Sunday, December 10, 2006

At 53, still the 8 year old boy, amazed, watching the heavens light up

I never seem to be amazed at how excited I still become when a manned space mission blasts off from Kennedy Space Center. Cape Canaveral is perhaps 45 miles due east of Orlando. On a clear day (or night, as the case was this time), the rockets clear the horizon within 10 seconds of liftoff. While we're a bit too far here to see the rocket body itself without telescope, we can see the fantail plume of gases, fire and smoke rushing from the rocket engines, propelling the rocket ever higher into space.

Here in Central Florida, there is an old custom of folks leaving their homes and places of work to go watch the skies when rockets lift off, particularly manned flights. We find open fields absent of light, like my father last night in Bushnell, 50 miles to the west, who would have to wait another few seconds to see the tiny yellow/orange/white spot rising from the eastern horizon. Here in Orlando, many of us go to lakeshores, bringing portable radios (and today more sophisticated hand held electronic devices with television broadcasting) and often libations with which to celebrate successful launches. We hold our breath, letting it out in a long gasp of awe as the rockets mount the heavens and we follow it with cheers and applause. Bravo! Tens from all the judges, even the Russians!

In my own lifetime, I have seen hundreds of rockets lift off from the Cape stretching all the way back to my third grade class, piled into the playground by our teacher who told us to look to the east, our eyes squinting in the bright sun. And there on the horizon, the first American manned space shot (we were behind the Russians at that point!) crossed the blue/white sky of early afternoon, leaving a vapor trail behind it, carrying Alan Shephard into the history books. It was love at first sight and has never abated since.

Not unlike the phenomenon of Kennedy assassination awareness of place and company, I remember exactly where I was when the first flight to circle the moon lifted off. I remember the images the crew sent back to earth, the first time we had seen our beautiful blue and green planet from space. And I remember the lump forming in my throat as I realized things would never be the same. I remember the first lunar landing mission lifting off from the Cape early in the morning, a cold morning in Central Florida in which my father, brother and I shivered in the car parked alongside the cow pasture that has since given way to a shopping center and a high school. And I remember our state student council leadership training conference coming to a complete, screeching halt at Stetson University, everyone leaving the conference room to crowd around the televisions in the student lounge to watch Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon and his reflection on that event: One small step for man, one giant leap for humankind.

But the legacy of the space program watcher contains great sorrow as well. I remember the very sad evening during high school when news of the Gemini astronauts burning alive in their capsule at the Cape interrupted the Miami Hurricanes game to which we were all listening on the transistor radio. I remember praying with all my might for the Apollo 13 astronauts, drifting home from space on little more than hope and desperate measures. And I remember the very long drive home a Jesus Seminar on the Road conference I had attended in Sarasota, the grim news of the break up of the Columbia over Texas pouring from the car radio as I struggled to stifle tears, hurtling across the Central Florida I-4 corridor at 70 mph.

The most poignant memory of this long love affair came with the disastrous end of the Challenger in January 1986. It was a particularly cold day in Central Florida that morning, the 26 degrees in Orlando a record low in a decade of harsh freezes of the century. I wondered why NASA would send up a rocket in such cold weather. (Later a friend from NASA told me they had been heavily pressured by the Reagan White House to have the shuttle in orbit for the upcoming State of the Union address). I had stayed home from the law firm that day, too sick to go to work. As I lay on the couch, half dozing, the telephone rang. It was a friend calling to say the shuttle had just exploded. "Go outside," was all he said.

There in the sky was the most unnatural cloud I had ever seen. My neighbors, who had gone out to see the shot, stood there, mouths agape, stunned. When I asked what had happened, they pointed to the swath of clouds swerving left and down. "That's where it went down," they said. Back inside the warm house, the television was full of scenes of the explosion, repeated over and over until many people in the world had visions of that explosion burned into their memory banks. And while the television reporters kept hope alive for much of the day that perhaps the astronauts had survived the cataclysmic explosion, those of us shivering on the street corner in Orlando that morning knew just from the unearthly configuration hanging over our heads for the duration of that day that there would be no survivors. While the clouds themselves dissipated by the following day, an overwhelming sense of grief would huddle low over Central Florida's psyche for weeks to come. A people that celebrated successful launches of manned space flights was in deep mourning.

And yet, knowing the possibilities of disaster (including danger to the observers should the occasional nuclear payload explode with the rocket lifting off), we still make our pilgrimages to the open fields, lake shores, skyscraper windows, beach fronts, to watch, to hope, to pray and to celebrate. Last night, we celebrated a successful launch that turned our cool, indigo evening skies nearly bright as day. And I gave thanks for the latest chapter in this lifetime of watching, waiting and hoping, celebrating humanity's technological genius. But most of all, I gave thanks that after 45 years and countless launches, I am still that eight year old boy from Bushnell, watching that speck of light racing across the sky, feelings of amazement and excitement racing through my mind, hope and gratitude filling my heart.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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