Where were you?
I was on active duty in Wertheim, Germany the first time it happened. I had just left the PX and was walking down some stairs when a buddy of mine yelled to me from across the street:
“Hey man, the Space Shuttle just blew up!”
Of course he was convinced that the Russians had done it. It was the Cold War, you know. Wonder what he would think of 9/11? Later that night, I watched German television play that same clip the entire world saw over and over again.
The second time I was in an airplane over southern Oklahoma, flying with a student. I was listening to Fort Worth Center (Air traffic Control) when I heard several pilots report seeing some bright flashes in the sky. “Must be meteors”, said one guy. The frequency was filled with jokes about UFO’s and little green men for a few moments, but went silent after one pilot asked:
“Hey, isn’t the Shuttle supposed to be landing today?”
Everyone knew what had just happened without saying another word about it: Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana.
(Interestingly enough, I was working at the flight school where Zacharias Moussaoui, often called the 20th Hijacker from 9/11, tried to learn to fly. He never did.)
The era of re-usable space vehicles began at the end of my Freshman year of High School. So did the first “real” return of Star Trek. NASA had built and was going to launch its first winged spacecraft, The Space Shuttle. They called it a Space Transportation System (STS). Since I had also just heard about a second Star Trek movie being made, I called it a fourteen (and three quarters!) year-old space nerd’s dream.
I just hoped the movie wouldn’t suck this time.
I had been hooked on space exploration from a much earlier age. In fact, I can’t recall not thinking about space. I also can’t remember not watching Star Trek. Though I’m not sure if I actually remember the moment humans touched down in the sea of tranquility , some of my earliest memories are of televsion images showing people going to the moon. And Spock doing a mind-meld with the Horta.
Thanks to an uncle who supplied the military with high speed cameras (he got started filming captured V-2′s after WWII) I had every single spaceflight poster that NASA and JPL ever produced. I built model rockets, read everything about Apollo that I could get my hands on (no Google back then, remember?), started learning about airplanes and of course, watched re-runs of Star Trek. My parents were supportive, but weren’t quite as enthusiastic as me. They didn’t neccesarily share my excitement when we went to some exhibit and saw a lunar module (LM), a lunar roving vehicle (LRV)…
and a guy dressed like Spock.
I waited for the day when space travel would become commonplace. And for the Enterprise to return.
Groovy Pants, Man! Image courtesy of NASA
In the following years, things started off pretty good. Viking landers landed on Mars and the Voyager missions voyaged towards the outskirts of the Solar System. I and about 10 gazillion other trekkers felt real excitement when NASA announced they would listen to us and name the first STS orbiter Enterprise. We watched this winged spacecraft release from the back of a 747 and then glide to a landing.
Then things began to fall apart. Because of late design changes, Enterprise would never fly to space. We’d been ripped off! The re-launch of Star Trek, gave us those horrible uniforms, an unfamiliar bridge and an embarrassingly long shot of NCC-1701 in space dock. Sure, I missed seeing her, but geez! Worst of all was the plot, which basically revolved around some practical joker aliens who had done their version of “Pimp my Ride” to one of our Voyager spacecraft.
Where were the real people in space?
It had been about 20 years since humans had first orbited the earth and the good old US of A had no capability to put a crew “up there”. In contrast, 20 Years after the Wright Brothers’ success at Kill Devil Hill we had not only fought a war with airplanes, we were doing Astronomy with them!
When you’re a kid, time goes by very, very slowly. Every delay in the program was agonizing, worse than waiting for summer vacation. But on April 12th, 1981 I got my wish. I watched the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built hurtle towards space. I was so excited by the whole thing that my mom let me stay home from school to see the landing. I remember thinking John Young, who had already walked on the moon was the coolest guy ever. After touchdown and rollout, the first thing he did was to do a walk-around (post-flight inspection) of his aircraft. I knew how to do one of those! I could connect with it. It was familiar.
From that day on I dreamed of spaceflight and traveling to Florida to see a launch. Over the years there were plans to go, but between launch scrubs, work and just Life in general I wasn’t able to see one until almost 28 years later.
Click to see my video
Looking south towards Cape Canaveral, I watched as Discovery’s main engines and then the solid rocket boosters roared to life. Climbing higher and higher, I was amazed at just how bright the business end of this flying machine was. I could see the telltale white plume of exhaust, so familiar, trailing down from the shuttle, down to the cape. It marked the exact spot where Discovery had just left from.
About a minute into the flight, something began to change.
I must admit I was hoping, irrationally of course, for the shuttle to get past the point where Challenger did. I wanted the crew to get past max Q (the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure) and “Go at throttle up”. Silly, I know, but I was thinking it nonetheless. Right about the time I heard Houston say those words, it seemed like the fire streaming from behind Discovery started growing…and growing, until it was impossibly long and bright. Then I realized what had happened. Off to my right, the setting sun had begun to illuminate the exhaust plume in brilliant shades of red and orange.
From the cockpit I have witnessed some gorgeous sights: sunrise over the Rockies; San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; all from thousands of feet in the air. Even without the fact that humans were riding aboard its source, none of those compared to the colors and awe of the sun reflecting on and painting this man made cloud.
It was truly, truly awesome.
Of course, after seeing this gorgeous sight I was more than a little disappointed when I thought of how many other sunset launches I had missed. But I was pleased to hear Launch Director Mike Leinbach say in his post launch briefing:
“I’ve seen a lot of launches, either as a test director or the launch director, and this was the most visually beautiful launch I’ve ever seen…It was just spectacular”
Boy did I pick a good one.