The following is an excerpt from my "Growing up with Spaceflight- Space Shuttle" book. All content here is Copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski and may not be reproduced in any manner.
Excitement concerning STS-2, the second launch America's space shuttle, was at a similar pitch in the second week of November, 1981. Yet that excitement came with a different tone. Now, although most of America- indeed most of the world- knew that there was a space shuttle but, most folks still didn't really know how it worked or what it was all about. Still its existence had permeated into the public mindset. Just over six months after the launch of the first space shuttle, when the roar of the SRBs and main engines on the Space Transportation System (STS) had awakened the nation, folks they still weren't quite sure what they were looking at. Seven months after that first launch, NASA was preparing to give the public another lesson.
Launch day, November 12th, found me on a bus headed from the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University's campus in Daytona Beach, Florida to KSC. Unlike STS-1, this time I actually managed to find a seat on the bus. So, instead of being 14 miles from the pad and camped out over night on the riverbank I would be standing on the causeway about 8 miles from complex 39A. Just the prospect of being that much closer to a shuttle launch was exciting enough on its own merit. As our bus exited I-95 in the predawn darkness there was an atmosphere of confusion surrounding the launch time. Earlier the previous day there had been a failure of a multiplexer aboard the orbiter and talk of a launch delay. The news media of the day had not quite evolved to the point of 24/7 coverage. Thus we were left with whatever reports had been on the 11 o'clock news the night before. Even those were highly sketchy, some saying that the unit had been repaired others saying the new unit was being flown in from California. Of course if you are like me you were not going to take a chance on missing a launch so, we all piled on the bus anyway.
This was the second time around for this whole trip to KSC to see the second shuttle launch exercise. Originally, STS-2 had been scheduled to launch some six days earlier. At that time the countdown had gotten as far as T-31 seconds and then cut off at auto sequence start. The cutoff was caused by a high temperature sensed by the sequencer. This event had been caused by clogged oil filters in an APU and the entire launch ended up being scrubbed. We had all spent in uncomfortably cold Florida morning walking around the causeway and listening closely to the loop on small loudspeakers strung along the waterfront. It'd been a case where a long night turned into a disappointing morning for most folks at KSC. For me, however, any chance to get onto KSC and get close to complex 39 was a plus.
As our bus inched its way toward KSC word came from a local radio station that the troubled component aboard the orbiter that had caused all of the doubt the night before had been replaced. The downside was that there would now be a delay of several hours in the launch. Considering that our bus was in traffic so thick that we had recently been passed by an armadillo on the roadside, we all saw the delay as a very good sign. At least it would give us time to get to the causeway and get off the bus before the launch.
As we turned onto the causeway the bus was stopped by a KSC official. Some brief conversation took place between the official and our bus driver, then the bus made of 180° turn and started heading back. Just as we were about to panic the bus driver came over the PA system. He explained that he had been told that there was no more room for buses of the causeway and instead we were being rerouted to view the launch from the VIP site.
A cheer went up.
Doubling back about a quarter mile we came upon a two lane road that led north toward complex 39. Called "Static Test Road" this easily overlooked little roadway led to another small road off to our right. That golf club shaped drive looped around and allowed our bus plus another dozen or so other buses stop and unload. Although we were only about three quarters of a mile closer to the pad now than we were at the causeway, it seemed to us as if we were right on top of 39A. We were told that our location was called "bunker number 7." Actually it really wasn't much more than a cul-de-sac cleared of the Florida undergrowth that had once been used for tracking cameras. There was, however, a small set of bleachers constructed at the south end and that was already filled with the real "VIPs" who had arrived earlier. I guess the term "VIPs" was only being used in the general sense here because those of us on the buses who were the causeway overflow mixed quite easily with these folks. Most of them were friends of families or crews, contractors, or spaceflight workers.
As the crowd grew and our "VIP" area began to load up with spectators. Everyone went looking for a good place to sit on the ground yet still be able to stand up and take pictures of the launch. Scouting around quickly my buddy Jeff and I saw one large open area that seemed to have a perfect view. We both commented that we couldn't figure out why no one had staked out this area so we headed over there and planted our butts on the ground. It took about 15 seconds before we realized exactly why no one else had taken the spot. You see- it takes about 15 seconds before the first couple of fire ants from the nest you’re sitting on to start stinging you. Leaping to our feet we bounded out of there sweeping away fire ants as we went. We spent a good part of the rest of the morning watching that spot as other people made the exact same mistake.
