Our trip to see the Dragon Launch

My son, Joey, and I decided to go to Florida to watch the Crew Dragon launch for his 16th birthday. Around 10:30 A.M. on Monday, May 25, we left our home town of Norman. We got breakfast and headed south on I-35 towards Dallas. Skies were clear, and all was going well until about an hour in when the rain started. At first, it was a light rain, but the further south we got, the heavier the rain got. We decided to eat lunch in Dallas at Pappadeaux’s, however, due to Covid-19, we had to navigate to a particular location due to most of the ones in Dallas proper being closed. We used the GPS to guide us in to the Richardson Pappadeaux’s, and for some reason, it had us exit of off I-35 in Denton, skipping part of the town, and hooking back up with I-35e a bit later… maybe it was avoiding construction or something, I’m not sure.. but we were happy because the “Denton Dogleg” in I-35 can sometimes be hard to drive and the rain had become a blinding downpour by the time we were through Denton.

At about 1 PM, we arrived at Pappadeaux’s and had an excellent lunch with some leftover crawfish and pasta. We gassed up and headed on I-20 to Shreveport. It rained heavily and there was a lot of highway flooding all the way. At Shreveport, we gassed up again were about to head south on I-49 toward Lafayette, but before we could get back on the road, tornado sirens went off. We decided to check the weather and wait it out. It stopped raining so heavily, but the storm was now in front of us, so when we got back on the road we just drove right into it again. We took I-49 to Lafayette, and got on I-10 to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, raining the entire time.

At New Orleans, we arrived late at night. We took an opportunity to drive around and see the Superdome, Burbon Street, and some of the surrounding area, avoiding some seedy characters trying to flag us down so we could “make ten bucks”. Joey got a good lesson about watching your back in areas like this. Luckily, the GPS was able to guide us back onto I-10 so we could head out of town.

We took I-10 to Mobile, and there, we got off again to check out the port, the SS Alabama, and some of the other things we could see from the car, still in waves of heavy rain. We probably spent an hour in Mobile just sight seeing before getting back on I-10 to Pensacola in heavy rain and flooding.

Right at the Florida border, we hit a huge traffic jam. They were diverting all “non commercial vehicles” into a weigh station. I had no idea why, but the signs directed us there. When we got there, they quizzed all of us about whether we’d had a fever in the past 24 hours, or traveled to a bunch of different places. I don’t know if they turn you away if you answer the questions wrong or what, but, apparently we made the cut and they waved us on  through. We continued on towards Tallahassee, again in massive rains and floods.

At Lake City Florida, we stopped to get gas and clean out the car. In the process, we wound up locking our keys in the car. We spent an hour or more fiddling with a hanger to get the door unlocked, but we were able to get it done… getting soaked in the process. We called our friends, Donna and Bill Martin, in Jacksonville to let them know we were going to be a little late due to all of that. Around 1:30 PM Eastern, we arrived at their house in Jacksonville. We chatted a bit, and watched for wildlife in the river that runs in their back yard out into the Ocean. We didn’t wind up seeing any alligator or manatee that frequent the area, but it was fun anyway, and the rain had finally let up a bit.  I think we ate a great dinner around 6pm and attempted to watch a movie, but as we had both been awake for probably 30-31 hours straight, we both fell asleep– I couldn’t even tell you who was in the movie as I fell asleep right away.

The following morning we woke up and headed to Titusville to watch the launch. It took about 2 hours in steady rain to make the drive from Jacksonville to Titusville, and the traffic was much lighter than I expected, with very few delays. The city of Titusville recommended that we use the “Ways” app to avoid delays, and it really helped us navigate through town, avoiding the highly congested areas.  The launch was set to go off at about 4:30 and we arrived near the area we wanted to view the launch from at around Noon.

We attempted to park in Space View Park, but between flooding and the packed cars there, we left and instead parked at Marina Park near the Titusville Marina.  Since it was only maybe 1pm, we decided to check out some of the sights around including the Project Mercury monument and Gemini park. We heard Air Force One fly overhead, and people were telling me it did a fly-by, however, we never saw it due to the skies being very overcast and the view in all directions was very hazy– it was raining almost constantly and we didn’t have much hope for a successful launch.  We walked to the middle of the “A. Max Brewer Bridge” to get the best view of the launch. About an hour before launch, skies cleared. They began fueling the Falcon 9 Rocket, and it looked like we were going to get a launch, however, lightning started in the distance, and with about 17 minutes left in the countdown, the launch was scrubbed. We hung out on the bridge and waited for Air Force One to take off so we could get some pictures of that. As Air Force One took off, one of the areas many bald eagles was flying around the bridge, although we were never able to get a pic with both Airforce One and the eagle in it, it was cool to see.

