We gathered up snacks and sunscreen and headed out of the hotel room door just ahead of the approaching dawn. The sign next to the blue, kidney shaped pool caught my eye. It announced that this hotel was first owned by the original seven astronauts. We didn’t know that when we checked in, but it fit perfectly with today’s adventure. We were on our way to see a rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center.
As soon as hubs heard the news that Space X would launch the Falcon 9 during our Florida vacation, he began scoping out viewing spots. There were two strong contenders and Jetty Park was nearest. We idly wondered how many people would be joining us there at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning.
Driving toward the park in the pre-dawn light, down a narrow road lined with palm trees, we saw a building crossing the road a few blocks in front of us. It took a moment to register that this was a cruise ship, it was so incongruous with the setting.
Turning right at the end of the road, we joined a short line of cars stopped for a toll booth. It looked fancy, perhaps a gated community or a private club. I secretly wondered if they would turn us away. One by one, each car was allowed to pass. Finally, it was our turn. Hubs handed over fifteen dollars in exchange for a bright yellow rear view mirror tag that had been edited with a fat black marker to reflect a price increase. Perhaps it wasn’t the exclusive club I had imagined.
Once inside, we followed the gently curving park road past the gift shop/restaurant/changing rooms and rounded a bend to see the vast, flat, park laid out before us. Cars already lined the beach side of the road. We took our place among the orderly row of vehicles lining the other side of the road. Two dozen or so cars had arrived before us.
Not much notice had been given for this launch; it only appeared on the schedule two weeks prior and details were scarce. All we knew was that the Falcon 9 was to launch a spy satellite into orbit and then return to the nearby landing pad to be reused. This launch was unique not only because of its payload, but also because the landing site was rarely close enough to see from the launch area and not all prior landing attempts had been successful. Nobody knew if this would work and we would get to watch the whole thing in person.
Settled into our spot with most of an hour remaining before the launch window, we watched a hundred more cars roll in and claim their places on the grass parking strip. There was no way to tell how many were there for a day at the beach and how many were only interested in the launch.
With the car shielding us from the chill of the morning, we broke out the cherry turnovers and beverages. Meanwhile the sun overcame its shyness, revealing a thin scattering of low clouds. Hubs finished breakfast first and, feeling restless, got out to have a look around. I enjoyed the shelter of the car for little longer. I watched him cross the road and find a rock to perch on. Dozens of people loitered on the rocky strip of beach around him. Most were glued to their phones, aside from frequent glances across the channel. It was sunny now, but it was early and there was a breeze. Still, it wasn’t nice to make hubs sit alone while I cowered in the car. I zipped my jacket, crossed the road, and joined him.
There was a strange blend of boredom, excitement, and anxiousness. Several people were listening to the NASA station on their phones, hubs included. Not long after I arrived, we heard the words “twenty-four hour recycle” and with that the launch was called off. They would replace the faulty sensor they had discovered during pre-launch checks and try again tomorrow.
The weather changed immediately. A strong gust relieved me of my hat and sent it skittering across the rocks. Hubs acted fast and captured it perilously close to the water. Fat raindrops pelted the fleeing nerds as they filtered through the parked cars. We were soaked by the time we climbed into ours, even though it was just across the park road.
Back in our cars, we watched every vehicle in sight begin to inch their way toward the exit. We no longer had to wonder about who was there to see the Falcon 9 mission and who was there to play at the beach.
By the time we had made our way out of the park the rain was a distant memory. Hubs and I headed back to the hotel, disappointed but hopeful that tomorrow would be successful. We were glad we had decided to spend an extra night in Cocoa Beach.
The next morning we gathered our things and headed back to the park to try again. There was no line at the toll booth and fewer cars were parked when we arrived. We were not surprised. It was a Monday morning and we suspected that many of yesterday’s hopeful viewers were back at work this morning or had flown home after yesterday’s aborted launch. Another change from yesterday was the presence of a news van. An interviewer was already set up and chatting with spectators when we claimed our parking spot. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky this time, but it there was still a strong breeze.
This time we got out of the car right away and explored the park. It paid off when we spotted the jetty for which the park was named. A sturdy concrete bridge stretched almost to the end of it. There were so many bodies clogging the path, I wasn’t confident we could find a spot. This was clearly the place to be, though, so I led the way onto the bridge over the jetty and hubs followed.
The wind increased the further we got from land, whipping my skirt into a frenzy. It was warm out, despite the early hour, but I left my long jacket zipped to keep me modest. I tilted my hat to shield my face from the film crew as we navigated through the crowd, elbowed our way to the railing, and took our place among the hopeful. The sun was up now and together we stared at the low hill in front of the launch pad.
The launch window opened and hubs consulted the live feed. Bored with staring at the hill, my attention soon drifted to the conversations around us. Many of the spectators appeared older than us and I overheard tales of various launches people had seen over the years, including the space shuttle. Hubs and I just waited quietly.
We were both staring at his phone when the crowd became quiet, signaling us to look up. I was momentarily confused because I could see the stationary rocket on the screen of hub’s phone, but it was also airborne. Then I realized the feed was slightly delayed. At first the rocket seemed to be hovering just above the hill with flames shooting back toward the earth. As I continued to stare, I could see that it was inching upward. I was surprised at how close it looked, considering we were seven miles away. We watched the ascent until the rocket was too small to see.
The crown thinned a bit after the rocket faded from view and I wondered if perhaps those leaving were not aware of the second part of this mission. Surely, they could wait a few minutes to see the first stage attempt the landing. Hubs and I continued to follow the live feed until it blacked out to preserve the secrecy of the mission. Then we waited.
I looked around and admired the wide jetty below us constructed from brown boulders. Then I glanced at the clear sky. Nothing. I admired the simple yet sturdy architecture of the bridge we were on. Then I glanced at the sky. Empty. I scanned the horizon and spotted two ships in the distance, then allowed my eyes to drift back to shore along the waves. No rocket. I appreciated that our viewing spot was safely above the sea spray from the waves crashing against the jetty. Then I checked the sky. Nothing. On the other side of the jetty stretched a sandy beach scattered with early morning beachgoers. None of them were looking at the sky, so I did. All I saw was blue sky. Eventually I closed my eyes and filled my lungs with the ocean air. The Atlantic smelled much less salty than the Pacific that I was used to. I took another peek at the sky and found the rocket I was waiting for.
Nine minutes had passed since we watched it take off, now stage one was returning to earth. It was coming right for us, and fast! Fight or flight kicked in and despite the strong urge to get out of there, I held my ground because I was there first. I was beyond relieved when the rocket deferred to my authority, landing on the pad instead of on the walkway over the jetty. At the very end, it disappeared behind the hill.
We turned toward shore, nothing left to see now but a boring hill. Then two deafening booms rolled over us in quick succession. The remaining crowd collectively ducked and turned to look toward the landing site looking for smoke or debris. Previous landing attempts had failed. No one was breathing. The sonic boom had faked us out. Our heart rates returned to normal as hubs and I yet again turned our attention to his phone screen. The delayed feed showed us a perfect landing. The mission was a success!