Treasure Coast and Space Coast. Intriguing relics of centuries gone by and futuristic forays into the “final frontier” are juxtaposed in neighboring Indian River and Brevard counties, and local residents have had front-row seats to it all.
Diving into the blue waters seeking gold doubloons from the ships of audacious sailors, soaring into the black skies in search of unknown wonders beyond our planet—everything about these familiar realities brings to mind the courage and curiosity of intrepid adventurers.
So it’s no surprise that Treasure Coast residents have for decades turned their gaze northward and found inspiration in the goings-on at Kennedy Space Center. From its storied history to the abiding excitement of launches, the space program epitomizes the human love of exploration.
Prior to the mid-twentieth century, if Cape Canaveral showed up in history books, it was associated with Ponce de Leon and other sixteenth-century Spanish explorers. From the Age of Sail until the beginning of the Space Age, it seemed there was little change to the sands and scrublands of the area. When a missile testing program began in 1950, it was as if the cape had been suddenly thrust into a dramatically different time period.
Eight years later, the establishment of NASA ushered in a new era full of grand adventures and daring heroes. The Mercury astronauts sometimes seemed to be swaggering into history like high-tech swashbucklers. They orbited planet Earth in their single-man vehicles, paving the way for the Gemini program, with its larger spacecraft and extended flights. This, in turn, led to the Apollo program and the unforgettable mission launched from Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969. Four days later, there were human footprints in the gray dust of the moon. The Eagle had landed.
While people all over the nation and the world sat transfixed before their television sets, local residents could take it a step further: They could walk outside and watch the launches in real time with the naked eye. This pastime escalated in 1981 when the Space Shuttle program began launching astronauts into space on a frequent basis. From Vero Beach and its environs, one could watch the countdown and launch on television and, as soon as the shuttle cleared the launchpad, run outside and wait a few seconds for it to clear the tree line. The sense of awe and wonder as the vehicle catapulted human beings into space never wore off.
However, that fortuitous vantage point brought sadness as well; the 1986 Challenger disaster occurred in full view of Vero Beach residents. Seventeen years later, the Columbia tragedy took place outside our field of vision, but still our proximity to Cape Canaveral lent a particular immediacy to the loss.
All in all, the shuttle program spanned 30 years and 135 missions. The International Space Station was also constructed during this period. In 2011, the return of the shuttle Atlantis to Kennedy Space Center marked the end of the program. However, NASA’s history of exploration has continued with projects such as the Mars Rovers. Proposed “Moon to Mars” programs would involve a return to the moon and eventual missions to Mars.
Meanwhile, the rise of SpaceX has led to yet another new chapter in the history of Cape Canaveral. “Making Life Multiplanetary” is an intriguing motto of this futuristic company founded by Elon Musk. With launches from KSC, SpaceX offers Treasure Coast sky-watchers even more to view as they look to the northern sky.
For sky-watchers, photographers, astronomers, and teachers on the Treasure Coast, the ongoing story of space exploration constitutes inspiration. One group of people who look to NASA with an awareness of history and a continuing sense of excitement are the 100 or so members of the Treasure Coast Astronomical Society. Educational director and past president William “Lee” Tinker, who teaches astronomy at Indian River State College, explains that the society does community outreach in partnership with IRSC, supporting events at the college’s Hallstrom Planetarium. Such outreach reflects the fact that members are “interested in just helping people enjoy astronomy and in educating people about astronomy,” Tinker says.
He adds, “Our biggest connection to NASA is that every year in spring, we would do an Astronomy Day at the Hallstrom Planetarium.” (During the pandemic, events have been canceled, but TCAS’s Facebook page provides information on the upcoming schedule.) Oftentimes, the keynote speaker for Astronomy Day drove down from Cape Canaveral. Tinker recalls “a gentleman who was in charge of space station integration from NASA,” a popular and recurring keynote speaker, who ended up offering TCAS members a special opportunity. “He was so impressed with us that he invited us for a behind-the-scenes tour of Cape Canaveral. It was fantastic!”
