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If Walls Could Talk
If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the voices of yesterday's space travelers echoing across time.
They mingle with the sound of the surf breaking on this secluded beach at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This salty air has been filled with the laughter, whispers, and even tears of the men and women who've passed through this shore's humble beach cottage, before soaring off into the vastness of space.
Astronaut Mike Mullane: "This is sacred sand out here, it really is. It's where people have made those final goodbyes, and they were final. But we know it. I mean, there's nobody, no spouse, no astronaut walks that sand that doesn't know that there is a possibility that this is forever."
For years it's been the quiet, unassuming preflight retreat where astronauts have reflected as they stood on the threshold of their dream: space travel.
The cozy house sits perched above the dunes at the edge of a pristine beach that stretches undisturbed as far as the eye can see.
Its nearest neighbors are launch complexes.
Astronaut Bob Cabana: "Not all of our time is totally full getting briefings or preparing to go fly, and it can get kind of claustrophobic over there just being cooped up in crew quarters and it's really nice to be able to go out to the beach house and just walk on the beach and just sit there and see the ocean, and walk up and down the beach, pick up shells, listen to the waves lapping on the shore."
Mullane: "Before the first mission, to sit out here and look at the sky and say, 'I'm next! I'm next! It's going to happen! I'm going to go into space!' That would just overwhelm me. What history of these people that have walked through this beach house, who have walked on that beach out there, said goodbye to their spouses in the shadows of the rockets they were launching on tomorrow. I felt totally overwhelmed by that reality. That I was now part of it -- that I was walking the beach and saying goodbye in the shadow of the rocket that I was going to be riding tomorrow."
The expanses of sea and sky make it a fitting place for astronauts and their loved ones.
Astronaut Janice Voss: "To me the most special time at the beach house is when you can go out there with your family. There's one barbeque thing where you can bring out guests, and my parents got to come out. And the beach house has been there forever and that history that stretches out for so long and to share that, and let my family meet the other crew members in a more casual setting, It's nice to have that really quite time to be with your family and share that history and culture with them so they feel a little more connected to all that's going on."
Cabana: "I looked for perfect little seashells. I got four of them, one for each of my children and one for my wife. And I wrote a little message to each of them inside the shell. And I said, "Here, you hold this and give one to each of the kids and you hold on to this when I'm launching and that's a little something of me with you during that time that I'm launching into space." And somewhere I think they've all still got their seashells."
Mullane: "You're boundlessly joyful at the thought of riding into space again, your overwhelmed with that joy, but at the same time you have, as she said, the fear factor. That's hard to get your mind around that. But it is. That's the reality of an astronaut's life, and a spouse's life, in those final days and hours before a mission. Fear and joy overwhelming you."
Donna Mullane: "And it's exhausting! It was quite emotional when everybody leaves. You're by yourself and you see each of the couples of the crew going off in different directions, knowing that it's a private moment and they are dealing with their own anxiety in their way."
Structurally, the two-story, wood-frame and concrete block house never really outgrew its humble, early 1960s beginnings as part of the oceanfront Neptune Beach subdivision.
The development and its land were bought in 1963 -- for the grand sum of $31,500.
The acquisition was to accommodate the expansion of what would become NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Cabana: "The beach house is a unique facility here at the Kennedy Space Center, and it's changed a lot over time. Of course it was originally a home that somebody was living in when the Kennedy Space Center was built. When eminent domain took over all the property down here to build our spaceport the beach house was there and it became ours."
The cottage was somehow spared the fate of the nearby residences and a store and gas station.
Mullane: "I don't know who the far-thinking person was that preserved this house from destruction -- there were other houses here when this was private property, but thank you for doing it. I'm sure they could not have imagined how this would be part of space history, manned space flight history."
Now, just as in the past, the little house by the sea now stands ready to welcome the final shuttle crews and their families.
Once again, the traditional preflight barbeques will give way to quiet walks on the beach, as they add the final shuttle-era chapters to this little-known corner of space history.
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