Sunday, July 1, 2012

Liftoff!

Photo courtesy of http://www.spacefacts.de/graph/sts/launch2/sts-3.jpg
                The wind pushed the rain under the umbrella regardless of the angle at which I held it, soaking my lower pant legs and shoes.  It was one of those cold, wet March days that I had come to hate in my time at Purdue.  The grey and gloom of late winter was wearing on my emotions, and I was chilled to the bone.  Having finished my morning classes, I was making the long trek back to my dorm, all the while thinking, “Ugh!  I have to head back out into this stuff again this afternoon.”  Collapsing my umbrella at the door and shaking off the water, I headed up the short flight of stairs to the dormitory when I ran into one of the guys from my floor.
                Steve, a student in aeronautical engineering, approached me and said, “You wouldn’t know anyone interested in going to Florida to watch a shuttle launch, would you?  We need someone else to split the gas money.”  The space shuttle was NASA’s latest adventure into space, with only two flights having yet occurred.  As an engineering student, Steve had been given a pass to go onto the base to watch the liftoff.  He and Dave, another resident from the second floor, were committed to the trip but were hoping to find a third to make it affordable.  Thinking they wanted only another aeronautical engineering student, I could think of no one in particular.  Because the plan was to leave that evening, they wanted to find someone ASAP.  I told them I would let them know if I thought of anyone, then headed on down the hall to my cramp little dorm room.  Sitting on my loveseat and looking out the window at the overcast skies and raindrops dancing in puddles, I began thinking I could sure use an escape.
                My job working in the cafeteria at McCutcheon Hall had given me a little spending money, and with the exception of an occasional movie and Sunday evening pizza, I did not part with it.  The end result was that I had a small nest egg tucked away in a savings account in the bank across the street from the dorm.  I looked out my window at the parking lot, and watched a couple of guys run from their car to the building, holding their folders above their heads to shield them from the cold rain, and my mind was made up.  I wanted out of there.  I needed an escape from the rain, from the wind, from the cold and from the colorless Indiana landscape.  Although I had entered the independent stage of my life, I still wanted final approval from my folks, so I phoned them to ask what they thought about my taking a weekend trip to Florida to watch the shuttle.   I was blessed with parents who gave me and my siblings great leeway in our decision making, and this was to be no exception.  If I wasn’t going to miss too many classes and if I was willing to part with my money, then why shouldn’t I go for this once in a lifetime experience? 
                Now that I was fully committed to the trip I became almost panicked, thinking perhaps they had already found their third member, leaving me to stay behind, but when I finally tracked down Steve he assured me I was welcome to join them.  I hurried over to the bank, withdrew enough money to cover the expenses then went to my afternoon classes.  It was funny how knowing I was leaving it behind in a few hours made the weather a little less disagreeable.
                Finished with classes, I grabbed a quick meal then threw together a few clothes and toiletries, a camera, a Frisbee and my binoculars then headed down the hall to meet up with my travelling companions.  Steve was already outside readying his aged car.  I’m not an automobile sort of guy, so I can’t tell you the year and make.  What I can say is that it was a typical college student’s car – small, old and limping along.  I learned that it had a propensity to leak oil like a sieve, so before heading out, Steve topped off the oil tank with a fresh bottle.  We piled our meager belongings into the trunk then climbed into the car.  It was about 5:00 in the evening as we passed the Memorial Union and out of campus, headed south towards Interstate 65. 
Steve and Dave would share the driving, so I claimed the backseat all to myself.  This should have been the ideal situation for sleeping, yet I never managed to doze.  Nightfall overtook us near Kentucky and the rest of the trip would be in the dark, as our goal was to drive straight through the night.  Unfortunately, the blackness of the evening hid the scenic views of the hills and mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, but I can remember the beauty of the large cities illuminated in the night.  Atlanta is always so much nicer to drive around in the wee hours of the morning than to tackle during daytime rush hour.  Along the way Dave kept noting all the signs advertising fireworks for sale.  Most fireworks beyond sparklers, smoke bombs and pieces designed to “emit a fountain of sparks” were still illegal in Indiana in those days, so the “good stuff” usually came from trips south.  I could see a spark in Dave’s eyes, and I knew at some point he would have to stop at one of these roadside markets.  But for now we drove on through the night.  Every so often, we would pull over and Dave and Steve would switch seats, but only after Steve popped the hood and topped off the oil in his thirsty car. 
Steve and Dave strolling the beach

Dawn found us still in Georgia, but it wasn’t long before we were headed down highway A1A, along Florida’s east coast.  Here and there we would glimpse a beach, and by 9:00 Saturday morning we had decided it was time for some sand and surf.  A small beach with a parking area soon became visible, so that is where we headed.  We left the car and walked down to the ocean only to find the sand stained red and the bodies of various sea creatures dead on the shore.  It was my first glimpse of a red tide, a phenomenon caused by algal bloom in the warm waters, and it had an unsettling feel to me. To me the beach seemed dirty and diseased, but my compadres seemed unphased. 
The red stains of the beach are very evident around me
It was not time for spring break at Purdue, but I knew some colleges were out and I had hoped to come across scores of bathing beauties sewing their wild oats.  What we found instead on our little patch of sand were about a dozen overweight, retired individuals.  Broad women in stretched one piece bathing suits sat shaded in wide brimmed hats while their sunburned husbands fished in the shallows.  With the exception of us, there was probably no one under the age of 40 on the entire beach.  I urged the guys to hop back in the car and drive a little farther south to Daytona, but they were unmoved.  “No, this is great!” was the answer I repeatedly got, so I tried to make the best of it by grabbing the Frisbee and joining in the “fun.” 
Me and Steve at Daytona
Afternoon found my friends enthusiasm starting to wane, so I finally convinced them to head a little further down the coast.  We pulled into Daytona late in the afternoon, just as most visitors were heading in for dinner.  Yet there were still enough shapely figures strolling along the beach to catch our attention.  Dave exclaimed, “Man, why didn’t we come here earlier?”  I just bit my tongue.  Once again the Frisbee came out and we tossed it around in the fading light of evening.  We were too shy and nerdy to engage any of the women, but the scenery was much nicer than the first beach.
The scenery improved once we hit Daytona
I must admit, this is where my memory fails me.  I do not recall where we spent that particular evening.  I believe we slept in the car, but just where and when I don’t remember.  (Similarly, I don’t recall a single meal the entire trip; although I’m sure we hit a few fast food restaurants.)  My memory simply jumps to the following day and a visit to Disney World.  How we did it, I couldn’t say since I don’t remember buying a pass.  Perhaps one was included in the package that allowed us to view the shuttle.  Yet one way or another we found ourselves strolling the beautiful grounds of Disney World on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Since our ultimate goal was the shuttle launch, we decided we needed to prep ourselves and get psyched up by repeatedly riding the Space Mountain ride.  It was my first time riding a roller coaster in darkness, and although fun, it never let me prepare my body for the sudden twists and turns.  Consequently, my neck really started to feel the effects of being whipped from side to side after only a couple trips.  Our time there was limited, however, since we wanted to make sure we made it to the Kennedy Space Center by nightfall.
A beautiful day at Disney World
We reached Titusville in the late afternoon and crossed over to Merritt Island, past the security gate and onto the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  The road led us to a beach-like area where a large crowd had already gathered.  Having envisioned an intimate viewing with a handful of selected engineering students, I was quite surprised by the number of people already assembled.  There was a large parking area and then the beach area which was sand and rough stubble created by a recent mowing of some very woody weeds.  Photographers lined the beach and parking area, some with lenses as long as my arm.  I soon realized such powerful lenses were necessary since the shuttle sitting on launch pad 39-A was just a mere dot on the horizon.  The VAB (Vehicular Assembly Building,) a massive structure that had sheltered the assembly of the Gemini and Apollo rockets as well as the newer shuttles, was much more visible.  The bicentennial symbol which flanked the doorway opposite the American flag was still present, having not yet been converted into the NASA logo.  Although I could get a pretty good look at the shuttle with my binoculars, Dave came back from a stroll to say one of the photographers was letting people look through his massive telephoto lens.  I hurried down and got my first real view of the shuttle. 
The crowd awaiting the launch

One thing I immediately noticed in looking at the ship on the launch pad was that the large external fuel tank was not white as it had always been, but was a rusty brown color.  On the first two launches, NASA had painted the external fuel tank to protect it from ultraviolet radiation while sitting on the launch pad, but it was soon learned that not only was it unnecessary, but eliminating the paint reduced the launch weight by 600 pounds.
A grainy view of Columbia on the launch pad

