More innocent times
Looking back 35 years and one day to a tragedy, and the vision of those who perished.
Author’s note: this article was originally published January 30, 2016 in the Houston Home Journal.
I remember January 1986 very well. That winter, I flew a Cessna 172 from Beverly, Mass. to Fort Myers, Florida. I split left-seat duties with my pilot friend while my brother Jay (mostly) relaxed in the back. I could tell you a bunch of stories from that flight (frozen pitot tube on the coldest day possible leaving Beverly, and losing electric generator over Savannah being the most memorable). I also remember watching the Patriots and Steve Grogan beat the Jets from Myrtle Beach, S.C. (first Patriots playoff win since I was born).
Then we got to Florida and had a glorious time. I got my seaplane rating in Winter Haven, hung with my brother and my folks in Fort Myers, and then Jay and I decided to go watch a shuttle launch. We had never seen one.
On January 5th, we trekked over to Melbourne and spent the night at a motel, then got to the causeway viewing area right outside the Canaveral AFS gate early, early on the 6th. We sat along with a few thousand others who brought RV's and Hibachi grills to watch the show. NASA's launch broadcast was piped over everyone's radio. They were particularly focused on mentioning the short launch window for the day, which expired just minutes after the scheduled launch time.
As the countdown got to T minus 31 seconds, Columbia's onboard computers were to take over from launch control. And the countdown stopped. We waited for NASA to tell what what happened (and so did the crew).
“We came back; don’t remember the date. But came back out, got in, and that time we got down to thirty-one seconds, and one more time things weren’t right,” future NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recounted about that launch. “There had actually been a probe, a temperature probe that in the de-fueling, they had broken the temperature probe off, and it had lodged inside the valve, keeping the valve from closing fully.”
“So that would have been a bad day. That would have been a catastrophic day, because the engine would have exploded had we launched,” Bolden concluded.
As for Jay and I, we realized that NASA reset the launch clock to 20 minutes, which put the launch outside the window for the day, about the same time 10 thousand other people realized the same thing. We got in our car and spent the next three hours in traffic getting out of Cocoa Beach. I remember saying "That's the last time I'll ever watch a shuttle not launch.” I never tried again.
Considering Bolden’s comments, I'm glad I didn't see it. But I have some inkling of how those poor souls who witnessed, just 22 days later, Challenger's fiery demise felt. I followed STS-51-L closely, because I was from New Hampshire. Christa McAuliffe, first teacher to (attempt to) fly in space, was on that flight, and she was from New Hampshire--so we were all watching and cheering for her.
I was back in classes at the University of New Hampshire's Durham campus when Challenger exploded. I was sitting at the "MUB"--the student union building--grabbing lunch when a friend walked in and told us that the shuttle had exploded. "Not funny!" we all said. But it was true. We ran to the TV room and saw the smoke trail. The news was playing the explosion over and over again. It was burned into my brain.
To this day, I can't see video of that launch without getting chill bumps. It's painful to watch.
We were living in more innocent times then. We'd never lost a shuttle crew before--nobody had died on a space mission since the Apollo I astronauts perished on the pad during a test run--when I was just a baby.
Looking back, I realize just how dicey a thing flying in space is. The shuttle was the most complex machine ever devised by mankind, and we flew 5 of them a total of 135 times, launching 833 people on top of two enormous Roman candles. We lost 40 percent of the fleet and 14 souls to this adventure.
To those whose spirit of adventure exceeded their fears, knowing what the rest of us didn't know in those innocent days, I tip my hat in respect. We will, once again, launch Americans from American soil*. But the innocence is over. It perished in the explosion that day just over 30 years ago above the space coast of Florida.
Note: At the time I wrote this, we had not launched Americans from American soil. Of course, now, we have, and not just at the whim of ego-centric billionaires, but in the dead-serious will of another billionaire, Elon Musk and SpaceX. We have reason to capture that spirit of adventure again, but the news cycle moves so fast in our very online world, that we tend to fail to hold on to it when it comes.