If Walls Could Talk
If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the voices of yesterday's space travelers echoing across time as they mingle with the sound of the surf breaking on the shore along this secluded spot at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
The salty air here has been filled with the laughter, whispers, and even tears of the men and women who've passed through this humble beach cottage before soaring off this planet into the vastness of space.
Image at Left: The pristine beaches that rim NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are gently washed by the calm blue Atlantic Ocean. Image credit: NASA
Even though for some time it was officially called the Kennedy Space Center Conference Center, the historical building has always been simply the "beach house" to generations of astronauts and their families. For years it's been their quiet, unassuming preflight retreat where they have reflected, said last goodbyes and stood on the threshold of their dream: space travel.
Image at Right: Now known officially as the Beach House, the cottage has undergone very little structural change over the years. Recently, while receiving some minor hurricane repairs, it was painted and refurnished. Image credit: NASA
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. The nearest neighbors are launch complexes. The expanses of sea and sky make it a fitting place for astronauts and their loved ones to part company before being separated by the expanse of space.
"It is a significant place in the life of astronauts," says former astronaut Mike Mullane, veteran of three Space Shuttle missions. "It's a pretty stressful time when you're getting ready to launch into space."
He found the isolation of the house made it the perfect place to say his farewells to family members. "It's great to have a place that's quiet and isolated where you can talk to your loved ones."
Image at Left: Three-time Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane enjoys some pre-flight time at the Beach House with his wife, Donna (center), and their three children. Image credit: Mike Mullane
But the effect of even the best setting has its limitations. Saying goodbye before a space flight "never got easier, and it never will," Mullane says. "I don't care how many times you fly in space, it will never get easier."
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) to accommodate the expansion of what would become the Kennedy Space Center. The cottage was somehow spared the fate of the nearby residences and a store and gas station.
Image at Right: This undated photo shows the house as it looked when it was purchased in the early 1960s as the Kennedy Space Center expanded along the north side of Cape Canaveral. Image credit: NASA
In earlier days, the astronauts could actually stay overnight, and it was dubbed the Astronaut Training and Rehabilitation Building. But it has long since lost its function as a residence with subsequent renovations. The quarters now resemble living rooms and a conference area, which are used for meetings when no astronauts are in town preparing for a mission.
The house also served as the setting where visiting dignitaries were treated to some "old Florida" cuisine consisting of grilled feral hogs (caught and cooked by the local trapper), swamp cabbage and alligator tails. "They loved it!" says George English, the former director of Kennedy Space Center's Executive Management Office, who participated in many such events.
Few mementos remain from the space pioneers who passed through its doors, but even after several renovations -- including one earlier this year -- it retains the same low-key profile. After receiving some needed hurricane repairs, new furniture and a fresh paint job, the little house by the sea stands ready to welcome the Return to Flight crew.
Then, once again, the traditional preflight barbeques will give way to quiet goodbyes, as each new crew adds another chapter to this little-known corner of space history.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center