We headed down the bridge and wound up stopping at the local Blue Lodge (Masons) to use the restroom and get some drinks. In the meantime, the local Worshipful Master (head of the lodge) gave us our own tour of the lodge and talked to us about Masonry.  I have several friends who are Masons and it was pretty cool to see that lodge in particular. (Red scribble on the map above). The lodge offered $20 parking, and we decided that we’d come park there at the next attempt on Saturday.

When we finally arrived at our car, we had a decision to make. What are we going to do for the next couple of days until the next attempt. We decided to go to Clearwater Beach basically in Tampa Florida. Fighting traffic out of town, we drove to Clearwater Beach, checked into the Hampton Inn on Rocky Point. It’s a pretty cool place because it’s on an island in the bay and has really great views of the water.  Due to Covid-19, the place was being ran on a skeleton crew and offered only a “grab and go” breakfast. The staff was very nice and you could tell the folks were overworked. The manager there said she worked either a 12 or 24 hour shift 7 days a week, splitting the time with 1 other manager.  She said that until about 2 weeks prior, the two managers were performing ALL duties there.. laundry, housekeeping, front desk.. everything. She was happy that she finally had housekeepers, but was still doing the laundry. We left our hotel that night to go check out Clearwater Beach at night. We parked at the Frenchy’s beach parking lot and walked the beach– it was pitch black, but the rain was now over.

The next day, we decided to sleep in until 10 or 11. We left our hotel and headed to the Clearwater Beach Marina. We figured out what was available fishing and boating wise and planned an all day fishing trip for the next day. We spent most of the day on Clearwater Beach, swimming and shelling.. it was a very hot and muggy 90 degrees– it’d been in the 60s and 70s every day prior to that. When we were done, we hit all the beach shops and left to go eat at Chili’s before retiring to our hotel. On Friday, we loaded up the car and headed to the marina for our fishing trip on the “Queen Fleet”. The all day fishing trip cost about $90/person and included everything you needed to fish all day. The boat left the dock at 9am and we put out to sea for about 2 hours before anchoring to do our first fishing about 25 miles off shore.  It was sunny, with very few clouds and a light breeze.  It was an average day of fishing and we wound up bringing home 10 gray snapper, and some spanish mackerel and porgy. We caught a lot of other fish like grouper and pufferfish which were either out of season, too small, our not worth keeping. When we got back to shore, we had the mate fillet our fish and put them on ice to take home. We got cleaned up and headed to Frenchy’s for dinner, which was excellent as always.  This was Friday and with the launch being on Saturday, we had decided to spend the night back over near the launch in Coco (outside Coco Beach).

So we drove to Coco, back on the other side of Florida again, in absolute monsoon conditions. We could not see the road, and water was 3-6 inches deep on the highway. It was slow going. After a brief snafu with going to the wrong hotel, we finally arrived at our room in the Coco Days Inn, about 20 miles from Kennedy Space Center.

On Saturday, launch day, we awoke and headed towards the launch area. Kennedy Space Center had been closed for weeks due to Covid concerns, but actually had finally opened the day prior, so we decided to check out if there was some small chance of watching the launch from there.  We navigated through the terrible (worse then Wednesday) traffic to get to the visitors center, but tickets were already sold out (as I expected). We headed toward the Blue Lodge where we planned to park for the launch. Since we were at KSC, we navigated straight down the shore, and saw several other viewing locations, but most of them were people’s houses or other privately owned places that weren’t allowing people on. We came upon the “St Stephen Christian Retreat”, which was some kind of catholic retreat facility which sat directly on the beach. We wound up paying $20 to park there, however, we could park right next to the beach about maybe 50 feet from where we could watch. We were early and got a great parking spot.