We picked our spot for the evening since we would spend the night on the beach.  It would be yet another rough night of sleep since instead of smooth, soft sand, we were forced to sleep on the woody stems of the recently mowed weeds.  My thin towel provided little comfort against their hard edges.  Having not thought this far ahead, I had nothing on which to lay my head so my binocular case became my pillow and my camera stayed under my arm for protection against theft.  Thankfully, the weather cooperated and we had a warm, humid but rainless evening.  About midnight I was awakened by something crawling on me.  To my surprise, dozens of frogs, which had previously been hidden in a nearby ditch, had decided to move out and explore their surroundings including my sleeping spot.  It was not quite a plague of Exodus proportions, but it was quite a shock to have frogs jumping on me just as I began to doze.  However, as quickly as they appeared, the swarm was soon gone. 
There were distractions other than the shuttle to watch, as well

Throughout the night we could hear NASA communications broadcast over loudspeakers, and I could look up to see the countdown clock which was positioned nearby.  I watched the countdown and worried whenever the numbers froze.  Most of these were scheduled holds, but at least one hold was for a problem.  The failure of a heater on the nitrogen gas ground support line caused a one hour delay.  I nervously crossed my fingers and hoped that the problem would be solved and the shuttle would lift off since our time was limited.
Sunrise on the morning of the launch

The morning dawned warm but cloudy, and I again wondered if the shuttle would lift off on time.  I listened to the NASA communications and heard that it was still a go.  The two astronauts had finished their large breakfast and were headed to the launch site.  The crowd came alive and spent the morning walking along the shore and watching the shuttle.  Looking over the water, there was an island not too far from shore, and one man decided he would try to swim for it despite signs warning otherwise.  A NASA helicopter spotted him and not long after he disappeared around the point of the island, security officials appeared with him in a boat taking him to parts unknown.  
NASA keeping an eye on the crowd
The cloud cover started to break and soon we were in the final stages of the countdown.  Ever since I was a small boy I was excited with countdowns and launches.  I tried never to miss an Apollo launch, and our teachers always obliged us in school by wheeling out a television set on which we could watch liftoffs and splashdowns.  Miraculously, there I was only moments away from witnessing it in person.  I soon traded my binoculars for my camera, although I lacked any kind of telephoto lens.  I counted down the final seconds with the other spectators and then it happened.  A huge cloud of white smoke enveloped the launch pad seemingly illuminated from within by a ball of fire, and at first I worried that something had happened.  Then deceptively slowly, Columbia emerged from the cloud trailing a bright flame.  The sound of the launch took much longer to cross the water and reach our ears, but a low rumble turned into a ground-shaking roar.  The shuttle climbed higher and higher, going in and out of clouds, and tracing a gentle arc in the sky.  The column of smoke hung in the air and marked the shuttle’s path until it was too far away to see. 
The shuttle just peaking out of the smoke
Columbia rising in the air
The shuttle illuminated the clouds as it entered
I listened intently to the NASA communications.  They would announce how high and how far down range it was.  I listened as various emergency landing sites passed out of range.  Challenger had not yet exploded, so the command to “go at throttle up” did not carry the weight it would in later years.  I did know enough to await the announcement of the separation of the SRB’s and a few minutes later the call to “go to MEKO” or main engine cut off.  Finally, in a little less than ten minutes it was announced that Columbia was safely in orbit.  The liftoff had seemed surreal, and it was over all too quickly.
My final glimpse of Columbia
Everyone packed up their belongings and headed to their cars.  The trip off the base was more or less a giant traffic jam with traffic first crawling along then eventually coming to a complete stop.  When it was evident nothing was going to be moving for a while, we shut off the engine, grabbed the Frisbee then jumped out and once more started tossing it around.  The sky had now completely cleared and the hot sun beat down, tanning our skin and giving us our last taste of the warm Florida weather before we returned to the chill of Indiana.  Finally, the log jam broke and cars again began to move.  We bid the base a fond adieu and climbed back into our oil-starved car for the trip home.

Later that night and true to my expectations, Dave had us pull into a fireworks store in Tennessee.  After strolling the aisles, he finally settled on a purchase.  We walked out of the store with a full gross of M-80’s.  Urban legend had it that what we packed into the trunk was the equivalent of several sticks of dynamite, and that is what we believed.  I now know that is not true, but a few weeks later I would learn the power packed by an M-80.  Once back at the dorm, Dave decided to play a prank on one of the guys on the floor.  Dave waited for him to go into the bathroom then snuck into the adjacent stall and dropped a lit M-80 into the bowl.  When it detonated, the small explosive literally blew the toilet tank to pieces and flooded the bathroom.  It may not have been a stick of dynamite, but it sure packed a punch.
Photo courtesy of http://modular4kc.com/2010/07/02/design-friday-65-vintage-firecracker-labels/
We rolled back into campus on Monday, and by Tuesday morning I was back to reality and back in class.  Thankfully, the rain had moved on and the temps had warmed to a comfortable level.  Florida and the shuttle seemed a million miles away, but I knew I had just had a once in a lifetime experience.  I listened to the news to follow Columbia’s week long mission.  The shuttle was due to land at Edward’s Air Force Base, but heavy rains had flooded the landing strip, so the site of the landing was switched to White Sands in New Mexico.  Winds caused poor visibility over the desert landing strip, so Columbia remained aloft an additional day.  Finally, despite some technical issues, the shuttle safely made the only landing to ever occur at White Sands.  While it was a safe site, the sand caused damage to the shuttle itself.  Little did I know that this same shuttle would experience disaster beyond our imagination on another landing two decades later.  On February 1, 2003 a damaged Columbia exploded and broke up on reentry killing all seven astronauts on board.
I am saddened by America’s discontinuation of the manned space program.  No longer do we push our boundaries nor, as President Regan so beautifully put it, do we “(slip) the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”  In the end, I could never understand the blasé attitude of most Americans towards the space program.  For me, however, the magic never disappeared, and I am so grateful that one cold, wet March day three decades ago, I bucked my usual staid nature and headed off on such a great adventure.  I was blessed to attend a university that gave us 23 astronauts including the first and the last man to ever set foot on the moon.  And although I am forever tethered to the earth, for one brief weekend, I too felt the magic of space flight.

4 comments:

  1. Wow, what an amazing event to witness! Not sure I agree with the whole space exploration thing to be honest. A bit like I don't believe in digging up bodies hundreds of years old in the name of research or whatever. It seems irreverent to me, but those with a deep interest in archaeology (like my husband) will tell me that unless you do this kind of work then you can't uncover the history behind us. And I suppose there is a similar reason to justify space travel. I am of the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' school of thinking and would rather just leave it magical and mysterious.
    By the way, am enthralled at the moment with John Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charley' which I began yesterday afternoon and am set to finish this afternoon. Brilliant writing.... is his fiction as good as his travel writing, do you know?

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  2. Good story,Scott! Seeing a launch - ANY launch - is on my bucket list of astronomy-related wishes (along with seeing the aurora boreal is, meeting one of the astronauts who walked on the moon, owning a piece of a meteor, and something else I can't recall at the moment). Only one has been checked off thus far, thanks to my Mom giving me a tie pin with a bit of meteorite in it. :-)
    -Jay

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    1. Jay, I never officially met one of the astronauts, but Neil Armstrong was honored at one of the Purdue football games. I got close to him and took some photos, but did not speak to him. I'm with you on the aurora borealis. I'm jealous that my brother got to see it one lucky evening from his home here in Indiana, but I've never been so fortunate and have yet to travel far enough north to have a greater chance of seeing it.

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  3. Robert ManwaringJuly 2, 2012 at 7:20 AM

    Very nice and interesting story Scott. You have the gift of being a great writer who is able to keep the reader intensily interested in (as Paul Harvey used to say) the rest of the story with baited breath, so to speak. I never got to see the lift off of a shuttle close up, but I did see the bad one from my front lawn in Tampa, Florida. A few of the neighbors and I were standing in my front lawn watching the shuttle go up, when all of a sudden, it blew up. We stood there, frozen in our tracks muttering small questions between us, for what seemed like several minutes, but was probably only seconds, then everyone headed for their TV's to see what happened, so many miles away on the other coast of Florida. It was horrible to see our shuttle blow up, over and over on TV, but that was what was on, on every station. Keep up with your writing Scott. Maybe you are destined to become a short story writer of fiction or non-fiction. But when you become famous, please send me an autographed copy of one of your books...... LOL

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