The enthusiasm is apparent in Tinker’s voice as he recalls this adventure. “We saw pretty much everything. This was toward the last years of construction on the space station. We were taken into the bay area where pieces of equipment for the station were actually located.” They stared in excitement at what would become the cupola of the station, amazed at how close they were. “We were so close we could have reached out and touched it—but they told us not to!”
TCAS members had a similar close encounter with a shuttle that was being prepped for launch. NASA had “engineers and technicians crawling all over the shuttle, and we were walking under it.” Tinker exclaims, “It was absolutely incredible to be that close to an actual, real-live shuttle.” His enthusiasm is reminiscent of an epigraph the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury used to open The Martian Chronicles: “It is good to renew one’s sense of wonder…. Space travel has again made children of us all.”
Sebastian resident Doug Iooss is a retiree whose love for photography has led him to an interest in NASA and SpaceX launches. He uses the Space Launch Now app to keep track of the schedule. Some of his launch photos are taken from Sebastian’s Riverview Park or Sebastian Inlet State Park, “And some photos are from my driveway looking toward the cape,” he says wryly.
Iooss has also visited Cape Canaveral to see a launch close-up. “It was exciting,” he recalls. The multiple sonic booms surprised him. “I’m going to guess we had between four and six sonic booms.” When he is at home or at parks in Sebastian photographing launches, Iooss uses such techniques as long exposure and time lapse. He is intrigued by the idea of preserving a launch through photography. “Each picture tells a story.”
Jon U. Bell, director of the Hallstrom Planetarium and associate professor of astronomy at IRSC, has traveled internationally in conjunction with his astronomical pursuits; but he believes that living and working near the Space Coast gives him an extra edge when it comes to sparking the enthusiasm of students.
“Because we live where we do, it’s a tremendous inspiration advantage for kids growing up. When I was a kid, I was in the Finger Lakes region in New York, and I could only watch launches on TV. Here, you can go in your backyard and watch. You even hear the rumble if it’s a quiet night.”
Of course, being limited to television viewing didn’t stop the young Bell from avidly following the space program, and NASA history has been a profound inspiration for him. He was 15 years old when the first moon landing took place. He was working in a scout camp where everyone lived in tents and there was only one TV set. “It was in the first-aid lodge—a small black-and-white TV—and we all crowded around watching. And then we heard, ‘Tranquility Base here—the Eagle has landed.’ It’s such a wonderful human moment.” The excitement in his voice is audible as he loses himself in the memory.
The spirit of wonder remains as he describes the experience of touching a meteorite: “Knowing the meteorite was out there for billions of years and then landed on the earth—and here I am, holding the ultimate of antiques.” Such a thoughtful perspective is essential to all exploration. “That’s the sense that’s most important. Whether input is visual, audial, or tactile, it is all to transmit it to the brain—which is maybe the greatest wonder of the known universe.”
If that sounds like a line from Star Trek, it’s no coincidence; Bell has been influenced by science fiction as well as science history. Filed along with his memories of watching the moon landing are his memories of watching the first episode of the original Star Trek the night it aired. “I was parked in front of my grandmother’s color TV.” When he heard the tagline, “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” he thought, “They’re boldly going! I want to do that!”
Bell relates that when school groups visit the planetarium, certain questions are common. One of them, he says with a laugh, is “What happens if I take my helmet off in space?” But occasionally a child will ask Bell if he is an astronaut.
Bell likes to give the following answer: “I am not an astronaut, except in the sense that we are all astronauts on spaceship Earth. My job is to stand here on the ground and point the way for you to go up into space.” Visits to the planetarium, along with the proximity of Cape Canaveral itself, can inspire the next generation of astronauts. He then adds, “And if you do happen to go to the moon or to Mars, bring me back
For the astronomy and NASA enthusiasts of the Treasure Coast, the themes of wonder and exploration recur like patterns of notes in a symphony. Describing the reactions he observes in the planetarium, Tinker says, “When the lights go down and the star field becomes visible, you hear the gasps, you hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ That’s what it’s all about—how spectacular the universe is!”