CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — There was no Disney World then. Just rows and rows of orange trees. Millions of them, stretching for miles. And on the coast, a sandy spur of land called Cape Canaveral was America's beachhead in the Cold War. It didn't seem like war. Convertible Corvettes and a new car called the Mustang raced along undeveloped beachfront. The Beach Boys played from tin-sounding transistor radios next to the Cocoa Beach Pier. And while those in the space program knew of the incredible risks, America laughed at a goofy astronaut on TV and his Jeannie in a bottle.
In 1965, I was 4 and living about 120 miles south of the Cape in West Palm Beach. My grandmother would take me by the hand out on the front lawn to watch the Gemini launches. I saw hours of network coverage sitting in a cardboard box that was my space capsule. I drank Tang.
Four years later, we took a guided tour of the Cape. It was the summer of '69, the moonshot summer of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, and the place seemed like it had more people than would gather the next month on a New York farm near the town of Woodstock.
In late 1972, just before my 12th birthday, I snuck out of the house after midnight and stood on the driveway. The tail flame from Apollo 17 cleared the roof of the Davenport's ranch house across the street and lighted up a trail to the moon.
It would be the last time the U.S. took aim at the moon--until now. Twenty-five years later, this Jan. 7, NASA launched from the Cape a spacecraft to look for water on the moon that could one day be used by human settlers. The Lunar Prospector has since slipped into a 60-mile-high orbit and has begun searching for evidence of frozen water as well as minerals and gases.
The national apathy toward the space program that set in in the '70s seems to have turned around as well. Maybe it was the surprise hit movie "Apollo 13" in 1995, or Shannon Lucid's 188-day record shuttle flight in 1996, or the possible discovery of life on Mars via a meteorite that fell to earth.
Whatever the reason, a daytime shuttle launch can pull up to a quarter-million people and put local merchants on Super-Bowl-level alert. The NASA museums are packed, the five-story IMAX space theaters are full, the beaches rollicking and the shoulder of U.S. 1 bumper-to-bumper with RVs.
There are a number of RV campgrounds in the area, but many early birds simply stake out a viewing site alongside the highway and make it their campground for two or three days. And many travelers plan visits to Disney World to coincide with shuttle launches, the Cape being an hour's drive from Orlando and Disney World.
This year there are seven more chances to see the space program in action: the next one, the launch of the shuttle Endeavour Jan. 22. NASA starts taking requests months in advance for the coveted first-come-first-served vehicle passes to get on Space Center property, about five miles closer to the pad than public sites. But the view across the Indian River from the side of U.S. 1 in Titusville isn't shabby either. And there's always the excellent vantage from the hotel rooftops and The Pier in Cocoa Beach. In short, there are no bad seats.
We had written for passes three months in advance of the Discovery launch of Feb. 3, 1995, the one that got us hooked on launch vacations. Our family packed up the day before and headed over to the Cape. It was a predawn launch (about 3 a.m.) so we checked in the day before at the Oceanside Inn, next to the Cocoa Beach Pier.
The wake-up call came at midnight, but the excitement made up for lack of sleep. As we drove to the exit of the hotel's parking lot, we hadn't expected what we found.
In what should have been the dead of night, thousands of motorists were heading up the coastal A1A Highway, stringing a necklace of headlights along the shore like the closing scene from "Field of Dreams."
We merged and followed the map onto Merritt Island and to the guard shack at the entrance to the John F. Kennedy Space Center. We didn't know it yet, but we were heading into one of the nation's biggest tailgate parties.
The viewing site is on a causeway across the Banana River that creates an exquisite vista over water to the pad. Six miles away, across the marshy nesting grounds of herons and egrets, the shuttle was lighted in a cross-fire of blazing spotlights.
The license plates were from all over, and the sedans, vans, sports cars and station wagons jammed together on the shoulder of the roadway. Kids ran around in pajamas, with sleeping bags set up along the river; parents unloaded lawn chairs from trunks and broke out the orange juice.