Our Space Coast and SpaceX Falcon Heavy Blast Off Vacation in 2018!
"Blast From The Past"
Matthew Kronsberg wrote, under the "Blast from the Past" headline in the October 7, 2017 weekend Wall Street Journal, Adventure and Travel Section:
"This Fall SpaceX's long awaited, much delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, designed to carry humans to the Moon or Mars, should finally make its debut on fabled launch pad 39A at Florida's John F. Kennedy Space Center, off Cape Canaveral. If all goes to plan, this first, unmanned flight of the most powerful rocket to take off from Canaveral since the Apollo-era Saturn V flights in the 1970's will energise the Space Coast in ways unseen in decades"
He went on to quote Elon Musk SpaceX's CEO on what might happen if things did not go according to plan!
Musk said: "the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit class engines- there's a lot that can go wrong there. There's a real good chance the vehicle does not make it to orbit. I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage"
Those words made me want to be as near to the launch pad as I (safely) could, to witness this epic event!
I had never been to a space rocket launch and so the Falcon Heavy launch in Florida was it for me!
I was not going to miss this one!
(Informational leaflet handed out of part or our "Feel the Heat" launch package,)
I hoped for a quick trip to Florida and back before Christmas. But SpaceX and the FH were not done with delays! The "Fall" launch date became late December and looked like it might run into the Christmas holidays. I wouldn't want to be away from home then; so I hoped for further delay. I got it!
“Sometime in late January 2018”, they said and so Frances and I decided to take a vacation at at time when we guessed the FH would launch.
Frances wanted to visit St Augustine, three hours drive north of Cape Canaveral. I took a gamble and using all our Delta Sky miles bought two round trip tickets to Orlando leaving Boston on January 27th and returning on February 10th . We would stay in St. Augustine, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Orlando and hope for the rocket launch in that time frame and if it didn't blast off then at least we would have had a break from the New England winter.
The photos and text below illustrate some of our very enjoyable 2018 “Space Coast” trip!
St George Inn, St Augustine (January 27-31st)
|We started out at the St George Inn on George Street in St. Augustine. It was rather more expensive than the other hotels we stayed in (about twice the price per night) but we very much liked it and the young owners.The photo is at the "Bin 39" wine bar on the patio courtyard in the hotel, shot just after we arrived. I am drinking a flight of wines and Frances has the Sangria. The St George Inn is in a pedestrian only part of town so part of getting there is finding a temporary parking zone and hotel staff then rush out take your bags and then take your car to a nearby parking garage. Worked fine!||
The historic St Augustine Cathedral.
We arrived in St Augustine of Saturday afternoon and attended Mass here on Sunday.
It is an imposing structure right in the center of the city as required by Spanish colonial town planning (along with a central plaza, government buildings and it would seem a foutain, benches and a general community gathering place.)
There are many people of Greek ancestry in the area. This is a Greek shrine not far from our hotel.
Ellen Psychas had suggested we visit it and we enjoyed seeing and hearing the history of Greeks settlers in the St Augustine area. Many came to escape very hard circumstances in their home villages.
One of the interesting features of the city, very close to our hotel, was the old Spanish Fort.
Here I am at the fort braving the wind on a sunny but cold day.
Frances at the fort (also blown by the wind).
There was an excellent National Parks guide who informed and amused us.
|On our first evening in St Augustine we found pirates all over town. These three threatened to have my guts for garters after I accidentally cut in front of them in a restaurant waiting line. But they posed for photos after apologies!|
|We went on a boat trip along the river and at one point were mobbed by sea birds. I thought this photo looked like an illustration from a bird book!||Here pelicans and other large birds find a warmer and less windy place on a bridge by a Mission.||
The St Augustine lighthouse as seen from our boat trip.
My rocket problem:
We very much enjoyed our time in St Augustine but I had a big worry, I did not have in hand all the stuff I needed to attend the Falcon Heavy Rocket launch.
