Researching my current work in progress, Jessie, has been more fun and educational than I could have ever imagined. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Shuttle program. Nearly everyone I knew had a family member working at Kennedy Space Center, and we were all personally touched by the Challenger disaster, and yet, there was so much I didn’t know about the early years of this amazing endeavor. I’ve read books and news articles, watched television specials and documentaries, but what really made the stories come to life for me was taking a tour of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the first launches took place. (The tours have since been suspended due to sequester.)
For those of you who may not know, the original space missions took place on land owned by Air Force that was used as a long-range missile proving ground. These sites are not available on tours available through the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex.
My heart broke when we drove through the dilapidated blockhouses, cracked pavement spattered with weeds, and encroaching mangroves of launch sites one through three. However, the Launch Complex-26 blockhouse where misson controllers stood by breathlessly watching Explorer I, America’s first satellite rocket into orbit and nearby LC -5, the site of Alan Shepard’s triumphant race into space are better preserved. We even had the chance to walk through LC-26 and learned that our basic digital watch is more technologically advanced than all of the computers in that room combined. It’s pretty amazing how much the early pioneers of space exploration were able to accomplish.
The moment that nearly brought me to tears though, was when I walked out on LC-34, where the
Apollo 1 fire killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffey. Gus Grissom plays a role in Jessie’s story and being in this place I felt a deep connection with Jessie, almost as if he was walking the site with me. Off to the side, there are memorial benches for each of these brave men, although I’m not sure how many other members of the tour even noticed them. I don’t know that I ever took the Space Shuttle program for granted, especially after the Challenger tragedy, but I can tell you that I have an even deeper respect and admiration for all those who have shed their blood, sweat, and tears to provide us with the advances in our daily lives that are by products of space exploration. Many of the crew at Kennedy Space Center had vehicle license plates that read “Doing what others only dream” I pray that the hunger to learn more, travel farther, and risk it all will take the baton passed by these leaders and push us to even greater things in the coming years.