Skip to comments.In Memoriam, A Columbia Space Shuttle Memory
Posted on 02/01/2003 3:09:58 PM PST by patriciaruth
Originally printed in New Frontiers, the Space SIG (Special Interest Group) newsletter, July-August, 1982, M. Berry editor.
You made a mistake asking for mail from those of us who've seen the shuttle. In spite of Senator Proxmire's sober, perfectly reasoned arguments against our enthusiasm, I'll bet you're inundated with personal experiences. Proxmire's right, but he misses the point.
Even those few humans that are logical generally don't dream along rational lines. And ultimately more human progress issues from dreams that from logic.
It wasn't logical to be happy in November, 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia ran into problems requiring it to land early, on a Saturday.
But it meant I wouldn't be working and could go. So right after work on Friday evening, my husband ... and I threw some equipment and food into our car and headed north out of Los Angeles up Highway 41 into the Mojave Desert for a spot on the map marked Edwards. We were excited. We were going to see history, having missed that other Golden Fleece Award landing in 1492.
About 11 p.m. we inched up a line of cars leading to the main gate at Edwards Air Force Base, only to be told, as we had been fearing from the number of cars heading back, that we couldn't enter there. The public viewing area on the other side of the base could only be approached by backtracking to the main highway and going back to the town of Lancaster. From there we were able to pick up the back roads that lead into the desert where Rogers lake bed lays.
Finally past midnight we were ushered onto the dried lake bed by Air Force personnel waving flashlights. They had marked the baked and cracked, light gray clay of the outskirts of the lake bed with long lines of sprayed black paint to give some organization to the parking of the cars coming steadily into the area. Already the long rows of motor vehicles paralleling the edge of the landing strip were four deep from the fence.
I wasn't prepared for the popularity of the shuttle. Space always seemed an esoteric hobby. But here in the dark, just from the sounds of your neighbors, you knew the appeal cut across all lines. Why were the motorcyclists here carousing? At first I thought they just wanted an excuse to party, but later wondered if they as much as I, needed to believe in something grand to come -- that the future, in spite of the economy and daily tedium, held wonders.
We set up our small tent in front of the car, crawled inside into our sleeping bags, and tried to doze. Some of our neighbors felt that the wait was also to be savored and partied all night. Others didn't come prepared either to party or sleep, and sat in their cars with rock music at full volume. It was a noisy night.
The wind, too, was grim. It buffeted the tent all night and blew gritty with dust in the morning threatening to abort the landing. When we crawled out of the tent, we saw rows of cars, vans, campers, trucks and even several huge rigs that had come in behind us during the night and dawn. The traffic jam now present on the single file roads leading in was the predictable reason we had come the night before.
While waiting for the shuttle I investigated the hawker's booths.
Shuttle memorabilia abounded, but I held back afraid the wind would send the Columbia to New Mexico instead. There were some beautiful laser-enhanced photos of Enterprise and Columbia that I bought right away for my office, but waited till after the landing to get buttons and bumper stickers.
My husband had meanwhile been speaking with an older couple who had also been there for the first landing of the Columbia. They all got misty eyed as this gray-haired lady who remembered Linbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic told how she had cried as the Columbia had come down half a year before.
And then the waiting was over. We all bunched up along the fence as portable radios blared the news that Engel and Truly had committed and burned into the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. Shortly afterward they came back into communication over the California coast and all two hundred thousand faces turned to the sky. Someone suddenly shouted, "There it is!" Everyone was pointing a tiny round white dot in the sky that produced squeals of glee for a minute before we noticed that it didn't move or change size and was dismissed as a weather balloon.
When the shuttle came it was unlike anything you could experience on television. High up directly overhead the underside of the shuttle is seen through the thinly scattered clouds with dots of vapor trail behind it. It is maybe an inch long in the blue bowl of the sky and seems to be streaking for the eastern horizon. Silently. And then come the sonic booms jolting the crowd into estatic cheers.
Columbia turns left onto downwind from base above the Kramer Mountains, the left side to the crowd, with two silver gnats, the pursuit jets, buzzing around it, one outpaced and trailing far behind. Columbia is now four inches long and part of the vast vista of earth and sky, the markings easily visible in the clear air.
