Time has that way of healing.
It’s been five months since Columbia.
I have two daughters, Erin, 6, and Kelly, 4, and I take them to space shuttle launches. It’s our special getaway, just me and the girls. Late bedtimes, mega-snacks, unlimited playing at the official NASA Visitor’s Center, the motel room quickly looking like a rock star went berserk with a sack of space souvenirs-and that’s just my stuff.
I’ve been fascinated with the space program since I was a small child growing up near West Palm Beach in the 1960s. I used to sit for hours in front of the TV set in a foil-wrapped cardboard box/space capsule, drinking Tang back when it really tasted bad, and watching the around-the-clock coverage they used to give early launches (which was mostly several hours of a stationary shot through the open doors of a Gemini capsule of two astronauts lying on their backs). Then, after the countdown reached zero, I’d run out in the front yard and look north for the rocket.
I was hoping my girls would pick up the interest, but I didn’t want to be one of those parents who forces stuff on them. So I just gave them the exposure. Luckily, they took to it right away. I guess they wanted to be like me. Okay, it was actually all the very expensive space toys I bought them, the moon buggies and Apollo action figures and the giant $55 Saturn rocket with real-voice countdown that rumbles and vibrates on launch. It was all those full-tilt slumber parties we had at the Cape. Any kid will crack under that kind of pressure.
Erin soon said she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. Kelly still wanted to be a Bucs cheerleader, but she was showing promise with the action figures.
I couldn’t have been prouder.
So we were planning on taking another one of our trips to the Cape for a launch this spring.
Then the footage from the sky over Texas. People gathered around television sets in public places once more.
When I got home, my older daughter said she didn’t want to be an astronaut anymore.
My younger asked: "How are they going to put the pieces back together so they can be alive again?"
There were no good answers.
So we watched Apollo 13 for the 20th time, because I wanted them to see a happy ending.
I had business on the road shortly after that took me to the Cape. Driving up U.S. 1 through Cocoa, the American flags were back out, the advertising replaced on marquees in front of fast-food restaurants and muffler shops. "Remember Columbia in your prayers," "God bless the crew of Columbia."
Who couldn’t feel bad? But I wondered: We see disasters on the evening news every night where many more people are killed. These were just seven. So why the big punched-in-the-gut feeling?
I realized my own reason as the days passed and I watched the networks replaying, over and over, archive footage of the Columbia crew in training. It was something in those faces.
Tom Wolfe coined "The Right Stuff" for the original seven Mercury astronauts. But back then, the stuff that was needed was the best test pilots with the least fear (John Glenn went up in a rocket that had a 40 percent track record of exploding). It also meant most were hard-drinking, fast-driving, macho, hang-it-over-the-edge daredevils.
As I watched the tapes of Columbia in training, I realized how much had changed. This was a completely different kind of "right stuff." Maybe it should be called the "pure stuff." No less courageous. But steady and dependable. Idealism and principles.
If the country were reduced to a small town, they would be the top of the high school graduating class, the most virtuous star students and athletes. The ones the town was pinning its hopes on to go out and do the stuff of dreams.
Then they’re all gone in a blink.
I keep thinking of a bunch of corny themes involving "innocence." My own innocence as a child watching the definitely not innocent early astronauts. The rare innocence that the lost shuttle crew was able to preserve into adulthood in pursuit of their goals. The innocence of my children asking questions about the space program-and that I seem to regain as I watch it all through their eyes.
That’s the thing about innocence. It is corny, when you don’t have it anymore.
So we’ve decided we’re going to take another one of our shuttle launch vacations to the Cape, even though there won’t be a launch.
First, right after we wreck the motel room with NASA paraphernalia, we’ll hit the new Saturn V exhibit, catch an IMAX movie and take the bus tour out to the launch pads, that humongous crawler that transports the shuttle, and the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building. (I took a similar tour when I was a child and still remember the bus driver’s voice of authority over the PA saying they could get clouds inside the building and fit four-and-a-half baseball fields on the roof.)
Then we’ll break from the attractions described in the tourist pamphlets and strike out on our own custom A-tour of local institutions. That’s the thing about the Cocoa Beach area: It’s really a small company town that’s still old Florida, practically frozen in the ’60s, when astronauts zipped along undeveloped beachfront in Corvette convertibles. The history is preserved everywhere.
We’ll eat breakfast again at the Moon Hut, the historic diner that was a favorite of the astronauts and launch teams, with a ton of space memorabilia on the walls. We’ll have lunch at the Durango steak house, because it used to be the Mousetrap, the legendary nightspot, and has more memorabilia on the walls. And we’ll order dinner at Bernard’s Surf, "since 1948," because of-you guessed it-the autographed photos of astronauts having dinner there (great Apollo-Soyuz stuff).
Our usual sunset location is the 800-foot-long Cocoa Beach Pier, a popular launch viewing site since the very beginning. The pier is actually more like a small boomtown in stilts jutting out into the water. There are numerous restaurants and shops and a tiki bar at the end. And, of course, plenty of memories on the walls to keep the space aficionado occupied. Then we’ll stay up late trashing the motel room some more, fueled by sodas and pouches of freeze-dried "Astronaut Ice Cream" from the NASA gift shop.
Day Two: No chance of running out of places anytime soon. We’ll head back up A1A, past a street sign, "I Dream of Jeannie Way," to Alma’s Italian & Seafood Restaurant. Most of Alma’s stuff was lost in a fire, but there’s still a faded photograph of Apollo 12’s Alan Bean walking on the lunar surface in 1969. It’s inscribed: "I was the first man in history to eat spaghetti on the moon, but believe me, it didn’t equal yours." Nearby is the Econo Lodge, which used to be the Cape Colony Inn, owned by the Mercury astronauts. There’s still a lounge in their honor and a commemorative sign in back behind the pool and Oriental restaurant.
I’ll have to pull over at Ron Jon Surf Shop, which used to be the venerable surf joint on the pier before it moved into a building so big and garish that the kids won’t let me pass without stopping (they know they sell space toys inside).
At some point we’ll cross over to the mainland and cruise up toward Titusville, to a small public park on Indian River Avenue overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, where plaques in the ground contain names from Apollo 1 and Challenger. We’ll cross the street to another waterfront park with big, gleaming metal monuments to the "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts and the "Next Nine" of the Gemini program, where the kids will wiggle their fingers inside the palm prints cast in bronze.
Before heading home, we’ll put in some more time at the official NASA Visitor’s Center, where the girls will run around the "Rocket Garden" and through the full-scale shuttle mock-up. We’ll go inside the dimly lit gallery of manned spaceflight, where they’ll stare in wonderment at the early capsules that now look more like barrels that went over Niagara Falls.
Finally, we will visit the silent, polished-granite astronaut memorial on the northern edge of the center.
And we will remember Columbia.
Cocoa Beach Pier: 401 Meade Ave., off A1A 1/2-mile north of State Road 520; (321) 783-7549
Alma’s Seafood & Italian Restaurant: 306. N. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach; (321) 783-1981
Bernard’s Surf: 2 S. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach; (321) 783-2401
Moon Hut: 7802 Astronaut Blvd., Cape Canaveral; (321) 868-2638
Durango: 5602 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach; (321) 783-9988
Econo Lodge: 1275 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach; (321) 783-2252