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Matt Von Pinnon, Published December 03 2011

Von Pinnon: A trip to the beach ended in a blast of another kind

Cape Canaveral, Fla. – We came here for the surf. We left with a new appreciation for voyages beyond our waters.

Hotels in eastern Florida were busy over the long Thanksgiving weekend. We initially thought everyone was there with our same goal: Soak up some sun, run along the beach and maybe take a dive in the still-warm Atlantic Ocean.

We were wrong.

“Here for the launch?” people would ask, no doubt noticing we weren’t as tan as the locals.

We’d heard a little about the Saturday launch of the Atlas V rocket to Mars but really hadn’t circled it on our itinerary until locals and area launch visitors kept talking to us about it.

“Oh, you can’t get a ticket or anything,” people would say. “The viewing platform’s been sold out for a year.”

They suggested we find a good spot on a nearby beach for 10:02 a.m. that Saturday.

On Thanksgiving Day, it was overcast and windy. Most restaurants were closed, as were most stores. Feeling a little stir-crazy and needing something to do, we decided to check out nearby Kennedy Space Center, which incredibly is open every day of the year except Christmas Day.

It was the perfect day to go: no lines, mostly foreign visitors, for whom Thanksgiving Day is foreign.

We had no idea there were so many launch pads for different kinds of space launches. We also learned about all the successful and failed missions and saw many of the spacecraft and spacesuits that evolved over the years.

But, unfortunately, we also saw what can only be described as the depressed properties of a once-great space program.

The place seemed to be frozen in the ’80s, when the Space Shuttle program last ignited major public interest in NASA.

The tough economic times have hit the space programs hard, and its purpose seems lost in today’s ultra-practical environment that rightly recognizes we should fix our troubles at home before exploring other worlds.

Even the $2.5 billion Mars rocket and Curiosity rover within it was largely financed and built by private companies intent on better understanding life – or the lack thereof – on the Red Planet. Curiosity will land there in early August after a 352 million-mile trip.

On that Saturday, we joined thousands of locals and visitors on nearby beaches to watch it take off.

Even a dozen miles away from the launch pad as we were, the rocket lit up the sky with its brilliant flame and hot white exhaust. The dull roar could easily be heard for minutes after it could no longer be seen.

Realizing I had just seen a rocket from Earth leave for a relatively unexplored planet was awe-inspiring.

When my parents were half my age, they saw man land on the moon. I saw routine shuttle launches and a good chunk of the space station built. My little girls just saw a mission to Mars begin. I hope their kids see travel to yet another frontier.

It’s hard to put a price on exploration. It’s natural for us to be curious. It’s how we learn.

Sometimes you get lucky and see curiosity blast off right before your eyes.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.