We sat in our car through bands of light and medium rain, hoping we could get to watch the launch today. Because we were a little outside of town, the cell service was much less congested, and I was able to pull up multiple video feeds from NASA and “Everyday Astronaut” which cover everything in detail. I watch nearly all NASA and SpaceX launches from home all the time, and I was kind of surprised how attached I’ve gotten to all of the information the provide. On Wednesday when we watched the first attempt, I definitely missed not being able to get their feeds reliably. On Saturday, however, we were able to get them and I was very happy because of that. We sat in our chairs on the beach and watched the Falcon 9 fire it’s engines.. fire shot out sideways from the bottom of the pad and a huge cloud of steam arose due to the noise suppression system on the pad (water tank being emptied into the flames to help protect the pad and lower the noise). Slowly, the rocket arose away from the tower with a long flame trail. Due to Falcon 9 using RP1 fuel  (kerosene) instead of the Hydrogen fuel the shuttle used, the rocket has no visible “smoke trail”. The rocket very briefly went behind one small cloud and another bigger one before disappearing into the very high clouds that covered most of the sky that day. A few seconds later, the sound increased to an extremely bassy roar– you could feel it more than you could hear it.  Finally, the sound decreased and we watched for any sign of the first stage landing out at sea. Due to cloud cover, we never saw any trace of that… it landed about 200 miles out to see, and we would only have been able to see a trace of it anyway, but we were unable to see anything.  The Falcon 9, however, did go north east and was visible all up the coast of Florida, with my friends in Jacksonville reporting that they were able to see part of the ascent. Some say the experience is spiritual, some call it magical or emotional. I’m not sure what to call it except to say that words do not do it justice. I’m standing there with a smile plastered on my face, in tears.. both excited and concerned for the safety of those on board. I run to the car, to put all the feeds on the speakers and listen to the next several minutes of launch, stage separation, 2nd stage ignition, orbit insertion burns, and reports from the crew.

At that point, Joey and I prepared to head home… but, my daughter Hope wanted me to come see here in Indiana “on the way back”.  So, we punched “Evansville, Indiana” into the GPS and jumped into one of the longest traffic jams I’ve been in in a long time. We did what we could, but it took 2-3 hours to finally get back on i-95 at highway speeds. We drove through Jacksonville and waved out the car window toward our friends as we tried to make the best time we could on the way back. At Lake City Florida we again stopped to get gas, and that’s where we received our first warning about the nation erupting into protest. They warned us not to stop in Atlanta– which we were about to drive through. When we did drive through Atlanta, we saw no obvious signs of protest, but did see warnings about a curfew.  We kept driving.

We headed in to Chattanooga, where Joey wanted to get pictures of the sunrise. The entire way we were listening to the live NASA feeds of the Crew Dragon mission.  We drove atop “Lookout Mountain” where we had been a couple of years prior to see the solar eclipse. There were a lot of signs saying that the town was closed and basically asked visitors to just leave. That was one of the most odd things I’d seen on the trip. We met a guy there who was taking photos of the sunrise as well– he had ridden his bicycle there from Atlanta over the past 3 days and he told us that the locals really didn’t want him there, but did allow him to eat at the local coffee shop that was open “to locals only”. Even though we were only in Chattanooga for about an hour, that experience was quite surreal.

I was exhausted at this point from several lost nights of sleep, however, the continual updates from Crew Dragon kept me alert. Through the drive from one city to the next (it was all a blur), I listened to the crew as they navigated the craft closer and closer to the ISS, and performed several test maneuvers. We arrived at Hope’s house in Evansville, Indiana just as the crew was opening the hatch to enter the International Space Station.

We hung out in Evansville for a while, played some games with Hope, messed around with the fire pit and headed back toward Oklahoma. I wished we could have spent more time there– Evansville looks a lot more interesting than she’s described it to me. I want to go back and check that town out in more detail.

The drive from Evansville to St Louis was boring. There were barely enough gas stations on that drive to keep gas in the car, and all the gas was around $2 per gallon, where most gas elsewhere had been between $1.50 and $1.85.  Along the way, we were warned about protests in St. Louis. According to one person, people had blocked the interstate at one point. It seemed a little dicey as you have to go through downtown to merge on to i-44 in St Louis. We opted to pass St Louis and take a state high way to hook up with I-44, so we could avoid that downtown interchange.

The drive from St Louis on was brutal. The Missouri roads are NOT lit up, there are no reflectors on the white lines in the road, the road has a lot of tar on it so it appears shiny at night– and none of it is straight. It was late at night and I had to pull over to get a quick cat nap 2-3 times.. my eyes could not stay open with all that strain to just see.

When we got to Miami, Ok, I pulled over and took about a 2 hour nap. After that, it was smooth sailing. We arrived in Norman at about 11 AM.

It was a great trip, and I look forward to editing this story to include photos and other things, but I wanted to get the details down before I forgot them.