Space shuttle Atlantis reportedly unleashed the force of 60,000 Corvettes when it took off on its recent final mission. Glenn Butler was there with just one, but still had a blast.
First published in the September 2011 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
I was a kid the day Skylab fell to earth in 1979. At my primary school, we followed the planned re-entry, the expected splashdown in the Indian Ocean ... the actual impact across a wide swathe of southern West Australia.
The concept of travelling and living in space blew my young mind wide open, expanding my horizons well beyond the few suburbs I could reach on my BMX. An adult mind would struggle with such a monumental existential recalibration, but a child embraces it without question or fear.
Two years later the space shuttle Columbia blasted off on its maiden voyage from Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Cape Canaveral. Newspapers heralded the world's first reusable space plane as a forerunner to intergalactic 747s that would take us to new worlds. I watched the launch on TV, my dreams riding shotgun with the crew as they blasted off into the Final Frontier.
At its core, the space shuttle is a mechanical beast of burden, transport for people and possessions. But, just like a car, it's more than that: an explorer of far horizons, a travelling companion, a dream machine. Much like my dad's VC Commodore to an eight-year-old, though on a different scale of operation.
So, for a car fan who grew up with the space program, I had to go to the space shuttle's 135th and final launch. And it had to be in a Chevrolet Corvette, the car astronauts drive.
T-minus one day
The trip starts early morning on Ocean Drive, Miami's South Beach boulevard, the Corvette's familiar 6.2-litre V8 growling at the seagulls picking trash off the now-deserted street. Last night this Art Deco restaurant strip resembled an MTV music video; a thumping and gyrating, pumping and sweating mass of humanity all vying for attention on a humid 36-degree evening. Serious cash cruised the strip: Bentley convertibles, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maybachs, Maseratis and even a Rolls-Royce. All pimped. All piloted by guys with golden grilles and, in the passenger seat, sultry girls with criminal curves in skin-tight dresses. A world away from the space geeks and astronauts 350km north ...
Another party town, Fort Lauderdale, disappears beneath the Grand Sport's fat rubber. Like the relationship between astronauts and Corvettes, the Grand Sport model traces its roots to the 1960s and Corvette's racetrack heritage. Think of it as a Clubsport; wider tyres and track, more aggressive suspension and brakes, all in the name of dynamism. Heritage stripes on the front quarter panels are a giveaway, as are the chrome alloys beneath and the delicate lip spoiler on the tail. The GS is effectively a bridging model between stock C6 'Vettes and the ballistic Z06 and ZRl. In America it costs US$55,045 - bugger-all for a 4.0-second car capable of lapping Virginia Raceway faster than a Porsche 911 Carrera S, according to Car & Driver magazine.
I'm experiencing little of the 'Vette's prowess, however. Florida roads don't follow the coastline; instead the coast is remodelled to fit the road. I do find one quiet backroad to play with the throttle's intimacy and the 'Vette's 305-section rear tyres. The Corvette's G-meter peaks at 1.1g, well short of the shuttle's 3G from take-off until the solid rocket boosters are jettisoned two minutes in. My personal record is 5G a few years back in a Russian training jet. I blacked out, my consciousness winking out like an old television's picture. That flight was a dream achieved, though its velocity didn't beat the wind-assisted 1100km/h I once saw on a commercial jet's in-flight info screen.
We drive towards Orlando, the capital of Orange County and Florida's third city, 70km inland from Cape Canaveral but with the closest hotel room I could secure. A million space fans are expected on the coast, looking out across the same body of water into which the Challenger's crew capsule crashed in 1986. That was the year I got my car licence and had my first car crash. I lost control for a couple of seconds, though it felt far, far longer. Later that year I read the shuttle's crew cabin had been found intact despite the explosion 73 seconds after take-off, suggesting they were probably alive for the three-minute free-fall into the ocean.
A few of the 200 satellite radio stations buzz with shuttle talk. Doubt remains over the launch scheduled for 11:26am the next day. Tropical thunderstorms and sullen clouds besiege Florida, and are forecast to continue. NASA says there is a 70 percent chance of "no-go" (do they express the odds backwards to deliberately dampen expectations?) dropping to 60 percent the next day and 40 percent the day after, when I'm booked to fly home.
T-minus 6 hours
Dawn is an hour away as I thumb the 'Vette into life. It's already 27deg C, and humid. I'm sweating in shorts and a T-shirt thinking about four astronauts in their big, bulky space suits. The 'Vette's satellite radio delivers NASA's latest launch update. Still a 70 percent no-go. The Corvette's sports seat numbs my left leg; it lacks underthigh support and is too soft elsewhere. Still, how would I go squashed into a shuttle seat as it climbs through the atmosphere to a 380km orbit? How would it feel to cover 7.7km every second, 27,160km/h, or Mach 23? How would my nerves cope with being so far from home, at the very end of a fragile cord of technology and equations?
T-minus 5 hours, 25min
Gridlock. At 6am. The highway into Titusville, the town with the best view, is a parking lot and we're still at least 16km away from it. Panic nibbles my nerves. Will I make the launch? Will there even be a launch? For the first time, Twitter proves itself useful: the feed #spaceflightnow reports that fuelling was completed overnight, though STS-135 is still 70 percent no-go. I double back to strike the coast road farther south, hopeful of following it into Titusville.
T-minus 4 hours, 18min
Titusville. People and cars cover the roadside and the centre strip. Picnic blankets drape SUV roofs, front yards are commercial parking lots with some entrepreneurs charging $50, which late arrivals will pay. We park at a condemned house. The synergy is not lost on me.
Standing on the balcony peering east across the water to the cape, the launch pad is visible, the shuttle barely, its rust-coloured fuel tank and launch tower more prominent through the heat haze. Binoculars bring it closer and I strain to see movement on the tower, but it's like looking for fleas on an ant. It's real. And I'm here to see it go. If it goes. Heavy clouds blanket the sky.
T-minus 3 hours
The crowd stretches forever and more people are coming. Every space that's not a road is claimed. Parkland separates the road from the water, but today it's a parking lot and campground…