Before the astronauts of Space Shuttle Atlantis get suited up to go to space one last time this week, they'll repeat a ritual familiar to every crew before them: kissing their spouses goodbye in private. To do that, they go to the beach house.
A mile or so from the launch pad, the unassuming clap-board cottage sits on a secluded and pristine slice of beach on Cape Canaveral. The amenities are nothing to write home about: a generic 60s wood-paneled interior, a bar stocked with wine and champagne bottles (signed and affixed with a patch by each crew), a grille and a patio. But this is the last home the astronauts know before they get strapped inside the most complex vehicle ever built and propelled into the unknown.
"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," Mike Mullane, three-time shuttle astronaut, told NASA in an interview last year. This is also, he said, where fourteen astronauts saw their spouses for the last time.
"This is sacred sand out here, it really is. It's where people have made those final goodbyes, and some were final. There's no spouse, no astronaut walks that sand that doesn't know, that there is a possibility that this is forever… It's a thing for people to understand. At the same time you are boundlessly joyful, you're also fearful. 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."
To calm their nerves in the hours before launch, astronauts and their spouses are treated to a barbecue or picnic with a group of space workers. After about an hour, the workers leave the astronauts alone with their spouses to relax inside and wander the beach.
The house is off limits to the public, and largely unknown even within NASA. When we visited Kennedy for the launch of Shuttle Endeavour last year, a request to visit the house was rebuffed. One senior NASA employee who worked on the shuttle program for decades said he hadn't known about the house until very recently.
Built in 1962, the building was purchased by NASA a year later for $31,500. In the past decade, the agency replaced its two bedrooms with conference rooms, and renamed it, in typical NASA fashion. Once called the Astronaut Training and Rehabilitation Building, it's now the Kennedy Space Center Conference Center.
Despite its anodyne, low-key design, the beach house is an informal museum to the astronaut corps, a rite of passage for everyone who's strapped into the retiring space shuttle. "The psychic energy is kind of incredible," Pam Melroy, a three-time Shuttle astronaut and one-time commander, told Florida Today in 2009. "But the best part really is being able to walk along the beach, because I think seeing the ocean satisfies some part of you that, you are seeing the earth, and you know you're going to miss it, and it's really special, but somehow the giantness of the ocean makes you feel like it's all part of space too. So it seems like it's a perfect place to get you ready to go."
This post was originally published July 6, 2011.