Monday, March 17, 2008

A go for launch

My Spring Training trip to Florida begins at 5:55 a.m. on a Monday, March 10, as I stand beside the train tracks at Clifton awaiting the 6 a.m. eastbound to Secaucus Junction. Ben Harper's cover of "Strawberry Fields" plays on my iPod and my hands grow numb in the cold as I scribble in my Moleskin notebook.

It's a different group, a different breed out waiting for the 6 o'clock train from what I'm used to at 7:53 or 8:16. It's a smaller collection of commuters, a more close-knit group of strangers who have become acquaintances by virtue of their respective workdays, which have them watching dawn break from beside the tracks.

Venus hangs above the eastbound track like a marker, a point summoning you out this way, inviting you to explore.

I switch to the 6:26 Jersey Avenue train at Secaucus, but soon we're stopped along the Passaic River to the south and I-280 to the north. For half an hour, I watch the light grow in the east, gradually illuminating the factory along the river that I'd first seen as a black mass, no definition to separate the smokestack from the various buildings, no angles with which to gauge perspective, to tell which way the building is situated. Amtrak keeps us here as one of several trains stuck in a crawl through the yards of East Newark because of signal problems. To the left of the factory, the sun shines orange beneath the elevated Turnpike.

Again we move, a few hundred feet at a time, signal to signal, where the trains have to wait for oral instructions from the dispatcher before continuing. There's no telling how long this will take. By 7:25 -- about 45 minutes late -- I figure I have another 20 before I have to wonder when the next flight to Orlando is.

Not long after writing those thoughts, we're moving again, pulling into Newark Penn Station and soon reaching the Newark Airport station. I hustle onto the monorail and, in the end, I make the flight with time to spare. Check-in takes minutes, security is a breeze and my gate sits just two away from the top of the concourse. I'm in my seat by 8:10 (for the 8:30 departure), and the couple next to me arrives a few minutes after I buckle my seat belt. Their son is seated behind me, and after the father jokes, "Who do you want to sit with -- Mom or me?" I sarcastically offer to switch seats with the sullen teen, knowing he won't want to move. He chooses to stick with the window and open center seat as his traveling companions.

I sleep through most of the flight, wait ages for my bag (then have to fix the busted zipper, which somehow came undone so that I nearly dumped everything on the floor next to the carousel), pick up my silver Prius and make it to Disney's Wide World of Sports complex right at 1:05, game time.

After the Braves hold off the Cardinals, 3-1 -- or at least until they get to the ninth -- I beat the traffic out of the complex and cruise (despite the ripoff of $4 in tolls) to Titusville, where I discover that I've left my computer power cord at home. Hence the lack of a more immediate recap of my travels; I save the computer's battery for uploading photos and little else.

After another nap -- having gotten just three hours' sleep at home before heading to the airport -- I grab dinner (taco, two enchiladas, rice, chips and salsa, two Dos Equis for $17, including tip) at the Mexican restaurant next to the hotel. I cruise into towntown Titusville to scout out the space shuttle viewing area, I settle in for some TV at the hotel before returning to the park at 12:30 to await the scheduled 2:28 a.m. launch.

Predictably, people have made a night of it, setting up lawn chairs, their cameras on tripods and picnic dinners (and drinks) throughout Veterans Memorial Park. (The map I have says Space View Park, as does Google Maps, but the images there look to be from before a refurbishing, so perhaps with the upgrade came the name change.) I manage to secure a decent spot, though it requires me to set up my tripod with one leg on a stone retaining wall and the other two nestled into the plants. To take pictures, I have to balance myself on the wall and look through the viewfinder without toppling over. A veteran of shuttle launches from West Lafayette, Indiana, has taken up a spot next to me with his younger daughter (the older one, who was apparently sleeping in the car, joins us for the last 20 minutes) and we make small talk on and off for the next two hours.

Somewhere off to our left, someone has a radio that's picking up the communications from Mission Control, so we're kept abreast of the countdown and the various checks that have to be approved before the launch. At the critical junctures -- T-minus 9 minutes and 4 minutes are two, I believe -- the remaining time and the status filter through the crowd to those around us. At T-minus 31 seconds (the moment when the shuttle's on-board computers take over), the murmur becomes louder, the anticipation peaks and a palpable sense of excitement, eagerness and awe overcomes the crowd. Soon, the engines are lit beneath the shuttle, the rockets emit their exhaust, "the candle is lit" as they say, and the whole launch pad complex shines brightly across the 11 miles of water and wetlands between the launch pad and our viewpoint in Titusville. The sky is afire. In less than half a minute, the shuttle lifts off and disappears into the low cloud bank. It's all silent for us, a brilliant display of light and smoke, and it's another minute or 90 seconds before we finally hear the launch, the rumbling of the rockets finally reaching us across the channel.

Despite the brevity -- two hours of waiting for 30 seconds of liftoff -- I find it's worth it. There are only a finite number of launches remaining before NASA retires the shuttles in 2010, and not only did I get to see one, I got to see one at night at a time when the agency tries to limit liftoffs to daylight in order to have a better view of any potential damage caused by ice or other factors.

Exhausted, I pack up my gear and trudge back to the car with the crowd. The Burger King where I parked is closed, two of the employees standing on the curb outside having watched the launch themselves. Not that I'm hungry, I'm surprised the manager doesn't keep the restaurant open until 3 on a night like this, when he can get an extra hour or so of business from all the hungry space nuts.

On the 10-minute drive back to the hotel, my iPod -- clever as it is -- plays "Across the Universe" (albeit the Rufus Wainwright cover), which sticks in my head as I quickly fall asleep in my hotel room along I-95.

No comments: