Staying Awake for the First Flight


It was late night April 11, 1981.  I was working on some homework, probably calculus, perhaps circuit analysis.  I watched David Letterman.  I really liked Dave back then (and now).  An acerbic, anxious comedian trying to make a name for himself in late night TV.  I knew the new Space Shuttle was going to launch for the first time about 5:00 am the next morning.  Do I go to bed, or do I stay up the next few hours to watch the dawning of a new era of space travel?

Well, I don’t remember how the few hours till the launch were passed, but I did stay up until the wee hours to see that historic event.  A struggling mechanical engineering student was witnessing his professional calling.  I was amazed!  This was a winged craft strapped to enormous solid rockets and a bulbous white propellant tank.  How could it fly?  I remember the news commentators saying that it would be a swifter ascent than the slow majestic rise we were used to with Apollo.  They went to great detail to describe how the vehicle would jump off the pad and spin around to get in the right attitude for its journey to orbit.  It got off and up….

What do I remember most?  I remember the loss of Skylab.  It was to be the first remarkable mission of Columbia.  Rescue the fledgling space station and begin the next phase of a permanent presence in space.  Instead the 1981 launch of Columbia was two years too late.  Skylab plunged to its fiery death over Australia .

I remember the 1982 landing of STS-3 on the gypsum flats of Northrup Strip near the White Sands National Monument.  A perfect landing marred by a fierce white dust storm immediately after Columbia came to a safe stop.  Another TV viewing while continuing my college struggles.  But the dream of a career in space continued, even as I struggled to pass thermodynamics.

In 1985, the PBS series, “Nova”, explores the future of the space program.  I remember the narrator,  Martin Sheen, announcing that future DoD Space Shuttle missions would be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  I used that knowledge to show interest and enthusiasm later that year with a college recruiter, Bob Steele, with the Western Space and Missile Center at Vandenberg.  I would call Bob on at least two occasions after the interview.  Finally, in May, as graduation loomed, Bob called back.

July 8, 1985, was my report date with the Western Space and Missile Center.  A GS-7 General Engineer, starting salary $23, 170 per year.  There were several rotations in various organizations.  I remember aggravating table top reviews of the Operations and Maintenance Instruction (OMI) for activation of the Orbiter Lifting Frame to remove the orbiter from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for transport to the Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility.  We were going to launch a Shuttle from California!!!

But then in January 1986, I heard someone say the Challenger blew up.  I returned to my boss’s office and on the TV was a horrifying replay of the Challenger accident.  But we’re going to launch Discovery!  There’s work to be done.  Months later the inevitable news filtered down.  The California plans had been abandoned.  No!  Can’t be true!  We’ve spent too much money and made too many plans!  I like living in California!

I remember a good friend, Lee Mountfort, calling from New Mexico.  He had left Vandenberg some months earlier.  “Do you want to work for NASA?” he asked.  Well, yeah!!!  But I insisted that I grew up in New Mexico, and there’s no NASA in New Mexico.  He begged to differ with me.  They need safety and quality engineers.  I visited the little town of Las Cruces.  The home of the dreaded Aggies of New Mexico State University.  The little White Sands Test Facility lacked the space operations discipline that I had cut my teeth on at Vandenberg.  But there was something about the possibilities, the need and yearning for growth  and organization.

I remember reaction control system thruster testing at Test Stand 401.  I remember what seemed like endless tinkering to perfect water flush techniques to remove iron nitrate build-up in RCS propellant valves.  I remember a trip to Aerojet in Sacramento to buy off the rebuild of our OMS qualification engine.  I remember late nights digging through OMS/RCS qualification test reports to index the test results at the component level.  I got my Snoopy doing that.

I remember waking up at 3:00 am to drive out in the pitch black night to prepare for the mere possibility that the Shuttle would land on the white gypsum of White Sands Space Harbor.  It never did again.  The dust storm of 1982 was just too much of a bad memory to the Shuttle Program.

I remember meeting Laurel Clark when she visited our facility.  When I told her I grew up in Albuquerque she told me she went to school at Monroe Junior High in Albuquerque in 1973.  She said it had been torn down.  I knew that because I was there too the last year it was open.  Laurel volunteered to me that it was a difficult time for her.  Her parent had split up and she had gone to a number of schools over the years travelling between her parents.  This was an astronaut who had succeeded despite challenges at home.  This was a real hero who had overcome adversity to achieve a dream.  Shortly after that in 2001 I got to introduce Laurel to a crowd of fellow employees.  I found her Monroe yearbook picture and shared it with the crowd….  along with my own.  It was easy to distinguish the two — a straight-laced, smart young lady and the disheveled delinquent.  She signed a picture for me saying, “There is life after junior high.”  Laurel Salton Clark died on her first flight aboard Columbia on February 1, 2003.

I’ve met several astronauts before and since Laurel.  She was the first one who struck me as a real person.  They all are, but she was the one who broke the mystique for me.  She also represented to me why we have to keep sending humans into space.  Their adventures are what kept me going to engineering classes when it would have been easier just to quit.  I still have the images burned into my brain of astronauts saluting the American flag on the Moon.  But more importantly, I remember Laurel dressed in her working mom scruffies needing a private place to change into her flight suit for another in a long line of public appearances.  Their adventures in space are our adventures….

Today, July 8, 2011, some 30 years and 3 months after my late night watching Letterman, and exactly 26 years to the day since I started my civil service career at Vandenberg, Atlantis flawlessly launched toward the International Space Station.  There are thousands of stories just like mine, and millions of stories about young people pursuing math, science and engineering because they saw people in their upbringing achieving incredible things, like astronauts, in science and technology fields.

As Atlantis makes its way to the International Space Station for the last time, the American public has to understand what July 8, 2011, represents.  And they can’t let it slip away.

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One response to “Staying Awake for the First Flight

  1. I just checked to see when Dave Letterman’s show premiered. Turns out it was in February 1982, almost a year after Columbia’s initial flight. It is funny how our memories can be flawed. I think I can attest that TV and homework were features in my late night vigil to make it to the STS-1 launch time. Carson and cable had to be in the mix…. Maybe Tom Snyder. But Dave??? He was indeed a fixture, but it was later in my college days…

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