Already the view is superior to television. The eye is sharper than a television broadcast and we can see the shuttle perfectly though it is still distant. Until you see a landing in person, you never realize you are missing the shuttle in perspective to the panorama of desert and sky. All the television views are close-ups, probably because the lines per inch resolution of a TV screen would leave the shuttle a mere blur in a wide shot.
So when the shuttle turned on final approach, its nose pitched up to slow speed, I let my husband keep the binoculars. They would only have interfered with the feeling that I was part of the scene that across the lake bed included the Columbia, about a foot long in perspective, gliding down quietly to meet the rising heat waves. While the crowd sings, cheers, claps, and toasts, "Hail, Columbia!" with beer, the space shuttle touches down, WOW and then WONG and rolls to a stop, a perfect landing.
The crowd was some distance away, but no one felt cheated. Something wonderful and special and historic had happened and eyesight had seen it more clearly than any nonorganic lens could record. Some lingered at the fence and some headed right for their cars and the traffic jam. But everyone was smiling.
How do you argue with that?
For a happier world no matter how illogical.
(s)Patricia R. ...
This was the second landing of the Columbia, but Columbia was the first space shuttle to be reused, the first ever to have a second landing. Therefore, the second landing of Columbia was as historic as Enterprise's first landing as that craft was never used again.
Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) had just issued his annual Golden Fleece Award (for profligate, pointless spending) to the shuttle program, and his statements on the illogic of the space program had been printed in the previous newsletter of this small group of space enthusiasts to which I belonged.
WOW = weight on wings, WONG = weight on nose gear.
ON THE EVE OF ITS 20th ANNIVERSARY, AMERICA'S FIRST SPACE SHUTTLE RETURNS TO SERVICE BETTER THAN EVER
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of its maiden voyage, America's first space shuttle orbiter, Columbia, returns to service this week fresh from a year and a half of maintenance and upgrades that have made it better than ever.
"Columbia is a safer shuttle today than the day it first launched," said Astronaut John Young, who commanded the first-ever space shuttle mission aboard Columbia in April
This weekend, Columbia is scheduled to be carried piggyback atop the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft from the Boeing shuttle facility in Palmdale, CA, to the Kennedy Space Center, FL, to begin preparations for its 27th trip to space.
"As its 20th birthday approaches, Columbia is fit to fly for many more years," Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore said. "It is safer and more capable than it has ever been, a result of the thorough maintenance and continuous improvements that have been incorporated regularly into the shuttle fleet."
More than 100 modifications and improvements have been made to Columbia, highlighted by the installation of a new "glass cockpit" that replaced mechanical instruments with 11 full-color, flat-panel displays. The new cockpit is lighter, uses
Columbia spent a year and a half at the Palmdale facility. Other improvements include weight reductions that have increased the amount of cargo Columbia can carry to orbit by hundreds of pounds. To save weight, almost 1,000 pounds of unused wire -- left over from equipment and sensors that were used on Columbia for only the first few space shuttle test flights -- were removed.
Because of wiring damage found in the shuttle fleet in 1999, comprehensive inspections of 95 percent of Columbia's more than 200 miles of wire were performed at Palmdale. To prevent such damage from recurring, technicians smoothed rough edges throughout the shuttle and encased wiring in high-traffic work areas in protective tubing. Such inspections and protective measures will be a regular feature of all future shuttle major maintenance.
Preliminary preparations were made that could allow Columbia to use a space station docking system, enabling it to join the rest of the shuttle fleet as a future courier to the
While Columbia was in California, technicians scoured the shuttle during months of intensive structural inspections, using the latest technology to check for even minute signs of fatigue, corrosion or broken rivets or welds.
Upon arrival at Kennedy, Columbia will begin preparations for its next trip into space, scheduled for this fall.
This may have been an accident that could have happened to any of the shuttles, regardless of age or refurbishment.
Thank you for posting your poignant article.
The arching sky is calling
Spacemen back to their trade.
All hands! Stand by! Free falling!
And the lights below us fade.
Out ride the sons of Terra,
Far drives the thundering jet,
Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
Out, far, and onward yet ---
We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the friendly skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.
Robert A. Heinlein