The Day the Shuttle Didn’t Fly

In 1990, when I was 4+ months pregnant with my older daughter, my husband and I went to Disney World. Our reasoning was that this might be our last opportunity to act like the irresponsible kids we were (even in our 30s) rather than the responsible parental figures we were about to become. This showed how much we knew about parenthood, but it was still a good trip. While we were there, we learned that there was going to be a shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Oh-God-Too-Early AM the next day, and immediately decided we had to drive there from Orlando and see the launch.

The drive seemed to take forever, although it’s only about 60 miles. I think we left Orlando at 4am, and got to Cape Canaveral closer to 6am than our planned 5am. Then we had to find out where to go. Fortunately, there were signs–most of them hand-drawn by other people who were as weird about this stuff as we are. We were deep in unknown territory, and while you can’t drive through Orlando without being pointed to every possible entertainment, Port Canaveral–or the town on the far side of the Banana River from which your basic drop-in-tourists viewed launches–provided a lot less guidance for your wandering NASA fan. But we found a place where many cars were parked, and pulled over and walked across what I remember as a fairly long, slightly swampy trail to a field where there were perhaps 60 or 70 other people standing around, attention on the distance, where the shuttle and gantry gleamed fitfully in the morning light.

Then what?

We waited. For a while. And another while.

The launch time for a shuttle is more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule: quite sensibly, every time anything shows up as less than optimal before hand they want to delay until they know it won’t be a problem. The day was clear and sunny–it looked to us like everything should be proceeding just fine. But there were several folks with transistor radios (it was 1990… transistor radios were still a thing, and cell phones were exotic) who kept updating the crowd on the status of the launch. And the status of the launch kept slipping further and further. We never found out why, but something was not right, either with the weather or the shuttle. I think we waited for 2-3 hours before the launch was scrubbed.

Word spread from the transistor-radio-guys outward to the rest of us. Launch scrubbed. We all drifted back to our cars. It was probably 9am or so by then, and we realized we were starving. So we followed the slow caravan of cars back to town, looking for a diner that didn’t have a long wait. When we found one with a free table we discovered that the place was full of our fellow shuttle-enthusiasts (launch days were apparently a boon to the local diner scene). Everyone was drinking coffee and talking about the launch that didn’t happen; we got into conversations with some of them. Some came to every launch every time; others, like us, were one-time tourists, although no one seemed to think the less of us for it. What I remember more than anything else was the feeling of community.

After breakfast we went to Kennedy Space Center, did the tour. It was wonderful (I discovered just how claustrophobic I am, looking at the interior of a Mercury capsule and imagining myself in it, sitting on top of a Roman candle) and awe-inspiring. No where near the shuttle, which was still far away on the gantry, glittering in the sun. At last, mid-afternoon, we both realized we were exhausted, and started the drive back to Orlando.

I wish we’d been able to see the shuttle launch. But what we got was something almost as good: a morning spent in to company of people who shared our excitement and fascination with space flight. And, miles away, the shuttle, tantalizingly out of reach but promising the future.

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