I was born and raised a Floridian. Not a phrase people often expect to hear. I promise everyone here isn’t retired or in route to Disney.
Those who don’t live in Florida might underestimate how important the space program is here. It has influenced my life to a great extent. Everyone around the country watches on television for major launches, but here, a short drive from the Kennedy Space Center, space has been an integral part of my life.
I was born in Tampa, Florida in 1994, right in the midst of the space shuttle program — but space wasn’t just a part of my life, it ran through my veins. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer and began his major work in the aeronautical industry working on the Saturn rocket program, which led to my whole family becoming invested in the space industry. He tested the Saturn rocket boosters and got to witness the payoff for his efforts during the moon landing in 1969. After that, he continued working on the space program by transitioning to the shuttle program as a manufacturing operations manager. Sadly, my grandpa Jim died in a tragic accident in 1980, resulting in him never being able to see a shuttle launch.
However, my family remained in Florida and had the opportunity to witness the first ever shuttle launch on April 12, 1981, just over one year after Grandpa Jim’s death. My family has stayed in Florida to this day and the space program has continued to be a part of our attachment to Grandpa Jim and the history he helped create.
So then there is me. Growing up in a family so highly valuing engineering and the space industry, it was an unavoidable part of my life. Every time a launch happened we would eagerly tune to NASA TV. Then, if it was not cloudy, we would run outside to try to get a look as another shuttle launched through the atmosphere. During landings we listened for the sonic boom that would shake our sliding glass doors. Keep in mind, we lived on the opposite coast of Florida from where the shuttles launched and landed, over a 2 hour drive, and we could still see and hear the impacts of the launches. We took trips and vacations to Kennedy Space Center and never forgot how lucky we were to live so close to the gateway to something extraordinary.
I remember going outside after the Columbia disaster in 2003 with my dad to see my neighbors in the street, looking up at the sky. Although I was only eight at the time, I clearly remember the solemn feeling and camaraderie shared by us all at that moment.
As the end of the shuttle program approached we held onto every launch. My mom and I got up to witness the last ever night launch on February 8, 2010 at 4:15 AM. It was truly spectacular to see Space Shuttle Endeavour light up the night sky even from far away.
When it came time for the last launch, my mom and I knew we had to go see it. There is always a chance of a launch being postponed but it was worth the risk. We drove to the east coast, set up chairs and a blanket, and waited. Being among all of those people to witness such a once in a life time thing was almost as impactful as the launch itself. And thankfully, the shuttle launched and it was spectacular. The light, the roar, the giant cloud of smoke. It was all fantastic. This amazing feat of engineering hurled itself towards to skies one last time and seeing it made me think about my grandfather and how much this would have meant to him, and all of the original engineers on the project.
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