Books: Snakecharmers in Texas — Ground-Level Entrance |
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Ground-Level Entrance

Just west from Titusville in central Florida the road to the coast runs into an indeterminate flat lowland of boondocks and lagoons. If a white convertible driven by Morgan Fairchild were to overtake you it would not be surprising. On the other hand it would be surprising, unless you had been forewarned, to see a big rocket pull a ball of light out of the flat landscape and go all the way up to space. It doesn’t seem a very likely spot for a space centre. But Baikonur in Kazakhstan probably doesn’t look the part either, and anyway, if you didn’t know what went on at the Cape why would you be going there — to see the manatees?

Before the Kennedy Space Center came into being, all the rockets were fired from the Air Force facilities at Cape Canaveral, a few miles down the coast. Where the big new launch pads now stand there was nothing but scrub grass, she-oaks, flowering cactus and palmettos, inhabited to various depths, altitudes and degrees by wild hogs, bald eagles, storks, ibises, fire ants, blue herons, water moccasins, rattlers and alligators. The aforementioned manatees were dozing in the lagoon. Nowadays the manatees are still dozing in the lagoon and all the other wildlife is there as well, heavily protected under the aegis of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed the wildlife, known locally as warld-laugh, has a cushier time than ever, now that it has become reconciled to the occasional outburst of the most godawful noise, as of a billion dollars burning in a silver tube.

Actually not even the noise has been so bad lately. While the rockets were still getting bigger, the row they kicked up got louder every year, culminating in the truly thunderous racket put out by the Apollo–Saturn V moon-shots, which did a slow tower-of-power take-off that could spoil a manatee’s entire afternoon. The Space Shuttle, however, translates itself from Launch Complex 39 into Earth orbit in less time than it takes a blue heron to lay a premature egg. This is the true story of the Space Center in recent times: that it has become domesticated. The Space Shuttle goes up with no more delay than the average Sunday afternoon Intercity 125 from Paddington to Bristol, and about the same sense of adventure. No matter how they tokenise the payload — with a woman, a black, a black woman or a multilingual encounter group — every trip is a foregone conclusion. The unknown is in the past.

It will come again one day, when the ships built in near space leave for the planets. Meanwhile there is still some excitement to be had by seeing how things used to be, although it helps to have a child-like nature and a patient ear for your fellow-tourists. Highly PR-conscious, the Space Center caters to visitors as if it were part of the Vacation Kingdom that lies only an hour’s drive to the West, where EPCOT, Disney World and Sea World process holiday-makers by the million. A lot of the ‘vacationeers’ come spilling down the turnpike to the Space Center, where there are buses waiting to take them around. The trip isn’t as corny as you might think. Some of the commentary is on quite a high level, when you consider that a high proportion of the people listening are under the impression that Walt Disney built this place, too, and that the big building on the horizon has a rocket ride inside it, operated by Mickey Mouse.

The edifice in question is the VAB, or Vehicle Assembly Building, but it is even further away than its statistics might lead you to believe, and first the bus calls in at the Flight Training Building, which contains the mock-ups and simulators on which the Apollo astronauts used to be instructed, and which are now used to instruct tourists on the mysteries of lunar exploration. Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, went there and back in 1972, so by now all the Apollo programme participants are old enough to be in the Senate and their voices are present only on tape. They are not very thrilling voices, but occasionally they had some thrilling things to say.

‘Roger, Tranquillity, we copy you on the ground.’ I was in Italy when I first heard these words, at the Pensione Antica Cervia in the poor quarter of Florence behind the Palazzo Vecchio. I can remember that there were fifteen people in the room watching the television. The words still excite me, but now they come across time as well as distance. An LEM (lunar excursion module) sits there wrapped in gold foil. Beside me on the bench, a lady who looks like a very large wine cask wearing shorts supplies an additional commentary for the benefit of her husband, who looks like a slightly smaller wine cask wearing a peaked cap. ‘You just can’t imagine all of that!’ she informs him. ‘That big thing going up! Up in space!’ Her husband makes a lot of semi-abstract noises indicating a sense of wonder.

He made different noises, plus louder versions of the same ones, when the bus approached the VAB. The only way to tell you are near the place is by recognising the little dots walking in and out of the bottom of the front door as people. We were informed that the crawlerway from the VAB to the twin pads of Launch Complex 39 is seven feet thick. ‘Seven feet,’ said the lady. When the crawler, loaded with the complete launch vehicle plus mobile launcher platform, moves along the crawlerway, it makes slow progress. The reflection that it would make yet slower progress if loaded with the lady and her husband struck me as perhaps unworthy even as it crossed my mind, and certainly irrelevant. There are a lot of very fat people in the American South, but none of them works for NASA, whose personnel are flat-stomached jogging types to a man, or in Sally Ride’s case to a woman.

American space technology is tin-foil post-Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe minimalist, with no room for an ounce of fat anywhere. Only the Russians, boiler-plate baroque, have the wherewithal to carry any blubber aloft. The Soviet solid boosters could put the Kremlin into orbit. But very little of what goes up from, or stays on the ground at, Baikonur has the elegance of the hardware at the Cape, and even at the Cape there is not much to compare with your first sight of a Space Shuttle where it sits pointing straight up on one of the Launch Complex 39 pads. The open-air museum for launch vehicles is full of very classy-looking rockets, but the Shuttle is something else. It’s a plane that goes straight up instead of along. You can tell just by looking at it that it really goes all the way.

For once having remembered to bring my Press credentials, I used them to get away from the bus and out into the boondocks for a better angle. Launch Complex 39 Pad A was the departure point for the first lunar landing, which makes it a shrine for anyone interested in that sort of thing. Even if you swallow the line that the Space Shuttle is just a more reliable version of a no. 27 London bus, the fact that it takes off from such a lucky spot makes it worth a glance. The Shuttle was boxed in with servicing equipment but its general shape still held the eye. So did a sign beside me in the scrub: DO NOT ENTER ROUGH AREA INFESTED WITH POISONOUS SNAKES.

Back on the bus within seconds, I reflected, not for the first time, that my temperament is all wrong for an astronaut. As John Glenn has recently been demonstrating with his hypnotic speeches, it takes placidity to survive in space, where the whole object is to deprive events of their excitement by reducing them to routine. The Apollo 13 mission was the only time things went so wrong that the men on board actually had to fly the space-ship instead of making sure that it was flying itself. But one day the romance will come back, and there is a case for believing that it never went away. We just got used to the idea of people going up through the air and out of this world. The Space Center is a monument to our adaptability. We can do so much, or think we can, that we can’t surprise ourselves. But all that the manatees ever do is just lie there, and occasionally swim around for a while when they hear that dreadful noise.

Observer Magazine, 23 September, 1983
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How wrong could I be? The subsequent loss of the Challenger proved that the humdrum routine of the space programme had never been more than an illusion. There had always been explosive danger close underneath. But if I had been fooled by the air of safety, I was right about the romance: it came back with a bang. No clever journalist will dare to suggest again that the astronauts are office-workers in white suits.