Growing up in Titusville, Florida, you get used to the launches, you become accustomed to the strange fact that one of our nation’s greatest technical achievements is on full display mere miles from your house, that every now and then a 300,000-pound rocket is shot from the earth into space, or that every now and then a group of people get strapped into a black and white vehicle and leave earth, and you can watch it all happen from the street in front of your house.
This is how you watch a launch, when you’re nine and living in a one-story house that was built in the 1960s. Your mom has the TV on, to watch the countdown, and when the announcer calls out, “Liftoff!” you run out the front door and into the street—not worrying, because no one drives down this street except people who live here, and they’re used to kids being in the road. You’re barefoot, and you feel the asphalt on your feet, every bump and bit of gravel, and you turn back toward your house and look at the sky.
Then, it happens: You see the rocket or the shuttle as it thunders up, you watch the enormous column of smoke pouring from it, you see the fire just at the top of the smoke, and you can’t help but feel excited, even though you don’t realize just how lucky you are to be watching it. You don’t think about the miracle of technology, about the improbability of it all, what it means, you just watch it and know somehow that you’re watching something thrilling.
Your dad works at the Cape, on the Delta II rocket. At work, he touches satellites and works in rooms with motors that hold seven thousand pounds of rocket fuel. The rooms are designed for explosions, to protect the people in the rest of the building if something goes wrong—the people who might have a shot at getting out alive.
But you don’t know anything about that.
When you’re almost fourteen, your dad has been complaining about the company cutting corners, cutting safety, cutting expenses. There’s a launch coming up, and your dad says he’s afraid this one will end up in the river.
The launch happens, the rocket lifting off, the announcer calling “Liftoff!” but then something happens. The rocket explodes. It’s almost beautiful, like fireworks. You watch a video later, you watch it on the news, you see it over and over again. The announcer says, “We have had an anomaly.” You feel sick when you see it.
Eventually, you leave Titusville for Orlando and college. You can’t see the launches anymore, but from time to time you go home and watch them. You’re busy, though, and you’re moving on, and Titusville seems small and sad, with its old cinder block houses and scrubby palm trees. You’re in a city now, and you’re not thinking about missing the launches. And then, you graduate. And then, a year later, you move to North Carolina. You are doing big things; you are going to grad school. You have left the state you grew up in.
Your father retires. You don’t know when the rockets launch now. The longer you’re away, the more this bothers you. Your in-laws tell you about shuttle launches, and you wish you could see them. You know the shuttles will themselves be retired soon. You visit the National Air and Space museum just outside of DC and when you see the shuttle there, dramatically lit and gorgeous, you feel like crying.
You see one more shuttle launch, on a sunny May morning, the day before your sister-in-law gets married. One of the last shuttle launches.
You stand in front of the Indian River and watch the launch, you watch the fire and smoke, without thinking you pray it won’t explode, you feel the rumble of it in your stomach, the loud sound of all that fire and power, and you know very acutely now how lucky you are to see this, how miraculous it is, and why you’re thrilled, and why you’re sad. You know.