A Saturday on A1A: an Alligator and a Rocket Launch (and reflections of a dinghy of death)

On Saturday, May 15, 2021, an item was checked off the bucket list—I saw a rocket blast off into outer space from Kennedy Space Center.

(This blog entry shares a misadventure, a Saturday visit to Kennedy Space Center to see a rocket launch, and information on Space Coast sites related to the space program.)

Living in Florida for most of my life, you would think this mission would already have been accomplished. I have given it a go several times in the past; each time, the launch was scrubbed, including a couple of Space Shuttle missions many moons ago, and most recently, the SpaceX Crew-2’s ride to the International Space Station, originally scheduled in the early morning of Thursday, April 22. It was delayed until the following day, launching at 5:49 a.m., A1A-time.

For the April 22 scheduled launch, I planned a day playing hooky (I am a teacher) to head down A1A with my retired buddy Robert. The plan was to get to Port Canaveral, spend an evening on a sailboat, and watch the early morning launch from the boat—a docked boat, so we thought.

Though the launch, with advanced notice, was scrubbed, we decided to stick to the plan and check out Florida’s Space Coast.

Advice #1: If planning a trip to Florida’s Space Coast to watch a rocket launch, schedule a few days to stay in the area. Rocket launch delays are common, mainly due to Florida’s wacky weather conditions.

To make a long story somewhat short and free of hyperbole and expletives, Robert and I, after sauntering down to Port Canaveral from Jacksonville, arrived at the address site posted on Airbnb at around 8 p.m., only to find—nothing. We contacted our Airbnb hosts for this misadventure in the making (names withheld to protect the not so innocent), who then tried to explain to us the exact location to meet. We were to look for a truck off A1A/Martin Anderson Beachline Expressway with headlights pointed toward the road, which we passed several times before pulling off a darkened dirt road that would us to them.

The only sign of civilization where we parked?—a dumpster.

We still held faith; we would check out the boat, then head into Cocoa Beach for a burger and a beer at Coconuts on the Beach.

Advice #2: When making a reservation on Airbnb, and I highly recommend this as a vacation option, read everything, including all the reviews (I should have read beyond the one that said “Host A is a cool dude” to further educate myself on what to expect. Their reviews are excellent, but from a younger demographic for sure.).

Admittedly, I read something about a secret cove and camping experience on the water, but did not realize what was to come. After exchanging pleasantries, Host A and Host B led us down a path through thick tidal scrub (“I just macheted this path the other day,” said Host B), with lighting provided by one pen light and our cell phones. Imagining how cool this spot would be, we still kept in mind that Florida is known for its alligators and snakes—the ones that bite.

We got to the water safely, but instead of a sailboat, we sighted a dinghy. What followed as a wave of instructions on how to use the dinghy, how to secure the dinghy, and how to get to and on the sailboat with the dinghy. When asked if we were ready to give it a test run, I volunteered Robert to take on the task, to which he has yet to let me forget.

Robert and Host B, without life jackets, took a ride to the sailboat, which included the trawler engine powered by a Die Hard battery shutting off once. Robert later explained to me that to get on the boat, you had to hoist yourself from the dinghy and push yourself onboard, and that when he asked about using the bathroom, Host B replied, “Did you bring a cup?”

While I waited onshore, Host A was constantly talking about something; I couldn’t concentrate as this thought kept running through my head—am I going to die tonight?

The in-depth instruction and practice run ate into our dinner time, which leads me to…

Advice #3: When in Cocoa Beach, eat dinner during dinnertime, especially during mid-week.

Still in shell shock over our lodging situation, we nevertheless headed into Cocoa Beach to what we jokingly referred to as our “last supper.” Although every restaurant we went to (Coconuts on the Beach, Sandbar Sports Grill, and Branos Italian Grill) had their open signs lit up, each denied us service as they all were closing up early. Waffle House would only serve takeout, which we were not going to do; the Taco Bell next door had a line over 15 cars in length. which we also were not going to do.

Advice #4: When traveling with a friend, make sure you travel with one who can be spontaneous and flexible, and find humor in any challenging situation, thus making any misadventure a cherished memory.

Throughout the evening, we joked and laughed about everything we faced; I was forgiven (but not forgotten for my delegating act) for my lack of investigation regarding the sailboat; after going back to secure the dinghy (during our romp around Cocoa Beach, the weather became more challenging with fierce winds and rough water) we cancelled our night on the water (we did not want to die on an empty stomach) and headed north to Daytona Beach, but not before grabbing a couple of brisket sandwiches and apple pies from Buc-ee’s (there are two locations in Florida; if you have never done Buc-ee’s, put it on your list—it’s 24/7 shopping at a convenient store on steroids).

We found the Nautilus Inn (highly recommend) on the oceanfront for what was left of the evening; our following day went from a Space Coast to a NASCAR-themed day, and it was awesome.

A Daytona Beach sunrise during Jeep Week

And it began with this sunrise. A new day, albeit not a day to launch a rocket—new adventures awaited.

From Robert: “It was a great adventure where things didn’t go our way at first, but we made the best of it and ended up having a great time. Would do it again without hesitation.”

And the dinghy?

It was a great idea on paper to stay on the boat, but the reality was much scarier. That dinghy still gives me nightmares.

Nevertheless, we wish Host A and Host B the best. And we hope they consider life jackets in the future.

But excuse this huge discretion; time to talk about my first-ever rocket launch viewing.

Without doubt, this was a tremendous culmination to a wonderful day on the Space Coast, a day that started with another sunrise along A1A (South Ponte Vedra Beach), a mahi omelet at Java Joint Beachside Grill in Flagler Beach (highly recommend the food, the friendly service, the ocean view, and the fun t-shirt design), and a drive at Black Point Wildlife Drive within the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.

A one-minute segment of Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

The best time of the year to see an abundance of wildlife, especially birds, is during the cooler months of the year; my drive on this seven mile loop provided me a a few sightings, but even without much wildlife, the scenic pine flatwoods and marshes itself is worth a ride.

Alligator sighting at Black Point Drive

Of course, an alligator sighting never gets old. Nor does viewing some of the year-round waterfowl such as herons and egrets.

After an hour riding along Black Point, it was time to get to KSC, where I would spend a few hours before joining the masses by bus to the Banana Creek/Saturn V Center launch viewing site for the 6:54 p.m. launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Starlink 26 from Launch Pad 39A—the same pad used to send the ONLY 12 men ever to walk on the moon.

Advice #5: While KSC offers the best viewing options, there is a fee added to the daily admission, which could add up dollar-wise; also, this option will sellout quickly, especially during a manned flight. There are many options to watch a launch, many with excellent vantage points. Check out Lauch Rats or Space Coast Florida to search out a viewing site. A visit to the Titusville Welcome Center provides another excellent source to inquire about where to watch a rocket launch.

A visit to KSC perfectly blends together the feel of a theme park with that of an authentic museum experience. Highlights include a visit to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, an IMAX theater, a Rocket Garden, and the Atlantis Space Shuttle exhibit (one of four space shuttle exhibits found in the United States).

To watch an entertaining and informative PowerPoint presentation, don’t miss out on KSC’s Mission Status Briefing; the briefing includes information about the Artemis Program, NASA’s plan to return to the moon, upcoming rocket launches, and other NASA-related happenings.

A bus ride to the Saturn V Center passes by the famed Vehicle Assembly Building. Among the superlatives:

  • The high bay doors are the LARGEST in the world at 456 feet high and take about 45 minutes to completely open or close.
  • The building is home to the LARGEST American flag, a 209-foot-tall, 110-foot-wide star spangled banner painted on the side of the VAB.
  • When built in 1965, it was the TALLEST building south of the Washington Monument.

Advice #6: If planning a visit to KSC, plan to get there when it opens. Buses now take a limited number of visitors to the impressive Saturn V Center—first come, first serve.

The Saturn V Center, which includes an actual Saturn V rocket, is part of the admission; however, you need to reserve a time to ride the bus once you arrive at KSC—and with limited availability due to Covid-19, it is best to get ahead of the crowd and arrive when KSC opens.

Those that choose to watch a launch from the center’s Banana River viewing area may also enjoy the Saturn V Center, which along with seeing all the exhibits, visitors may purchase food and drinks (including beer) to enhance the rocket launch viewing experience.

And as typical with theme park attractions, once you finish viewing a rocket launch, you will walk through The Right Stuff gift shop before getting on the bus for the ride back (You got to get that NASA meatball t-shirt, right?).

To optimize your visit at KSC, make sure to plan out the day; lack of planning will result in missing some attractions. There is lots to see and do.

I love KSC; it is definitely one of Florida’s top attractions, and for A1A travelers, you are too close to miss out on a visit.

However, on this day, the ultimate goal was to fulfill my bucket list item, and even when arriving at the Banana River viewing site, with less than an hour before liftoff, a feeling of doubt swirled within me. especially when seeing, and feeling, the wind conditions.

Yet, as the NASA commentator (another nice feature of a KSC viewing site) mentioned that the fueling of the rocket began, confidence arose, and although past launches have been scrubbed very late in a countdown, SpaceX Falcon 9-Starlink 26 did blast off.

The moment did not disappoint. Bucket list item checked off. Will I plan to get to another launch in the near future? You betcha.

Before signing off, here are some images to share from KSC, and some information on other Space Coast experiences.

