First you see it. Then you hear it. And, then you feel it. The sight is heart pumping. The sound is ear deafening. The shock waves are earth shaking.
When I was five, I had a dream. I wanted to fly in a rocket ship. An Alan Shepard, John Glenn, or Gordon Cooper is whom I wanted to be. For nearly a half century I longed to see a rocket lift off from Cape Kennedy. On Friday, May 14, at 2:20:09 p.m., my dream came true. I was there. I saw the billowing orange and white smoke. I saw the blinding fire. I heard the distant rumble and then the crackling roar. Tweeters tweeted. Cameras clicked. Crowds cheered.
After securing my press credentials from a 1960s style office from a sweet lady named Mrs. Woodard, whose husband came from of all places, Eastman, Georgia, I toured the area on the day before the launch.
I saw the areas where in the old days they launched the Mercury and Gemini missions. I remembered my friend Bert Thigpen, who lives on the Old Savannah Road. As a young man, Bert worked on radar systems up and down the East Coast from New York to Cape Canaveral, as they called it back in the early 1960s. Bert was invited by NASA officials to come into the bunkers and watch some of the events. He fondly remembered Shorty Powers, who loved the last minute holds. He's the guy who coined the phrase, "a-ok." Thigpen remembered the time he was invited to ascend the gantry tower for one of the Gemini space missions. "I was amazed at how thin the aluminum door of the capsule was. The seats were smaller than a pickup truck. They invited me to climb in and see the inside, but I was scared to close the door," Bert remembered. My how things have changed. There was a good ol' country boy from Laurens County climbing in a space capsule as if were a friend's new car.
They took us to get a close up view of the shuttle. It didn’t seem to matter that it was only a mile away. I wanted to spend the night there to get the ultimate shot of the launch. But, after surviving a heart attack to save pieces of the old Dublin High School, I wasn’t about to get incinerated if something went terribly wrong. Besides, they wouldn’t let anywhere, except the biggest shots, get anywhere near the pad during liftoff.
The nice lady back at the badging office told me to get there by 7:30. I did. Then it was hurry up and wait. The sun was blazing, but there was a nice breeze. So for the next five hours, I looked around me. Camera crews were getting ready. There were several shuttle astronauts walking around in their blue jump suits. My son Scotty tells me journalists shouldn't be fans, so I didn't ask them for an autograph.
I thought of George English, who lived at the corner of Woodrow and North Elm Streets. English served as a Deputy Director of the Kennedy Space Center in the 1970s during the transition from the moon going Apollo and earth orbiting Shuttle missions.
A young graduate student stood next to me. She was busy on her cell phone reading the last minute messages of the flight controllers. Seemed there was a constraint to a launch, not a soft one, but a hard one, which meant I might have come back and do it all over again a month later. But then she found out it was only a missing camera bearing. We were go for launch. At T-0:09:00, the tweeters came running out of their air-conditioned tent like kids on the last day of school.