Sunday, February 7, 2010



I last wrote about a shuttle launch on March 22, 2009 under the headline A Shuttle of Past Glories. So when son Mark, home from living in China, wanted to drive across Florida to see the launch scheduled for 4.39 a.m Feb. 7, a chilly Sunday morning, it seemed a great family adventure.
After all, Mark said, there are only going to be four more, and none at night when it seems a giant celebration candle has been lit to lift our spirits.
And I still felt a trifle guilty about the launch a year ago. Good heavens, all I had to do was turn
my head and there the tower of flame was. No planning. I didn't know it was about to happen on a pleasant St. Petes Beach evening when I was seeking relief from the noise and smoke of a condo party.
But when it came time to launch this Downing adventure, I felt a little under the weather, no make that 40 fathoms down.
So Mark set off on his own. After all, he's a man who plowed through the 1,000 difficult pages of James Michener's book called Space when he was only about nine. He cared more about the space race than I did, and knew more about it.
Mark said the trip was easy, through Tampa and around Orlando to the magic place names of space documentaries and media glories. About 250 km, but the traffic did get busy towards the end. Florida may have been in the countdown of the Super Bowl too but there was veterans of many launches already in position and waiting for a few seconds.
Mark found a deadend road lined with the eagerly waiting and was nicely in position when the dreaded news of the postponement spread like the stink from a dead fish. Back at the condo, I staggered out of bed and just made it past the TV when my wife said it was postponed with only a few minutes to go. I cursed. My son had flown from China to Toronto and driven with us to St. Petes, and then driven back across Florida only to be done in by clouds and winds.
Mark was not discouraged. Back he went the next cold morning, determined to capture a bit of history. And this time, he saw, thank heavens. He grumbled about how everyone but one other person had left in the seven or eight minutes before the flame disappeared. They make all that effort and then their attention span splutters out after a few minutes.
I am relieved to report that even though I didn't know the launch was a few minutes earlier than the first attempt, I did manage to make it to the balcony when the TV said this was the final minute of countdown. I shivered in the cold, looked to the east, and there it was. What a sight! I watched it to the last too, a little embarrassed I had almost missed the grand spectacle after Mark had spent so much time and effort to get his view.
But then my record on space is spotty. The family were in a motel on a trip to Florida the night of the lunar landing. I was exhausted. I kept coming too just long enough to see the crucial parts but then I would fade into sleep again. I've always felt guilty about that. But at least Mark has retrieved some family honours with 12 hours of driving.

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