The space shuttle Atlantis, the main attraction in KSC’s Shuttle: A Ship Like No Other. From KSC’s website: “Atlantis is displayed as only astronauts have seen her in space, rotated 43.21 degrees with payload doors open and Canadarm extended, as if just undocked from the International Space Station. One of three space-flown shuttles displayed in the United States, Space Shuttle Atlantis® showcases the orbiter spacecraft and tells the story of NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle Program.”
Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (May 2012). Dragon was launched on SpaceX ‘s Falcon 9 rocket, the same rocket used for the launch on May 15, 2021.
A panel of space shuttle Challenger at the Forever Remembered exhibit, honoring the 14 astronauts lost during the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia’s tragic missions. This exhibit is within KSC’s Shuttle: A Ship Like No Other, which houses the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
The entrance to the Ad Astra Per Aspera (A Rough Road Leads to the Stars) exhibit at KSC’s Saturn V Center. The exhibit is a memorial to astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee, who perished during a fire on the launch pad on January 27, 1967.
The line awaiting to ride to the Saturn V Center/Banana River launch viewing site.

Over the years since it made Cape Canaveral home to KSC, NASA has aimed to keep the public connected to the space program. During the early days of the Apollo program, visitors were offered the option of taking a 90-minute or three-hour bus tour, highlighted by seeing the Vehicle Assembly Building, mobile launchers, transporters, and launch facilities. Visitors were also allowed drive through the spaceport and what was then Cape Kennedy Air Force Station on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

While KSC recently re-opened bus service to the Saturn V Center, launch pad bus tours are still unavailable. However, for those that wish to visit the launch sites within Canaveral Space Force Station, tours are offered with Canaveral Lighthouse and Space Exploration Tours. I highly recommend this tour—this small group tour provides an up-close, intimate look at the lighthouse and prominent launch sites within Canaveral Space Force Station.

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, located on site at Canaveral Space Force Station.
Complex-14, site of Mercury program launch pad, and a time capsule not to be opened until the year 2464.
Launch Complex 34-A, the site of the Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. It is also the site of the Apollo program’s first manned launch, Apollo 7.
Launch Complex-26, home to the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, and the launch site of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1.
Canaveral Lighthouse and Spaceflight Tours: five out of five stars!

In Titusville, you will find the American Space Museum, and Space View Park and the Space Walk of Fame—”The first and only Walk in the nation that honors America’s astronauts as well as the men and women behind the scenes who helped America lead the world in space exploration.”

American Space Museum offers a fascinating tour given by a NASA expert; more intimate than KSC, it offers artifacts of interest, and stories shared by those involved in the space program.
On my visit to the American Space Museum, Travis Thompson, who served as a closeout crew lead for a number of space shuttle missions, led the tour. Thompson, who as crew lead would be the last person to shake the hands of astronauts prior to launching, shared stories of his time as crew lead; all were fascinating.
Mercury 7 Monument at Space View Park in Titusville. In the background is the A. Max Brewer Bridge, a popular rocket launch viewing site (as is Space View Park).
John Glenn’s handprints at Space View Park’s Mercury 7 Monument. Throughout the park, astronaut handprints can be found.
Apollo Monument at Space View Park, which includes the bust of President John F. Kennedy.

Also in Titusville is the Moonlight Drive In, a carhop that opened in 1964. It is named in honor of the Apollo program, and was a staple of the then fledgling NASA community.

The Moonlight Drive In, along US 1 in Titusville.

In Cocoa Beach, Visit Alan Shepard Park for some beach time, a sunrise, or a rocket launch viewing. Also, check out the La Quinta Inn by Wyndham Cocoa Beach-Port Canaveral, formerly known as the Cape Colony Inn, built by the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Alan Shepard Park, a popular beach spot in Cocoa Beach. It shares the same parking lot (not free) as the Sandbar Sports Bar, a funky joint known for its fish tacos and its wildly-colored murals.
Walkover to beach at Alan Shepard Park.
Mural painting at Sandbar Sports Grill.
Today known as La Quinta Inn by Wyndham Cocoa Beach-Port Canaveral, this hotel was originally named Cape Colony Inn, established by the Mercury 7 astronauts. This sign marker can be found near the pool area; a mural of the Mercury 7 astronauts can be seen in the hotel lobby.

And finally, go get that picture while standing underneath the most popular street sign in Cocoa Beach…

I Dream of Jeannie Lane!

A huge thanks to Rob (front, right) for our ride to Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach. So good to hit the road with friends.

Happy Traveling!

For diehard A1A travelers, it should be noted that A1A signage gives way to US 1 before entering Brevard County and Titusville; A1A signage reappears when heading east on Martin Anderson Beachline Expressway through Port Canaveral and to Cocoa Beach. But as it will a few more times, US 1 keeps travelers connected to A1A when the need to circumvent various inlets occurs, as well as linking South Miami to Key West.

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