Why? she asked.  We both kind of looked at each other and chuckled.

We arrived to Titusville around ten at night, making much better time than I thought – taking only about three hours after everyone met up and ate dinner and such.  The entire area of the strip was flooded with cars sporting license tags from Alaska to Maine to Texas to Ohio and about every imaginable place in between.  We finally found a small little area nestled between two large palm trees overlooking the river between the mainland and the sandbar that comprises NASA’s stomping ground.

We initially set up our folding chairs behind a parked car only to have an irate driver hop out and begin her chastising of how we could possibly think to sit on city owned property behind a car.  Didn’t we know it was her spot?  We pointed out that there were no chairs to hold the area and she informed us how she didn’t set them out due to fear of them being stolen.  I laughed at her inwardly, but little did I know she was only a scratch on the surface of the mentality we would witness over the next seven hours.

We settled down to wait and began listening to the conversations around us.  Let me set up the view for you.  We are looking out at the Atlantic Ocean and it is pitch black all around – save for a well lit building piercing brightly into the darkness, complete with flood lights illuminating the building:

I cannot tell you how many times I heard, while looking out at the above image, the question Where is the shuttle? I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to say, I’ll give you two guesses.

Here’s another kicker we overheard: Which way is North? And if we were sitting in a field in the middle of Kansas I could say, good question.  But we were sitting on the Atlantic coastline of Florida, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean.

And as much as I wish I could say this was the climax of idiocy, it was only the beginning.

As of 1 am, the update was that due to the few clouds that had begun to roll in, they were reducing the chance of launch to 60% – they being NASA.  By 2 am, that chance was down to 30% and by 3 am the word was no go.  I asked my mother in law, the undeniable best source of history in regards to the shuttle launchings within probably a two mile radius, how many times have they still launched on schedule after issuing a no go?  Never, she responded.  So should we go ahead and leave while there is no traffic?  No, because they might still launch.  But have they ever, in forty plus years, launched a craft after saying it would be a no go?  No.  Okay.  And by 4:30, nine minutes before scheduled launch time, they issued the scrub announcement.

We packed up and began our walk across the four lanes of traffic back to our car.  It amazed me, it really did, watching people drive their cars within inches of the bumper in front of them to prevent pedestrians from crossing in front of their car.  We finally got the cars repacked and began our attempt to enter the traffic flow.  I should have taken pictures because you probably won’t believe what I about to write.

At a four way intersection, with street lights, cars wormed their way into every imaginable space.  Northbound cars drove onto the bumpers of other northbound cars, closing all possible gaps; southbound cars blockaded two to three lanes of traffic to maneuver a u-turn; east and west bound cars interjected between northbound cars to cut across by any means possible.  And then the horn honking began.  For three hours we moved along a stretch of three miles, staring incredulously at drivers who had the gall to blare their horns repeatedly for the traffic not flowing.  Where they expected drivers to move to, I don’t know.  It took us over four hours to move a span of five miles.  And the sight of city police not trafficking the vehicles but rather flashing their lights and sounding their sirens to somehow attempt to drive through this clusterfuck.

So this brings me to the point of my writing – impatient road warriors.

You know who you are.  You’ll pass a vehicle going one mile under the speed limit, blowing past them at neck breaking speed only to cut in front of them, hit your brakes and stop at the light gaining only a car length.  You’re the risk takers who weave in and out of cars, trying to gauge the fastest moving lane to better your position.  You’re the asshole who will move in front of a car, slam on your brakes at undetermined intervals to pay back the driver who failed to let you in.  Your calling card is a combination of the horn and your middle finger.  I would be embarrassed to glimpse in the rear view or over at other cars if I drove with the haste and hate that so many do.  Is there ever really anything so important to get to that you would risk death to arrive?  What makes your destination so much more urgent than that of anyone else’s?

I have to say this, I am no angel.  Drivers irritate me, driving too slow, too fast, too recklessly, leaving their turning signal on or brights blaring for miles of road.  But ultimately, I have my life and that of my passengers to consider.  The risks you accept behind the wheel of your car at speeds of fifty, sixty, seventy plus miles an hour are so great.  And with that admission I will cease my safe driver drivel.

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