It’s that time of year again. Sister-in-law and I have been on a road trip, driving her car from sunny Florida along with legions of other “snowbirds” heading back up north for the summer. This time, our first stop was going to be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. No, it wasn’t Disney World but a vast swathe of empty land on the eastern coast of Florida which, to someone growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century had just about the most exciting place name on earth: Cape Canaveral. Technically, the Cape is a small offshore headland though it’s name is popularly used for all the land around it, including the fabled Air Force Base and Kennedy Space Center. It’s here, of course, where the first American astronauts went up in their Mercury and Gemini rockets, where the Apollo moon missions blasted off, where, more recently, the space shuttles started and ended their voyages. Now even the shuttles have had their day. The last one was pensioned off a few weeks ago, doing a triumphant circuit of Washington riding piggyback on a plane before going into honourable retirement in a museum.
At Cape Canaveral, what was once the future is now history. The nostalgia fix starts in the car park, with each section named for some half-remembered astronaut. Ours was Wally Schirra, who flew three missions including Apollo 7 in 1968. Models of spacewalking astronauts flank the entrance, along with posters advertising “lunch with a veteran astronaut” for 24 dollars.
A bus took us to a viewing platform where we gazed from afar at the launch pads. We drove past the “largest tracked vehicle in the world”, that transported shuttles and rockets at a steady one mile-per-hour crawl. The marks of its monster tracks in the sand were as spine-chilling as dinosaur footprints.
We saw grainy film of President John F Kennedy proclaiming, “We choose to go to the moon”. We sat through a presentation on the launch of Apollo 8, our seats shaking with the simulated vibrations from a distant lift-off. The presentation was in the actual control room for the Apollo missions – those rows of desks and primitive screens, each chair draped with a white lab coat with a logo saying “IBM” or “McDonnell Douglas”, each desk littered with bulky headphones, old-fashioned specs and the sort of big, clumsy ring binders I used for my school notes. What once seemed so high tech is now as dated as the first horseless carriage – or the blown-up 1960s photos of hairy hippies and the Monkees records that entertained us while we waited. .
Cape Canaveral isn’t defunct. The era of space exploration still goes on in different ways. Yet perhaps, these days, there’s as much of a tourist market in nostalgia for the grownups as in thrills for the kids. It’s the nostalgia for the passing of an age – an age when a supremely confident America took on the Soviets to get to the moon first, when humbled pioneer astronauts marvelled at the wonders of the universe by quoting Scripture, when families sat through the night glued to their TVs, watching momentous events – the first moon landing, the rescue of Apollo 13 - which modern children probably take for granted.
Times have changed and not just because Americans and Russians now work together in space. On our bus they showed us stirring videos about shuttles and rockets but also about the 21st century’s big idea - nature conservation. Empty of houses and closed off from hikers and hunters, Cape Canaveral is one huge nature reserve. A small alligator basked on a bank, reminding us that he and his kind had been around long before space travel and intended to be there long after. Road signs said, “Wildlife Crossing, Give ‘em a Brake”. Our bus driver pointed out a gopher tortoise, “Looks like a World War Two helmet with legs,” and an inlet where some endangered manatees, or sea cows, were allegedly frolicking, though I must have missed them. An excited little girl grabbed her mom’s arm, “I do hope I see one!” Who needs the moon when you’ve got manatees.