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the occasions lady and

a rocket's red glare
by Audrey Poff, illustration by Brittney Guest

Like most families, we have celebrated Independence Day in many ways over the years, but nothing compares to the Fourth of July fireworks show we witnessed on Florida’s east coast in 2006.

While traveling to St. Augustine, Fla., for our annual family vacation in July 2006, a radio news report noted that the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery had been scrubbed due to bad weather that day. The launch had been rescheduled for the following day, but when bad weather caused the Sunday launch to be postponed, NASA announced that it was rescheduling the launch for July 4. Not only did that mean that we might have the rare opportunity to see a launch during our vacation, we might also get to observe history in the making. Afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence along the Space Coast, but if the weather cooperated, we would get to see America’s first Independence Day space shuttle launch.

While living on the Florida coast in 1988, I had the opportunity to see Discovery become the first space shuttle to launch after the Challenger disaster in 1986. I still remember standing in the Atlantic Ocean at Cocoa Beach with my brother and sister-in-law as Discovery took America back into space.

In hopes that Adam, Emma, Sophie and my nephew, Austin, would be fortunate enough to see a Fourth of July launch, we headed south to Titusville. From there, our goal was simply to get as close to the coast as possible for the best view of the launch. Indian River separates Titusville from nearby Kennedy Space Center, so we drove east to a private residential area located along the edge of the river. To our surprise, homeowners had posted signs welcoming others onto their property to view the launch.

With all eyes and cameras fixed on the shuttle, everyone cheered as the first signs of white smoke and steam appeared from beneath the shuttle signaling ignition of Discovery’s main engines. Oddly, at this point there was no corresponding sound for us. As the shuttle lifted off and accelerated into blue sky, a boisterous rumble finally made its way across the river, followed by the thunderous sound of the solid rocket boosters.

The shuttle made history that day as the first (and only) human-occupied spacecraft to launch on Independence Day. At 2:38 p.m. on July 4, 2006, in a stranger’s backyard along the bank of Florida’s Indian River, we were fortunate enough to be among those who got to witness it.