The day tickets went on sale I splurged (over $400) for entry to the closest viewing area that the public could get to the launch pad, the so called “ Feel the Heat" viewing area. (They were sold out on the second day after they went on sale!) This, I must note, was before a date had been set for a launch and with no possiblity of getting money back if the launch was delayed or scrubbed. Quite possibly the actual launch would be after our time in Florida. Furthermore, they said they would mail the necessary parking placard I would need to get into the area. I hoped it would arrive while we were in St Augustine and asked them to mail it to the hotel. On arrival I asked if it had arrived.
"Not yet sir"! I got the same reply every day when I asked!
On the afternoon of our last day in St Augustine on returning to our room I found the nice people in the hotel had left a large envelope on our bed.
This was what I had been waiting for.
Great feeling of relief! Now all I needed was for the rocket to be launched before we flew back home on February 10th!
Fawlty Towers Motel, Cocoa Beach (January 31st to February 4th)
Cocoa Beach is the barrier island resort east of Cocoa, Florida. It is a typical barrier island strip with hotels and beaches, but the magnet for us was that it is close to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. I had concluded that the most likely blast off would be during the four days we had planned and reserved accomodation at Cocoa Beach. As it happened I was wrong, the launch came two days after we left Cocoa Beach for our stay in Melbourne, a half hour drive south of Cocoa Beach.
|I had sent my friend Oakes Ames Plympton a few bird photos from St Augustine. Oakes suggested we might enjoy a visit to his grandmothers former home and the park she gifted the town. So on our way to Cocoa Beach we stopped by the park took photos one of which is this fine old Florida home.||Here I am in front of the historic plaque at the house Oakes (now in his 80's) used to stay in when he visited his grandmother. Oakes is quite a character and among his many claims to fame, the one most known to the public, is that he is (the now deceased writer) George Plympton's brother.||This view from Ames Park across the river to the barrier island is typical of the bridges connecting the mainland to the barrier islands. On this day it was very pretty.|
|I had researched Cocoa and Cocoa beach hotels and motels and concluded that despite its name the Fawlty Towers Motel would suit us nicely at a relatively low price. It did, although we were nervous that Basil, Sybil and Manuel would make life difficult for us. Nothing of the sort. It was very convenient. Within an hour of our arrival we were able to go to the beach and watch a Falcon 9 rocket launch in the distance. A good introduction to Cape Canaveral and rocket launches.||
Since the Falcon Heavy was not going to launch while we were in Cocoa Beach we decided to explore the beach trails and interesting places in the area. Here we are on the beach with a Great Blue Heron in the background.
It had been hanging out near several men who were shore fishing and I think had received a few fish from them which explains why it was reluctant to move even when we walked quite close..
We had some very enjoyable hikes on the Cocoa Beach trails. However this one was not pursued through to the end after a number of signs told us to stay on the boardwalk because we were in an active alligator area.
As you can see the boardwalk here was not exactly robust. So since we had enjoyed the walk so far we decided rather than complete the loop we would see the same trail from the other direction! (Turn tail and run!)
|Here is another photo this one on the Hammocks Trail. Starting on the Atlantic side of the barrier island it wended its way through native Florida vegetation to the Indian River side of the island.||Here I am at a lookout point over the Indian River.||We heard there were lively bars on Cocoa Beach and Frances and I certainly enjoyed the food, drink and music at this one.|
|Here Frances is at a beach restaurant at Cocoa Beach sitting outside with the wind blowing, it may be Florida but it was still midwinter, so this pleasant spot was a bit chilly; fortunately the beach bar had an enclosed deck upstairs so when we went back the next day we tried that out and it was perfect!||
We saw alligator warnings on the trails but the closest we got to an alligator was this small green lizard on a tree trunk near the look out point (see photo above).
It reminded me of the geckos we used to get on our walls in Dar es Salaam!
|This snack bar on Cocoa Beach was very Aussie with Aussie pie and coffees came in the Flat White and Short Black styles we met in Australia. I asked the manager if he was a real Aussie, and he admitted he was from Cocoa Beach but the owner was an Aussie and knew what a BabyChino was which we first encountered in Perth W. Australia.|
|At the end of Cocoa Beach pier is a pleasant sitting, fishing and bar area. I was told and can believe that it is a good location to watch rocket launches. When we first arrived at the Fawlty Towers Motel we watched the small Falcon 9 launch from about a mile further away down the beach near the motel.||
Ponce de Leon was on Cocoa Beach (so they claim) before any Spaniard got to St. Augustine and a very long time before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.
