“Me and my daughter have been here since 9am to get the best view”. I turn the car radio up. I thought I was setting off early enough but hear how thousands of Americans are already positioned along the Space Coast for the launch from Cape Canaveral later today. Hotels are sold out; car parks crowded; beaches lined by locals. Everyone wants to see the world’s most powerful rocket, Falcon Heavy, lift off.
Leaving behind Orlando’s magic kingdoms in my rented jeep, I head East on Interstate 4 towards Florida’s coastline. Turning down Old Creek Rd, I pass fields and farms with hand-painted signs for ‘raw honey’ and ‘gator jerky’. On the radio Tom Petty is free falling. An old church comes in to view, a wooden notice announcing ‘Jesus Miracle Church’; its roof has fallen off.
It takes two hours to reach Satellite Beach. There’s no space to park so I pull upwards onto a sandy patch of grass overlooking the sea. It feels like the whole state is behind today’s launch; even the diner opposite has updated its billboard: ‘Good Luck! 3, 2, 1’. Stepping on to the busy beach, I find families with picnics, couples camped on deckchairs and groups of friends, waiting.
An elderly man eagerly paces around a portable radio, positioned atop a wooden post. He nods, acknowledging my NASA T shirt, which I bought yesterday at the Kennedy Space Centre. Around his neck is a pair of binoculars. I feel somewhat underprepared. I position myself nearby this man and his radio, from which the entrepreneur Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX, explains to an interviewer that there’s a good chance his rocket will explode.
We wait, everyone facing North towards Cape Canaveral.
Two smartly dressed women join the beach. They look like they’ve come directly from an office. “I heard there’s a car inside the rocket”, one says to the other. “No!”. “And, it’s playing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. They laugh, incredulously.
I perceive from the radio that strong winds are causing problems. The elderly man announces with authority that there are delays: “Next window for launch is in an hour”. Families re-apply sunscreen; I’m going to get sunburnt.
It’s two hours later, with just 15 minutes left for a possible launch today, when we receive news. The crowd is noticeably nervous, as am I. Then, from the radio: “fuel is being loaded”. The old man claps.
We stand, shading our faces with outstretched hands, and stare into the empty sky. On the radio a countdown commences, followed by a deafening noise. Across the ocean an orange ball of fire is shooting into the atmosphere. Hurtling towards space, Falcon Heavy is leaving us behind. It’s a surreal sight: the white rocket becomes smaller and smaller, paving its way with a path of smoke. Following silence, cheers erupt on the beach, extending across the crowd’s standing ovation.
On the whim of an eccentric billionaire, a cherry red Tesla Roadster has begun a rollercoaster ride towards Mars, potentially for millions of years.