Travel Long Haul: Three, two, one ... and it's lift-off in the space state

On Florida's Space Coast, you can witness the inferno of a rocket launch, while in California you can check out the future: the X-38.
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WE HAD come to see a rocket take off. With only the vague notion that if you head for Florida's "space coast" on launch days there will be a place along Route A1A where you can observe, we set off. I had been told that the police administer a few impromptu sites because the spectacle of the Orbiter (as they call the shuttle in these parts) leaving the atmosphere at 17,000mph is just too much for the average rubbernecker. The plan was to drive the 55 miles from our hotel in Orlando to the Kennedy Space Centre, taking our chances on finding a decent spot at the last minute.

During our stay in Florida we had already visited the KSC visitor complex. I have yet to meet anyone disappointed by its museum, rocket park and Imax theatres. The most spectacular exhibit is inside the Apollo/Saturn V Centre. One of the three surviving 363ft Saturn V moon rockets rests on stilts, gleaming and iconic. The Saturn V was introduced in 1964. It was so big that the original site for manned flights, the air-force base on neighbouring Cape Canaveral, had to be abandoned. Walking around the rocket gives you a feeling of the monstrous scale of the programme.

Central Florida's Atlantic coast has few other attractions. You pass through miles of marshland before the journey peters out into Cape Canaveral, a flat bulge surrounded by ocean. The town feels low-rent and permanently out of season. What the cape does have is a sense of history. The budget motels, second-hand car dealerships and diners lining Route A1A around Cocoa Beach are not so different from the businesses that prospered during the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. I consoled myself with the best guide to the pioneering days of the space age, The Right Stuff.

"People coming to work at the cape for Nasa felt part of the mad rush to battle the Soviets for dominion over the heavens," wrote Tom Wolfe. "Very few people had a place big enough to entertain in. But every night the fraternal lounge was open, under the skies, in the salt air."

The same joie de combat supercharged the atmosphere at Edwards Airforce Base in California in the Fifties and Sixties. There was still such a feel when we took a trip here. Test pilots had created space-pioneer folklore from the moment when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier above the base in 1947. A small museum celebrates him and other hotshots.

Palmdale, a few miles further on, feels like the last point of civilisation. I stayed in the Holiday Inn and found an artist's impression of the X- 33 space plane (due to replace the shuttle some time after the millennium) displayed in reception. The picture is signed by the Lockheed Martin engineers developing the prototype of the edge of town. The Skynkworks, as their office is known, is a large, windowless structure behind miles of security fencing. The U-2 and Blackbird spy planes were created inside, along with the Stealth fighter. Pressing my face against the perimeter steel, I wondered whether I would be whisked away in the style of The X Files. Then I drove on.

The main entrance to Edwards is a 45-minute drive out of Palmdale. An escorted tour certainly makes a unique accompaniment to a California fly-drive holiday. The military built here because of Rogers Dry Lake, an enormous flat plain baked hard by the sun. It is the perfect place to land experimental aerospace vehicles.

The latest space ship to take advantage of the favourable geography is the X-38. It is an escape vehicle, being developed to allow people living on the International Space Station to evacuate and return to Earth. The X-38 prototype flew for the first time in March, the test flight ending successfully with a landing on the main runway.

But Florida, of course, remains the only place where you can watch the controlled inferno they call a launch. As we arrived at a viewing-area, the 60-second countdown began on the radio. Running down a dusty lane, following other latecomers, we had no idea what would greet us. As I emerged into a crowd, my vision was filled by a giant digital clock and I heard over the PA, "We have lift-off - the Space Shuttle Endeavour."

There was a three-second pause before I saw anything. Then the blazing white light of the shuttle engines drew every gaze. It climbed into the morning sky, spewing colossal clouds. In the excitement, I reached for my camera and captured my wife in several blurred frames. The Orbiter is flying out of her head. When I look at the photographs now, all I can remember is the strange elation of watching my fellow man reach for the stars.

Tours of Edwards Airforce Base (001 805 277 3510) take place on Fridays. Write to Flight Test Center, Public Affairs Office, E15 East Mojave, Edwards Airforce Base, California 93524, at least three months in advance. For the Kennedy Space Center, see the Florida Fact File above.