FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Anyone who’s ever heard the deep rumble of a spaceship’s takeoff knows a rocket launch is a sensory-rich experience.
That’s part of the reason why a group of 40 blind veterans are heading to Kennedy Space Center next week to experience the Artemis I launch in person, in coordination with Wisdom 4 The Blind and NASA.
The group will be “able to hear it and feel the ground shake as this new rocket, which is one of the largest rockets ever built, will lift off and take the payload,” said Benjamin Keeley, the co-founder of Wisdom 4 The Blind. “So your other senses are going to take over and your brain is going to put that whole picture together.”
The first ship in the Artemis mission series is scheduled to launch Monday morning as part of the new program to return humans to the moon. NASA says the unmanned mission around the moon, the first test of the Space Launch System ship, will be carried into space on the most powerful rocket ever built, boasting 8.8 million pounds of thrust.
“I might not visually be able to see it but I know that this is going to be an experience like no other, and I’m so thankful and so, so appreciative,” said veteran Joseph “Blake” DeLoach, of West Palm Beach, who will be part of the group.
Keeley and a friend at NASA, who is also blind, came up with the idea to organize a visit for a group of blind veterans to witness the launch. Keeley and co-founder of Wisdom 4 The Blind, Doug Cram, have been coordinating this effort for a little under a year.
Cram recalled watching the moon landing on TV with his family in 1969, so he’s looking forward to experiencing a launch that will eventually help get humans back to the lunar surface.
“We’ve always had a lot of pride in NASA and our country,” said Cram, who served in the army and now lives outside Ocala. “And so I’m very excited about going down to Titusville. I won’t be able to see the rocket lift off, but I’ll be able to hear it.”
The group of veterans will stay at a hotel in Titusville before taking a bus to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral for the launch itself. Most of the veterans are from Florida, Keeley said, although veterans nationwide were invited. Several World War II veterans will be part of the group. NASA will be giving the veterans a tour and setting them up in a good spot for the launch.
Cram and Keeley both lost their sight during their military service. In response to the inaccessibility of some Veterans Affairs services, they founded Wisdom 4 The Blind. They intended their organization’s website to function as an information portal.
“My partner, Doug Cram and I, we got frustrated that there wasn’t one place that veterans who are vision impaired or blind can go and find the information they need to navigate through the VA and also learn about different resources available,” Keeley said.
Keeley, who currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, has had a lifelong interest in space. He even wanted to be an astronaut when he was a kid, but he said he couldn’t due to his imperfect eyesight. Instead, he joined the Navy.
Staff Sgt. DeLoach had a similar lifelong interest in going to a rocket launch. While serving in Afghanistan in 2010, he lost his sight after a grenade struck his vehicle.
“It’s going to sound kind of odd, but one of the things I’m really looking forward to is being around that many intelligent people,” DeLoach said. “I look forward to meeting and talking to them. And again, just feeling it when that shuttle takes off, man, it’s going to be a rush.”
DeLoach will be attending the launch with his wife Lauren, who is a blind rehabilitation specialist. She said the hands-on nature of the tour is a good accessibility feature, and hopefully she can give good descriptions to her husband for anything he can’t access visually.
In addition to the tour and meeting the “intelligent people” at NASA, DeLoach is excited for conversations with the other veterans.
“I’m definitely looking forward to meeting other veterans and just talking to them, hearing their stories, hearing how they’ve progressed through their challenges and things like that, and sharing my story,” DeLoach said.
Wisdom 4 The Blind is planning future events, including a prospective fishing trip out of Clearwater. The rocket launch will mark the first time they’ve done something like this, and Keeley said it’s been a learning experience.
“This is the first one, so we’re crawling and learning, but we’re ready for the next one,” he said.
Monday’s two-hour launch window starts at 8:33 a.m. If the launch doesn’t happen Monday, it will be rescheduled to next Friday, according to NASA.
“Even if it gets delayed or anything, the fact that an opportunity like this is being presented, I think that more people need to be aware of something like this,” DeLoach said.
For anyone who can’t make it to Cape Canaveral, NASA will be airing the event online.