THE HIGGINS BROTHERS DISCOVER ATLANTIS MELBOURNE, NOV 24-- Ya know, who cares about colonization of space? A night-time shuttle launch is a good enough fireworks show to make the billions of dollars all worthwhile. Although the Higgins boys had grown up in Miami, we had never managed to witness a rocket launch. Last year our parents retired to Melbourne, about 25 miles south of Kennedy Space Center, and tonight we got our chance to watch *Atlantis* lift off with the DSP missile-warning satellite and its IUS transfer rocket (hi, Eddie!) aboard. Our plan was to take U.S. 1 north to the coastal area of Titusville, west of Merritt Island and about as close to Complex 39A as you can get without being on the KSC grounds. Following the advice Andre Willey (andre@OBSOLETE_ADDRESS) posted last June, we timed our arrival for about two hours before launch time. Traffic was light, and we saw only a few concentrations of parked vehicles, so we kept pressing northward even after the Vertical Assembly Building lay due east of us. We found an ideal observing point at Browning Park, just south of the McDonald's where Andre parked and just north of the intersection with Route 406. Parking is not allowed at the park itself; a Mr. Frank Kirk (cousin of a former Florida governor) will allow you to park on land just to the south for five bucks. Being rather early-- we probably could have arrived half an hour or an hour later with no trouble-- we managed to find a free spot in the lot of a nearby appliance store. (OOH! VCRs on sale for just $199!) One big advantage is that the site was close to what passes for civilization in Titusville. We repaired to Dogs R Us, a friendly-looking dive directly across from the park. It wasn't clear whether the name of the restaurant referred to the variety of frankfurters on the menu, the meat content of the cheeseburgers or the spandex-clad waitresses. Well, that's unfair-- we found the waitresses quite attractive, though the burgers were only adequate. An okay way to kill an hour before launch. Off we went scouting vantage points clear of trees, RVs and people taller than we are. (Avoiding tourists with video cameras is an unreasonable goal.) Clearly you want to get a good sight of the launch pad, though five seconds after launch the tall people have no advantage. We scoped up and down the beachfront and settled on a pier that scored two out of three: no RVs but too many tall people. Fortunately we had enough time to go souvenir shopping. Among the parked RVs we found people huckstering mugs, toys, and T-shirts out of a van. Bill saw a magnificently colorful beach towel which pictured a Shuttle sneaking up on Space Station Fred (a fairly up-to-date version of the design, too). It appealed to his fondness for tacky souvenirs. "Isn't that rather like a velvet painting of Elvis?" John asked. "I'm not interested in Elvis, I'm interested in space stations," Bill said. A feeble retort. "So HOWMUCHDAYAWANT for the towel?" Bill asked the hawker. Twenty-two bucks. Hmm. Elvis goes for less than half that down the road. "Offer him fifteen," hissed John. He took it. This pleased us so much that we offered to plug Space Coast Souvenirs in our report to the Net, since they do mail orders. 6054 Sisson Rd., Titusville, FL 32780, (800)927-5039. With about half an hour to go, we wandered back to the park and out onto the long fishing pier that jutted out into the Indian River. The night was amazingly clear, with just a wisp of cloud hanging over the base located about 12 minutes east of us. By this time the sun was completely down, with search-lights illuminating the launch pad and the surrounding waters. The crowd was calm, no drunks, lotsa kids and many, many radios tuned in to local news reports. (Make a note: don't go without a radio of your own.) The launch was inevitably delayed. Can't think of one that ever got off on time in 15 years. The wait was a short one, but long enough to entertain the crowd with some jokes ("Quiet everyone, or we won't hear the launch!") Some of the onlookers kept busy picking the running lights of helicopters out of the sky. (Almost 20 circling at one count. Looked suspiciously like UFOs to us.) Bill saw two shooting stars. Then around 6:50 the countdown slid into the final seconds. At T-minus eight seconds the engines started to fire up, visible but silent at our distance. The shuttle spewed huge, flaming clouds as it began to ease up. Quickly the torch behind *Atlantis* escaped those ground clouds and began lighting up the sky. At one point, the eastern sky looked just like sunrise with backlit clouds clearly visible. The smoke trail was black against a yellow sky. The yellow faded gradually to blue as the rocket climbed. Bill had hit his techie-nerd stopwatch at liftoff. After a minute and two seconds, when *Atlantis* was a bright flare fairly high in the sky, the sound of engine ignition hit us. Allowing for main-engine start eight seconds before liftoff, we figured we were about fourteen miles from Complex 39. The sound was surprisingly soft, no louder than a jet going by, and lasted for many seconds. As the yellow star dimmed, it moved away from us and stopped rising. Eventually it started moving *downward*, even though the radio kept announcing increasing altitude, as it moved downrange. Could it be that the planet we were standing on was actually curved? Nah! After about nine minutes, we lost the descending star in haze about three degrees above the ocean. The pier emptied out pretty quickly, but traffic on U.S. 1 was nasty for at least half an hour after the launch. To wait out the traffic, we wandered over to McDonald's for chocolate milkshakes that were, unexpectedly, much larger than the ones we get in New York or Chicago. Disclaimer: This was our night for junk food. Our mother is a dietitian, and we usually eat much better than this. Really, Mom! Bill Higgins John Higgins firstname.lastname@example.org higgins@OBSOLETE_ADDRESS
The memory is bittersweet, not just because I miss John, but because the reason we were in Florida was for the funeral of our father.