Morning In America

Space shuttle-watchers took their place in the sun, not yet awakened to the true risks of exploring the heavens.

Even after Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the gasoline shortages and the berserk inflation eating away at their pensions, the people you see here in a Florida campground still have their faith.

This is 1983, and they're up at dawn to witness a rocket launch, the fiery space shuttle flung skyward like the torch of the Statue of Liberty itself, another proof and triumph of America.

They've driven maybe thousands of miles to nestle into the seedy ratland nowhere of Cocoa Beach, Florida—real estate so scrub-pine cheap that the campground is waterfront. The sun ricochets off the Atlantic. Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch USA are up and at 'em. "Good morning, America, how are you," as Arlo Guthrie sings it. "Don't you know me, I'm your native son." Their reveille looks oddly matter-of-fact, considering what we know now about risks and disappointments we scarcely imagined then.

Mitch Epstein, the photographer, doesn't even remember which shuttle launch it was. There were four of them that year, and what was so exciting about being in that RV park that morning was that you lived in a country where you could take space shots for granted, along with a better life for your children and a box of breakfast doughnuts sitting on top of a big white Cadillac coupe, a matter of cozy fact. As an ad for President Reagan's reelection campaign would say a year later, it was morning again in America.

The people climbing on top of their campers or waving to fellow spectators or curled up like cats on the hood of a car "were not concerned with what the real vulnerabilities would be," says Epstein, 53. "It was a moment of technological wonder and extraordinary achievement. It was still coupled with the cold war and the rivalry with the Soviet Union—with the belief that we were the greatest, that we were infallible."

Epstein lives in New York and publishes books of photographs about America and Americans. He flew to Florida 23 years ago to photograph not so much the shuttle itself, but "the whole phenomenon of people driving in to watch," of people craving a moment free of doubt and full of faith. For them, this RV campsite, he says, was "the site of a personal pilgrimage." There was "a spirit of community, an excited anticipation for the event that was at hand. That's the part that speaks to me. The picture is a symbol for a kind of innocence when there was still the romance of space exploration."

Then, almost three years later, on the morning of January 28, 1986—the day Reagan was supposed to deliver the State of the Union Message—the shuttle Challenger blew up about 73 seconds into flight. No shuttle flew for more than two years. When Discovery went up to redeem the failure of Challenger on September 29, 1988, people gathered again and watched it from cars, vans and campers up and down the coast, but the flight wasn't so much a triumph as a relief. The Challenger disaster still haunts us, a vision of America's pride skewing off into a wild and fatal trajectory.

"We no longer take for granted what we once did," Epstein says. He doubts that he would or could take the same photograph nowadays. Time—that particular moment on that morning in 1983—is what the photograph is about. Time is one of the materials that photographers work with, the way painters work with paint. And that time is long since past and lost.

"I made a visit down there last year, and it was unrecognizable," Epstein says. "It's been condo-ized to death. It's a tourist attraction—they've Disneyfied themselves in order to attract business. It's a package, it's commercialized, it's overproduced."

In 1983, there was a subtropical fatigue about Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral, that Florida feeling of a place people go to lose or find themselves, it works out the same either way. Out of this tired wilderness had sprung the prophecy of the Kennedy Space Center's technological miracles.

The authenticity of that seediness is gone, Epstein says, and the miracles now are pageants of anxiety. And since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated into chunks over Texas in 2003, anxiety has verged on "a collective fear."

Fear is everywhere in America, Epstein says, and it makes his kind of photography harder. In 1983, "to be a photographer in public places was much more unburdened. The camera has become much more intrusive. Today, people are much more self-conscious, suspicious of the intruder."

The photograph from the lost morning in Cocoa Beach was part of a project and book titled Recreation: American Photographs 1973-1988. Epstein's latest effort is "American Power," pictures dealing with energy, fuel and power conferred by everything from electricity to "the myth of our indomitability." Interesting: he photographed the same myth that morning in Cocoa Beach, too, when you think about it. He's still photographing it. Energy. Indomitability. America, how are you?

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