Wings to Space, Part I

My First and Last Shuttle Launches

It was 4 a.m. on April 12, 1981.  Sunday was normally a day we’d typically sleep in, but this one was special. We got up extra early to watch the first-ever launch of a space shuttle. Her name?  Columbia, and she was flying mission STS-1, carrying two test pilots Bob Crippen and John Young, plus a load of flight instruments to test her performance during launch, ascent to space, on orbit, and during descent and landing.

It was exciting and scary, but there was NO way I would have slept through such a momentous occasion. Why? Because I am a child of the Gemini and Apollo age and I grew up watching launches. When Columbia made her maiden trip to orbit, it had been a LONG time since the last U.S.-crewed launch. The last human crew to fly to the Moon, for example was on Apollo 17, on December 7, 1972.  The three lunar missions planned to follow up (Apollo 18, 19, and 20) were cancelled to free up money for the space shuttle program. The last official Apollo mission was Apollo-Soyuz, which flew in 1975, and of course, humans went to space to live and work on Skylab in the 1970s.  By the time those were done, I couldn’t imagine a time when we wouldn’t have space travel through NASA. Yet, we had to wait six years from the last Apollo mission until the shuttles began flying.

So, there I was, bleary-eyed in front of our TV that morning, excited, worried and nervous about the success of this next step in U.S. human spaceflight. In typical NASA style, the announcer explained every step, every part of the spacecraft we were seeing. It looked so strange – a moth-shaped plane with wings, attached to a white-painted main tank and two solid rocket boosters. I was used to seeing Saturn Vs lift off, with little modules on top of their stacks. The shuttle was unlike anything I’d seen from NASA. It reminded me of the space planes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that morning, it seemed that futuristic realms were one step closer to reality.

Suddenly, the calm, professional NASA-style countdown was down to its final stages.  “T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we’ve gone for main engine start, we have main engine start… and liftoff… liftoff of America’s first space shuttle… and the shuttle has cleared the tower…”

In less than five seconds, the shuttle had left the launch pad and was on her way.  I remember being absolutely stunned at how quickly Columbia leapt away from Earth. By contrast, the old Saturn V rockets used to take forever to get away. So, seeing a nimble shuttle and her rockets fairly soar to the sky was a new experience. It was absolutely beautiful, and a sight I have never forgotten.

A few days ago, the world witnessed the final launch in the space shuttle program.  Those of us who were able to be at the Kennedy Space Center counted down the final launch with the announcer. It felt like being at Times Square on New Year’s Eve (but with less people) and chanting the numbers.

For many folks, the sight invoked a steady stream of memories from 30 years of spectacular launches, triumphant returns, and two unbearable tragedies. Throughout that time, I’ve covered a few launches as a member of the press, watched several missions to Hubble Space Telescope as a graduate student working on an HST instrument team, and like so many others in our country, occasionally took the shuttle program for granted – as if it would always be there. But, as with all technology and technological programs, the space shuttles about to become things of the past. They are only part of the path that will keep humans going to space, and I feel fairly certain that the future for space flight in the U.S. will “take off” again.

In the meantime, the part of Florida that has rumbled to the sound of high-powered launches and the double-booms of landings for 30 years, is saying farewell to a bit of space exploration history. It’s a sad time. For folks in Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, Titusville, Palm Bay, Orlando, and Melbourne, the loss goes beyond running out to the causeway to watch a launch.  Saying goodbye to the shuttles also means bidding farewell to thousands of high-tech jobs as companies such as United Space Alliance (the company responsible for shuttle maintenance and launch operations) lays off waves of workers.

Right now the region’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10.8 percent, but that will worsen once the last wave of shuttle-related layoffs happens. Shuttle workers are crowding into job fairs and going back to school to learn new tricks for new jobs. Many are leaving for employment elsewhere, leaving behind towns that once depended on the property taxes they paid for schools, roads and other infrastructures. Clothing stores, restaurants, recreation shops, and many other businesses fear the worst. Some have shut their doors. It’s unquestionably a tough time, but this is a tough region.  The people survived the shutdown of Apollo, and hopefully they will get through the lean times following this last shuttle launch.

Still, the shuttle program and its workers leave behind a solid record of accomplishments. When I think back to that first launch, there’s no way I could even have imagined just how much science was enabled by the shuttle missions. It’s been a great ride for the past 30 years, and I hope that the future brings something like it to inspire new generations of space enthusiasts.


  1. ccp

    Daniel, yes, someone else clued me in that some words were missing there. I’ve since gone back and fixed that. Happened that some of the material got dropped when I transferred the copy to the editing interface; and I didn’t notice it right away.

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