His statue now serves as a sign for one of the beach walk trailheads and the public toilet!
While in Cocoa Beach we crossed back across the river to explore Cocoa. We found that there was a production of 42nd Street that evening, so we purchased last minute tickets for an interesting and enjoyable production by an enthusiastic and quite talented amateur company. This photo from our seat in the "Gods".
|While the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (FH) launch was not going to be until we had moved on from Cocoa Beach, our Kennedy launch package included two days of admission to the Kennedy Space Center. So while in Cocoa Beach we used one day to visit KSC, look at the exhibits and take the tour which included passing by these Starfighter planes.||
The KSC exhibits were excellent and we could have stayed much longer if we had the stamina.
The exhibit of the Atlantis Space Shuttle (original) was not to be missed.
Likewise the big Saturn V rocket engines just took my breath away!
In addition to the fun of seeing these exhibits we were able to get a good sense of where the FH launch would be from and where we would be sitting, parking the car etc. It just made it easier!
Days Inn, Melbourne (February 4-9th)
Melbourne was suggested as a place to stay at a New Years Eve party when we were telling "the Group" of our plans to visit the Space Coast area for the FH launch. Linda and Jim Whitehead knew the area quite well and suggested we might like Melbourne. I had booked the plane trip for two weeks and didn't think St Augustine and Cocoa Beach would have enough to offer for that length of stay so Melbourne was added. We found an inexpensive and convenient Day's Inn on the western edge of Melbourne close to I 95, convenient for our drive from Cocoa Beach and to the Kennedy Space Center and only a fifteen minutes into the old town part of Melbourne and the bridge to Melbourne Beach.
Melbourne has a fine downtown and one of the first things we had to do was find a Sports Bar to watch the Patriots win the Superbowl. Well, we found the Sports Bar, but the Patriots failed (just) to mount a major comeback to win.
We went to the beach instead. This photograph is from by the Maritime museum which had a wonderful series of presentations on turtles around the world. Their numbers, at least in Florida, are increasing after serious declines due largely to beach development in areas where they lay their eggs.
Frances telephoned her brother Michael's friend, JJ in Vero beach to see if we could get together.
Unfortunately, JJ was busy both the days we had time. But she kindly suggested we visit a "waterfowl management area" maintained by the State and we happened to be able to go there on a day when visitors can drive around to see the wonderul variety of birds.
We saw many vultures up close other waterfowl and even some roseate spoonbills flying by to make their nests. (See above photo)
After we left the bird sancturary we drove to the Marsh Landing restaurant for lunch. (Also recommended by JJ although I think it was Michael's wife Barbara who discovered it) It was a real treat. Full of character and local foods. See the "Critter Platter" below for example.
|The Waterfowl Management Area spanned many miles of flat watery land accessible by boat through channels (like the one in the photo to the right) and also a grid of dirt roads normally used by the Florida Fish and Wildlife staff but opened up to the public on some days.||
The lady with the big lens on her camera was photographing roseate spoonbills flying back and forth to their nests carrying nest building materials.
She let Frances take a look through the viewfinder but our photo was, sadly, just with my phone camera!
The Marsh Landing Restaurant shown above was like a museum of early Florida photos, stuffed animals etc.
Food was OK too, but we passed on the Frog Legs and Gator tail!
I had the Catfish sandwich.
The Falcon Heavy Rocket Launch Day, February 6th 2018
So the big day came, February 6, 2018, when the rocket was scheduled to launch. After all the delays we were well aware the launch could be further delayed or scrubbed right down to the "three, two one Blast Off" moment. If it was delayed a day or so we would be able to return but if for longer we would have to decide if we going to stay down in Florida, buy new plane tickets home, would we both stay down etc. So it was with anticipation and nervousness that we got up early and drove an hour north to the KSC.
