Friday, April 12, 2013

STS-1 and Me

Thirty two years ago today was a Sunday. I was to be graduating high school in a little over a month and a half. On that Sunday morning, I finally got to watch the culmination of a decade of dreaming, the first flight of a space shuttle.
It would be pointless to go into what the space shuttle was, how different it was to the previous generation of spacecraft. It was supposed to be inexpensive, the child of differing, sometimes vastly so, requirements. 
To me, and to a lot of people, it was still lovely, and so different from what some of us were expecting. 
When the idea was first proposed, it was a fully reusable system, and was equipped with straight wings. The original orbiter design's payload capacity was much smaller, because fuel would be carried internally.
The powers that be, though, lacked the vision, it seemed, and NASA's budget was whittled even more as the Apollo missions wound down. The Department of Defense was also interested, so between the budget changes and military requirements, the final craft was smaller with a larger payload capacity though not fully reusable. The largest component, the massive external tank, was designed to burn up after it was emptied. 
All of this stuff was not alien to me that Sunday morning more than three decades ago. We were supposed to be heading for church, and the sky was much like it is right now, somewhat overcast, with storms almost reaching the launch site not quite a hundred and fifty miles further south. 
It was looking iffy, and I needed to be getting ready for mass.
I stayed at the television, however, watching Walter Cronkite, while the rest of the family got dressed. 
If it was space related, there were only two sources I trusted on network news. Walter Cronkite at CBS, and Jules Bergman at ABC. Today, as it had been with Apollo 11, it would be, it had to be, Cronkite. 
The actual launch was something I couldn't wait to see. This was the first time in the history of the US space program that a manned spacecraft would have its first, full on test flight with a crew. No unmanned missions, all the test flights would have crews. There was a real element of danger here, especially where some of the components, namely the tiles, were concerned.
This was expressed over and over again in the days and minutes leading up to the launch. Robert Crippen and John Young, the crew, appeared steadfast and committed. A part of me wondered, and still does, what was really going on in their minds.
What would a shuttle look like at launch, though, how about that, I wondered. A summer night two years earlier, some friends and I went to go see the James Bond movie "Moonraker". As dreadful as the movie was, it still met one of my basic requirements at the time; it had a spaceship in it, and one based upon actual hardware. 
The launches that Derrick Meddings, the special effects director for the film, produced looked great, fiery and smokey. The Moonraker shuttles rose on columns of fire much like the old Saturn V, nice, a little slowly, and majestically.
And as it turned out, completely wrong.
At the appointed time, 7:00 A.M., following a few seconds of main engine burn, the solid rocket boosters ignited and the shuttle, the whole stack, leapt from the pad. It was as if, after waiting so long, it was in a hurry, plain eager, to get into orbit. The whole area surrounding the launch pad was engulfed by thick blankets of smoke, much more than I think anyone truly expected. Columbia roared up and above it very quickly. 
As the rocket climbed, the broadcasters (including Cronkite himself) all commented on the way the shuttle climbed, literally rocketed, off the pad. 
My pulse was rocketing as well. I also think I was crying. It was beautiful. It was finally happening. This wasn't a capsule, this was an honest to goodness spaceship. This was going to make going into space routine. Why I bet that by the time I forty we'll have had missions to Mars and a moon base, maybe even a space station or two. And there'd be plenty of shuttles, as surely there'd have to be a similar craft to follow the shuttle, right?
It climbed, shedding its boosters and arching towards the east. The tracking cameras soon only showed a small speck heading towards space. 
As the shuttle disappeared, I was reminded that I had to get ready for church. What I wanted to do was stay and watch.
It was later that day that I would catch up, and found that some tiles had dropped off the OMS pods, and there were concerns. But the crew and NASA were certain that the ship would be alright. 
We all thought it would be alright.
At least I thought it would be alright.
The mission ended, the shuttle inspected, the flight declared a success, a new era of spaceflight had begun. 
At last, space felt closer than ever. Much closer.

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