This is the first space shuttle launch I have ever covered. And it turns out that the trip to Kennedy Space Center isn't anything like I expected. Sure, there is the big vehicle assembly building, 500 feet tall, with a huge American flag and the NASA logo on its side — you might have seen it in the movie Apollo 13. But here's what I forgot: The shuttle takes off right next to a beach. A very nice beach, perfect for surfing and fishing and swimming and sand castles. And it's nearly the Fourth of July holiday.
The result is a reporting world full of jarring contrasts. All the reporters get up in the morning and drive through streets filled with surf shops and ice cream stands. They pass the beaches and the people wearing swim suits and tank tops. They keep going — over bridges and through a wildlife preserve, through a chain link fence and a security check, until they reach a windowless room across the street from the assembly building. There they set up their laptops on the approximately two feet of space they get on one of the long tables that are set up in rows, facing two large screens that show NASA TV.
The channel features events that we are not allowed to go see for ourselves, even though they are happening in buildings that are literally right next door. Often the screen just shows a closeup of the shuttle, which we can barely see in the distance if we walk outside. Or it shows "the firing room," where the launch controllers sit. Reporters watch and listen for hours as a team of very serious engineers work through long, careful lists of data and procedures. To get the shuttle into orbit, NASA has all the power of technology — but that's no match for the elements of nature. Here's what can stop the shuttle: clouds, lighting, wind, rain, vultures.
That means reporters are watching the skies and looking out for roadkill that could attract the big black birds (if the shuttle hits one on the way up, it could damage its heat shield). At one point on Saturday, just a few hours before the first launch attempt, David Kestenbaum pointed to the TV from across the press room and mouthed a single word: "Vultures." Indeed, you could see big black birds that seemed to be circling right over the shuttle. On Sunday, vultures were all over the press building, perched on top of satellite dishes.
There's also a freakish amount of weather discussion among reporters. Weather that looks perfectly fine for swimming at the beach is often not good enough to meet the strict launch criteria. We sit around for hours, eating bad food from the snack truck or the vending machine, and saying things like, "Look at all that blue sky!" or "The clouds seem to be moving!" But let's face it: We have no idea what we are talking about. Weather prediction here is truly taken to the level of rocket science. Periodically, one of NASA's crack weather experts will come out and give an astonishingly detailed update. Everyone crowds around with their cameras and their notebooks, but who can understand, much less spell, all of these technical terms? Everyone listens patiently to the meteorological lecture, waiting for the bottom line: What are the chances that a launch might actually happen in the next few hours?
It looked really close on Saturday, for the first launch window. The suddenly-full press room was buzzing with dozens of reporters as the minutes wound down. You had astronauts wandering around in bright blue jumpsuits, ready to be grabbed by whatever reporter needed expert commentary — and everyone wanted to grab them. NASA TV started broadcasting warnings that toxic vapor clouds might float toward the press building in the event of a launch disaster. The astronauts drove by in their silver astronaut van and we watched on the monitors as they were strapped inside a small vehicle perched on top of hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. Reporters actually left the press building to gaze with their very own eyes on the actual shuttle waiting off in the distance, behind a big countdown clock. But then the launch was called due to clouds that seemed, to us, to look totally harmless. So we packed up all of our equipment and got ready to come back and do the whole thing again. We will come back again and again, until the launch. It might not happen for two weeks.
Every night David Kestenbaum and I drive back through the wildlife preserve and through the palm trees and past the cruise ships and go back to Cocoa Beach to rest up. One minute you're in a stressed-out press room where everyone wants to know what's going on with aft thruster L5L's dodgy heater — Can you launch with one of six small thrusters malfunctioning? — and the next minute you're walking along a pier next to surfers and families out enjoying the evening air. Here, as long as it's not actually raining, everyone is happy, and the birds — mostly seagulls — don't pose any particular danger.
The beach-goers are not totally oblivious to the feverish activity going on at NASA's part of the Cape, but to them, the shuttle launch is like just one more Fourth of July firework. David Kestenbaum and I have dinner in a different seafood restaurant every night. And next to all the usual fake fish and nets strung up on the walls, you often see shuttle photos. Driving back to the hotel, we pass a place called Cabaret Lido that has a sign with exotic dancers, inviting you to come in and "Blast off." At our Holiday Inn, there's a pirate pool for the kids and bar overlooking the water with karaoke and pina coladas. But an automated message on the room's voice mail invites everyone to come order a "Countdown Cocktail" at the pre-launch party. (After all, the beach is the best place to watch as the shuttle streaks up over the Atlantic.) When you turn on the television in your hotel room, you can watch HBO — or you can watch the NASA channel, just a few slots down. The local news stations have weather forecasters that seem to focus on two things: the weather at the launch site, and the weather at nearby Daytona Speedway.
But who wants to watch TV after a day of staring at screens? We go swimming in the ocean after dinner — it's dusk, or dark, by the time we get there. In the moonlight, the water shines like liquid silver and you can pretend you're swimming in some strange sea on another planet — say, a methane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. On the beach, families set off fireworks, risking a fine. The bright colors of the sparks get reflected in the water and above you are the stars and the moon. "The moon looks so far away," says David. "Doesn't it seem impressive that people got there and walked on it?" Oh, I say, everyone knows they faked that. I generally keep a close eye on David's whereabouts during these evening swims, watching out for riptides and rogue sharks. Because depending on the launch time, he has to do the live commentary. And of the two of us, he's the one with the physics PhD, the only one who really understands the meaning of "Max Q."
It's not true to say that NASA hates nature. All of the engineers look at the solar system with awe. And they even have their own beaches around Cape Canaveral. One of them is actually a clothes-optional one called Apollo Beach. I sincerely wish I could tell you that NPR would be offering live coverage from NASA's nude beach during the launch, but safety regulations close down the nearest shores. Which is too bad. Who wouldn't want to float naked in the sea where Earth's life began, gazing up as men and women in high-tech suits go rocketing out of the atmosphere, taking their first primitive steps to another world?