Even before we arrived we heard that many roads were closed and beaches crowded as people picked their spots to watch the launch. Since I had purchased the "Feel the Heat" package to view the launch from the closest possible point of public access I knew we were OK. It was more a case of getting there and finding a spot to set up the beach chairs we had bought and wait for the launch. We got into the KSC gates just fine and then found there was a long line as people were bussed out to the viewing area.
It wasn't that the launch viewing area was so far away but that the bus tour guide showed off a number of interesting things along the way including letting us get out and walk on the Space Shuttle landing strip. Then we were issued a package with Falcon Heavy caps and commemorative champagne flutes to celebrate the event (if successful).
We also had our photos taken to be later shown with the rocket blasting off behind us (fake photo)!
|We drove by the Falcon Heavy at the launch area.||
It was a hot day at the "Feel the Heat" viewing area. We settled down for a long wait. Food and drink were provided in the Saturn V, Space Shuttle display area in the building behind. We also had the SpaceX commentary and astronauts answering questions over the speaker system.
|Frances and I found a shady spot to wait. But hours passed. There were delays due to upper level wind shear concerns. We were less than an hour from the launch window close when we were told they had begun to pump into the fuel tanks. They would launch, if nothing went wrong. (See Musk's comment in the intro about what could go wrong).|
Then, with fifteen minutes before the launch window closed, it happened!
OK, that is the fake photo the KSC people made with us in front of a green board and the launch photoshopped in later, we were not that close!
This is what we saw:
We were just as excited as if we were on the launch pad itself. But it was truly "epic" when the two booster rockets returned and made perfect landings along with almost simultaneous sonic booms as the passed back through the sound barrier!
Then we made our way over to where they had the champagne. We had one toast using the plastic glasses out on tables. But then remembered that in our goody package we had two commemorative flutes for this event so we filled up our flutes and toasted SpaceX and Falcon Heavy, again!
After all that excitement we drove back to Melbourne for two more days vacation before heading to an Orlando airport hotel and then back to Boston.
|Me at Melbourne Beach, wind blown and sunburned.||We had a pleasant afternoon in Orlando, visiting the regional history museum which impressed us both for its local history content and the work going into educating groups of school children touring the museum. We also visited a beautiful Greek church near this lake and walked along the lake admiring the exotic birds there.||Oh well, I was still in Florida, even if central Orlando so couldn't resist this photo opportunity!|
Before we left for Florida we had a major snowstorm.
When we returned there was another one!
While February in Boston was a warmer than normal month, the first two weeks of March 2018 have seen three major Nor'Easters with a variety of high winds, coastal flooding and heavy snow. As I write this we are in the middle of an 22 inch deep snowstorm.
So I have a time for some afterthoughts on why this trip meant so much to me.
We don't know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe. Given its immensity, logic would predict that somewhere in the Universe there is life. But we don't know!
We do know that against all odds we have the knowledge and brains to ask big questions and wonder. We also know that it is possible we may never live on other planets. We may be hit by a big asteroid and Earth may not survive, or we may die of diseases or find a way to kill ourselves, or we may just stop trying and become extinct.
I hope we survive and expand into space, first into the solar system and then out to the stars.
I think it would add meaning to the mystery of our existence if we expand beyond our birth planet!
I believe we are at a moment when we could go forward or could stop.
I vote for going forward as far and as fast as we can before that "launch window" closes!
Private companies like SpaceX may be an important step. When we can make a profit from space then we will be able to expand our ability to travel in space.
This trip to Florida to watch a rocket launch was perhaps the end of a pilgrimage I did not know I was on!
It started when I was a boy reading Superman comics and then moving on to Science Fiction for my teen and adult years. Ringworld, Ender's Game, Star Trek, Star Wars and so many more, some trashy some insightful. But all part of a longing for space travel to happen.
Now I am an old man and I have seen a rocket launch! That my son is involved in the US space program is frosting on the cake!
I hope my childen, grandchildren or great grandchilden will live to see space travel become profitable and, perhaps with new energy sources, space travel will become a part of their lives.
I am hopeful!
March 14, 2018