I grew up watching rockets launch. In elementary school, teachers would march us outside to stare up at the sky and look for launching shuttles. At night, people would pull over and get out of their car to look for the orange glow reaching toward the heavens.
Orlando is about fifty miles from Cape Canaveral. Close enough to be able to see every launch without a telescope. Staring at the sky and a fascination with space is ingrained in my DNA.
I’ve wandered through NASA’s Rocket Garden countless times, gaping at the enormity of the Saturn-V laying on its side. I’ve ridden shuttle simulators and seen capsules that have circled the moon and returned to earth.
A number of years back, while the Shuttle Program was still active, a friend worked at NASA. Once a year, NASA opened the gates for Friend and Family Day. The only stipulation is that each employee could bring one car-load on property.
The annual pilgrimage provided unprecedented access to the facilities that fueled my imagination. You don’t realize how large the vehicle assembly building is until you’re standing inside of it staring upwards. It induces vertigo without leaving the floor.
On the final Friends and Family Day tour I witnessed the Shuttle Discovery being prepared for its final flight. We toured through the hanger and walked under Discovery, which was being fit with reentry tiles. The engines were being rebuilt — as they were before every flight — and were fully exposed. It was a marvel of engineering.
A few months later, my wife and I managed to find ourselves on NASA’s property once again for Discovery’s final launch. Beyond the military checkpoints, we were as close to the launch pad as civilians were allowed — the closest to a launch I’d ever been. Along with a few hundred-thousand other stargazers, we stood in awe as the STS-133 erupted on the launch pad and roared into the sky.
I had seen shuttles launch my entire life but never up close and personal. The sound was so loud that it reverberated in my stomach. There were cheers and tears as Discovery exited the atmosphere for the final time. The shuttle program was ending and a chapter of American exploration was closing.
Years later, my wife and I were reunited with Discovery in its final resting place — the Udvar Hazy Center in Washington DC. We wandered around Discovery, seeing the scorch marks on the reentry tiles and tail from the powerful heat of the atmosphere and engines. I experienced every stage of Discovery’s final journey, from preparation to launch to retirement.
It’s been some time since I’ve stared at the sky to witness a rocket launch. The frequency has diminished greatly since the days of the shuttle program. Launches are only for satellites and those rockets are much smaller, often unable to be seen.
NASA has eyes on the moon and Mars, but the timeline is still years away. A lot can happen and budgets and priorities change. Someday I hope to again stare at the sky in wild wonder, as a rocket rips through the sky delivering astronauts to the reaches beyond our atmosphere.