The Space Coast: documentary musings by a resident photographer

Photographer: Lauren Mitchell

Essay by Lauren Mitchell

“We’re not all on vacation”, I once read on a bumper sticker at our local wholesale club. This is true, although to live in Florida is to perpetually be reminded that you exist in someone else’s fantasy. It’s a strange place straddling the line of day-to-day reality and obligation against a backdrop of escapism. These are the things I focus on within my work — spotting the in-between.

Within this broader backdrop is where I live on the Space Coast. Here is quite literally the ultimate escape — the place where brave men and women have been launched into outer space. Ask anyone who lives here and you’ll find their connection to it. While watching the Challenger launch, Linda Buckmaster, author of Space Heart instinctively understood before anyone else that something had gone wrong. “A launch gone bad. Along with the horror I just witnessed, I am surprised by another thought: I can’t believe I still knew this. I still know the rhythm of a successful launch.” She had left the Space Coast, but it had never left her. 

My daughter was conceived two weeks prior to the final space shuttle launch of Atlantis in the summer of 2011. I watched with my coworkers across the river from the VAB, along with the thousands of others who filled the streets of Titusville. It was hard not to cry watching it shoot up off the launch pad — witnessing this in person you truly feel like this is the one good thing we’ve done as a country. One beautiful thing we couldn’t entirely fuck up.

I watched Endeavor piggyback a Boeing 747 jumbo jet through a soft pink sky from my hospital room. It was the day my daughter was born. From our view on the Space Coast, we watched as the remaining space shuttles found their final resting place. One of my favorite YouTube videos shows Endeavor being paraded through the streets of Los Angeles, crowds cheering and waving flags, against the backdrop of Bed Bath & Beyond. 

Each shuttle found its place in a museum, as if to say, this is how we used to be. This is no longer what we are. We got on with our lives, and participated in the daily minutiae. We went to work every day. We held birthday parties for our children, marking their year of growth, but a year of loss on the Space Coast. Then, SpaceX began to test rockets. And more rockets. It became our new normal — this new era of spaceflight against our every day lives. I let my dog out to take a shit in the backyard, watching the northeast corner of my backyard as the Falcon-9 successfully landed back to the ground in 2015. We welcomed back sonic booms and the way the Delta Heavy rattled our aluminum framed 1960’s windows. My daughter picked seashells from the dredge piles and plucked sand spurs off her shoes as we watched Elon Musk send his Tesla into outer space. For us, there has always existed the duality, within the mundane of every day rituals and in the dream world. We serve as the foundation slab for the richest men in the world, who build their dreams of the future atop our abandoned orange groves and primordial landscape. Our daily lives orbit them like tiny satellites. 

We continue on within the remains of fantasies and nostalgia for the past. We imagine the astronaut parades as we drive down A1A, our half-abandoned motels and shopping centers once displaying glittering neon signs with rocket ships. We become like hermit crabs, establishing businesses within architecture designed for the aspirations of another people from another time. Our empty midcentury strip malls become thrift stores, chinese buffets, pop-up churches and county health clinics. Impromptu produce markets and used car lots are set up between abandoned gas station pumps. No one thinks twice, we just learn to adapt between the the past and the future. This is our Florida. 

We are the oldest-newest state, in a place of perpetual upheaval and change. It is where the darkest places reside in saturated colors, dripping in sunshine. We exist for sin and salvation: “Florida has evoked contrasting and compelling images of the sacred and profane: a Fountain of Youth and a Garden of Earthly Delights, a miasmic hellhole and scuzzy wasteland.” -Gary Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams

We have towns named Winter Haven, Frostproof, Celebration and Christmas. Florida is where the natural land has been paved over and developed to create a ‘paradise’ the brochures promised we always had. Speaking of which, your lakefront property is most likely a retention pond or a sinkhole. The beautiful fountain in the middle of it is to ward off mosquito breeding. 

We are the product of someone else’s dream, and our landscape is increasingly contained, foreign, and controlled. However, you still get the unnerving sense that at any weakness in the infrastructure it will all be taken back, verdant and violent and waiting to swallow us into a hole or drown us in the rising sea. If you’ve ever stepped foot off the sidewalk and onto any trail, you know what I mean. 

Everyone knows we are a place of contradictions and extremes, but to live here is to feel the nuance within the black and white (or rather, the coral and aqua). We embrace this place even for all the things we hate about it. This is home. 

Lauren Mitchell received her BA in Graphic Design and Art History from San Diego State. She was born in 1984 to a woman who commuted two hours each day to work in a cubicle and took her daughter to McDonalds so much that she got Happy Meal toys for free. 

Through her love of line, shape and color, Lauren Mitchell captures the aging sprawl of her everyday surroundings. She spends much of her time figuring out just what it means to live in the Sunshine State -- to be in this beautiful, strange place where reality and illusion exist side by side. Though much of her work is vivid and bright, there is often an undercurrent of strangeness and darkness residing just below the surface.

She currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her husband and daughter.