Image: The launch of STS-115, which Elizabeth Howell never got to see (NASA)
I was in mid-air when a huge bolt of lightning struck the space shuttle, dashing my hopes to see it launch quickly.
It was late August 2006. I was a student who had spent all of her life's savings to see Space Shuttle Atlantis lift off with Canadian Steve MacLean on board for the STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. I'd somehow managed to convince Canadian radio station CBC to back my request to get to the launch site.
I bought my plane tickets as late as I could. I looked at news reports daily on the Internet. I boarded in Ottawa, Canada for a direct flight to Orlando, with everything "nominal" (to use a NASA term). But by the time I'd gotten to my hotel room late in the night of Aug. 25, launch was a no-go. The most powerful lightning bolt ever had hit the space shuttle pad and naturally, the responsible thing for NASA to do was make sure there was no damage. Launch date to be determined.
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So I holed up in my hotel room and ate TV dinners in front of NASA Television. My credentials as a student showed: within hours of getting to Florida, I'd dropped and damaged my only lifeline to the Internet -- a cheap Averatec laptop computer. It refused to turn on. Panicking, and as I mentioned before, broke, I asked the motel if they had any leads on how to fix it. The manager (who seemed to like messing with repairs in his spare time) took it apart and wiggled things around. He managed to save it.
I had little to do, but hey, it was Florida. I walked on the beach. I checked out Ron Jon Surf Shop. I briefly visited MacLean's family (who were in good spirits despite the delay) and watched the astronauts practice in T-33s along the coastline.
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One hazy afternoon, I slapped on some sunscreen and walked by several Cocoa Beach stores, taking pictures of any street signs related to the space program. I found a hotel that the Mercury 7 astronauts reportedly invested in, now called La Quinta Inn. There was a big sign in the back with their names, complete with the misspelling "Walter Shirra."