The drive between Dallas and Tampa is on the lines of about 17 hours, just the driving. I'd made the haul before but this time was not trying to set or match any personal records so I pulled up outside of Tallahassee for the night before stop #1 in the Tampa area to visit friends from high school that had settled in the area. After a few days there it was on to the Orlando area to spend time with more friends from high school that had moved to that part of the country. I had been on the road for about three weeks at this point, two of them in Dallas and all not too long after being furloughed following the September 11th attacks of 2001.
While in Dallas I knew I would be traveling to Florida to visit friends but another thought came in to my mind, something that I had never done or seen before. I'm old enough to remember watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon during the summer of my 2nd grade year of elementary school. There was nothing so powerful as to watch the Saturn V rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, as tall as a football field is long with five enormous engines lifting the beast in to space with no small amount of noise, smoke, flames and chest thumping pride. This while watching from a living room on maybe a 12" or 15" screen in scratchy but still new "living color" thanks to NBC.
The Saturn V program continued for only a few more years after that with nothing nearly as spectacular planned in the years immediately following. There was one reprise launch in the mid-70s thanks to the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission at the height of the Cold War. All that space muscle for the sake of a handshake over the Atlantic ocean but certainly the theatrics of the launches were worth every gallon of detente rocket fuel. By the time of the Space Shuttle in the spring of my senior year at high school I and most of the rest of the nation weren't sure there was a need to go back to space. If all they were ever going to do was orbit the Earth and visit a space station I certainly felt it couldn't be as breathtaking an experience as the Saturn V (watch video) launches to the moon.
Fifteen years later the Challenger accident was still on my mind and the minds of others. There was national pride at stake as well as honoring the memory of the Challenger victims by continuing the work they sacrificed their lives to forward. There was a space program active in my adult lifetime and I had the time available to actually go and see one 32 years after Kennedy's Dream came true. I fired up an online search for some information and found what I was looking for - I was going to Cape Canaveral to witness a shuttle launch for the first time in my life.