There’s no doubt that Cocoa Beach is a cool place to stay and play on Florida’ Space Coast. There’s plenty to do and lots of places to drop a few bucks and have some fun. Or you can spend nothing at all and just stand on the beach watching the sun rise. And you can do this 12 months a year. Temperature gets a little cooler or a little hotter. No snow, blinding squalls, hail, or snow tires. I haven’t seen a surfboard in Omaha, or a skim board in Indy.
Here’s a little secret: Cocoa Beach was much, much edgier and zoomier in the late 50’s and throughout the 1960’s. Sure, there were hotels, restaurants, beaches, and bars (they called them lounges) back then just like now. But what they had 55 years ago was the raw excitement of the space program, engineers and space workers working crazy hours, and of course, the original seven astronauts roaring through Cocoa Beach in their Jim Rathman supplied Corvettes.
Let me come clean: I wish I could have lived on Cocoa Beach in the 1960’s. I would have been a young teenager. Instead, I lived a space life vicariously in Indiana through my issues of Life Magazine, Popular Science and digging through books and periodicals at my local library. But I had no clue about what was happening on Cocoa Beach until I made some older friends on the Space Coast.
Cocoa Beach residents in the late 50’s proudly referred to Cocoa Beach as a "Whoom Town" instead of the old-fashioned “Boom Town.” Cocoa Beach exploded in population. Cocoa Beach’s city hall was a one-story shack. The going monthly rate for a small two-bedroom apartment was $125. Engineers brought their families here. Schools busted at the seams. There were even traffic jams getting to and from work.
My old timers talk about the Mousetrap, Ramon's, the Surf, and Alma's. There was Wolfie's Deli where you could literally wolf down the Gemini III Corned Beef and Pickle on Rye sandwich. They talk about after-hour bars and restaurants jammed with space people.
Seems like everything was named after rockets and space. There was the Satellite Motel, the Starlight motel, the Apollo motel, and the Sea Missile Motel. Local business owners jumped on any opportunity to tie themselves to the space program. I wonder why a local lawyer didn’t call his office the Space Suit (excuse the pun).
The space program was a hot copy in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s (how DID they do it without Facebook, Instagram or Internet?) TV bigwigs came to town to cover launches. You might rub shoulders over a beer or whiskey with Walter Cronkite or Frank McGee at the Starlight Motel and Lounge.
You also might have caught Henri Landwirth, hotel manager of the 100-room Starlite Motel, an Auschwitz survivor, catch astronaut Gordon Cooper by his pool with a fishing rod and asked what he was up to.
“I’m fishing,” he replied.
“You’re fishing in my swimming pool.”
“Yep.” And Cooper promptly poured a big cooler full of live fish into the hotel pool.
Or a boating incident with Cooper. As a joke, he somehow put a motor boat into Landwirth’s hotel pool, and he and his buddies sat around drinking and fishing.
The late John Glenn complained at the front desk at Landwirth’s hotel that there were no towels in his hotel room. The next time Glenn checked in, Landwirth had stacked towels on every available surface of the room and waited to see Glenn’s reaction.
The Popular Science magazine March 1959 story, "Last Stop Before Space" is a great reminder of why Cocoa Beach was such a wild place. Engineer Byron MacNabb, headed operations at Cape Canaveral during flight testing of the early Atlas rockets. Atlas rockets later placed four Project Mercury astronauts in orbit.
McNabb said, "You should have been here in the early days after a good shoot. One time they threw about a hundred chairs in the swimming pool. Matter of fact, they got to throwing people in later - fully clothed."
"Nobody got sore?" someone asked.
"Look," MacNabb replied. "You go through a month of get-ready. You go through a three-day count. Then you put one in the little barrel 6,300 miles away. Man -- it's a privilege to get thrown in some pool. After a good one you don't just sit down and blow on your fingernails. And that goes for about 90 percent of the people in this crazy town. They're missile-happy."
It should come as no surprise that everyone in Cocoa Beach turned north towards Cape Canaveral when they heard the low rumble of a launching rocket. And they still do today! Hard to believe, but there are more rocket launches now than ever before, and with astronauts test flights starting again next year, there’s a buzz of excitement all across the Space Coast.
Today, when I walk on the beach in Cocoa Beach, or walk into a hotel lobby, or stop for a beer at a Cocoa Beach bar, I wonder if one of the original seven astronauts hadn’t occupied the same space 55 years ago. Maybe they breathed the same air. I may have shared the same sand in my shoes one of these spacemen.
It’s beer time again. We have new places to try new beers on the Space Coast.