I wrote this in February 2011. -- BB
Just inshore from the Indian River in Titusville, Florida, there is a pool of water set off from the estuary by a berm and a metal baffle, and in this pool there is an alligator.
Titusville is widely known as the third-best place from which to watch the space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, twelve miles east, across the wide expanse of the northern Indian River. The first two best places are both attached to the space center, and you need tickets to watch the launches from there. They’re about three miles closer.
The shuttle launches from launchpad 39A, or at least the Discovery launched from there on February 24, 2011. You can see 39A from anyplace along the western shore of the river, which is a developed strip on the shoulder of US1 running north-south through town. At the northern end of Titusville, just where the causeway to the space center comes to land, is Spaceview Park. Spaceview Park comes recommended because there’s a PA system counting down the launch, and a Jumbotron showing a closeup view of the spacecraft as it takes off. But farther south there are some open areas that work okay for peering across the water through binoculars. Thousands of people come to town to set up their tripods and stake out their places, hours before liftoff.
The alligator is medium-sized. Not a great brooding veteran nor a hatchling, it looks to be about five to six feet long, and on the morning of the launch it lay still, close to the riverward side of the pool, floating perpendicular to the coast, looking almost pointedly away from the launch site.
He or she may have had reason to be piqued. The February 24, 2011 launch of Discovery, to deliver a structural element to the International Space Station, is to be the penultimate launch of the Shuttle. The fleet is old, and expensive, and the hope is that private industry will step in to provide some of the expensive answers to space R&D that the government is increasingly wary of financing.
For the gator, this spells trouble. For strewn around its watery home are the possible remains of meals. There’s a McDonald’s about fifty yards away, a hot dog place across US1, and beside a marquee reading “GO DISCOVERY / ICE COLD MARGARITAS”—next to a branch of the Kennedy Space Center Federal Credit Union—is a palatial Tex-Mex place called El Leoncita. Wrappers and cups litter the shoreline of the alligator’s fenced-off enclosure. The alligator, I suspect, eats well when shuttles go up.
Indeed, it seems an unlikely place to find a reptile of this size. There is little about the immediate environment to suggest any organic sustenance for our friend. There don’t seem to be any fresh waterways nearby (the Indian River is an estuary, and salt). There can’t be too many fish in the little pond, certainly, and the gator is so obvious within its confines that it’s hard to imagine unwary wading birds stopping in.
More likely it is the by-blow of the shuttle program and its legions of fans arriving to set up lawn chairs along the gator’s fence that keep the animal fed. A few chicken nuggets, a beef patty, the end of a burrito, Mom’s fried chicken—the tourists come, and, intentionally or not, the detritus of their visits winds up fair game. Otherwise, what does it eat? Rats? Maybe.
Probably, for the gator, the end of the shuttle program means hunger or departure. It’s unlikely that Titusville’s residents—proprietors of the Space Shuttle Car Wash, for instance—will think to spare a Big Mac for the green guy in his pond up the road. He or she is in an out of the way spot, near a public park, but there’s nothing picturesque about it (partly on account of the garbage, and the fence). Its primary advantage is its proximity to the best views of 39A. And the government can’t keep pushing millions at the shuttle program indefinitely. There’s no plan or stomach to build the next generation vehicle. Most signs point to future ships becoming expensive tools, rather than romantic engines of discovery. Robotics. Small scale machines remotely controlled, performing assembly and repairs under orders from Houston. Hard to imagine crowds like this coming out to watch those smaller, less soul-stirring gouts of flame across the lapping waves.
But that’s tomorrow. On this February, our attention is drawn by the countdown, and the puff of smoke across the water, and the cheers of the crowds as a white-gold dragon’s-scale of flame rises into the sky and a nearly-divine delayed thunder rolls across the miles. A trail of expanding white thrusts upward, piercing a thin layer of clouds, emerging again to take the heavens. A star remains for a time, fading off into space, into its work beyond the blue dome that remains. We shuffle back to the car, wrapped in the glory of the moment, rehashing and stopping occasionally to look back and up at the dissipating exhaust.
Later, we get caught in the roach motel of traffic from all three prime viewing spots, all converging on a single interstate entrance ramp which is predictably impassable. It’s late, we’re hungry, and there is a bright clot of chain restaurants and hotels surrounding the traffic-filled arena. So we stay a little longer to buy cheeseburgers and coffee by the highway out of town. Later, fed but still stymied by the non-flow of cars onto I-95, we drive back into Titusville and head south on a nearly deserted US1.
Here, on the river side of town, and in the endless towns along this highway on this summery February night, every strip mall boasts a bail bondsman and a pawn shop. But for now, and for another month, the shuttle swings overhead.