Of course no VIP site is complete unless it has some extension of the KSC gift shop to take the money from the VIPs. Bunker number 7 was no exception to this rule. Indeed a small portable gift trailer had been set up and was doing a good business. They probably would have gotten every dime that I had if I had had a dime. Unfortunately all I had was my camera, my tape recorder, my thermos of hot tea and a fairly well-squished peanut butter sandwich with really cheap strawberry preserves on it. In my college days I formed a strange habit that I still retain to this day- that is traveling around without as much as a penny in my pocket. Later in the morning I was sitting for a short time in the bleachers when one of the real VIPs sat down beside me and showed me an STS-2 postal cover. She told me they were selling them at the gift trailer for $1.75 and then you could have them officially stamped and even mailed off at the postal trailer. I told her "That's really cool," and that it would be fun to mail one off to my folks. She told me I should do that and I replied that the only problem was that I didn't have $1.75. She looked at me a bit surprised, then I explained that I was working my way through college by way of Kmart. Sympathetic she asked "Well… didn’t you bring anything with you?" I said "Yeah," as I reached into my backpack and showed her my well-squished peanut butter sandwich with really cheap strawberry preserves on it. She laughed and handed me one of her postal covers with orders to take it and send it to my folks adding that she fully understood about working your way through college. She even pulled a couple of postage stamps from her purse and gave them to me. She said, “One day, that’ll be a collector’s item.”
Joe Engle and Dick Truly were strapped aboard the Columbia at about that same time. To most of the public they were unknown rookies who had never flown before and space, but to us spaceflight buffs these two pilots were far from being rookies. Engle, in fact, was already an astronaut who had flown in space before he joined NASA. He had flown the X-15 a total of 50 times between 1963 and 1965 with three of those missions reaching altitudes above 50 miles. This qualified him to wear astronaut wings. Additionally Engle and Truly actually had a one up on the first shuttle crew, Young and Crippen. To date Young and Crippen had performed one landing of a shuttle orbiter, but the crew of Engle and Truly had already performed two landings of a shuttle order. In 1977 Engle and Truly were two of the four pilots who flew the space shuttle Approach and Landing Tests with the orbiter Enterprise.
Glued to assorted portable radios and at least one portable TV, we monitored the count as it was broadcast by various local news stations. When the count neared the planned time to come out of the scheduled T-9:00 hold, Launch Director George Page elected to take a moment before resuming the count. It was his intention to keep his controllers cool, take a deep breath and make sure they were doing everything right. That little bit of extra hold time, however, really annoyed some of the newsman- of course that meant nothing to the launch director. After just a few short minutes the count resumed and the Columbia had the undivided attention of several million of people around the world.
After the previous week’s scrub nearly everyone seemed to be hypersensitive to the T-31 second mark in the count. As that point came and went a cheer and applause echoed through the crowd. Apparently everyone seemed to have the perception that if you got past that moment in the count you were good to go. In fact, I noticed for many years that passing the T-31 seconds mark and the start of redundant sense sequencing tended to draw a smattering of applause. The cold hard truth was that it meant nothing more than detection of problems were turned over to the computer and thus, anything that would keep you from flying could not be detected several million times faster than when you are off the sequencer. So there was really nothing to cheer about.
In the final seconds prior to the launch I went and stood on the bleachers with the real VIPs. The guy standing next to me was armed with a Super 8 movie camera. At main engine start he raised the camera to his eye, pulled the trigger and began filming. I guess he didn't expect what those of us who had been there for the previous shuttle launch had already experienced. A few moments after SRB ignition the shuttle reached out and grabbed us compelling everyone scream "GO BABY, GO!" A moment later I glanced over to see the movie camera guy, mesmerized and standing there looking up at the departing shuttle, his mouth hanging open and his hand with the running movie camera down at his side- filming the bleachers. I nudged him with an elbow and got his attention then pointed down at the camera."OH!" He said as he returned to filming the launch. For some reason the shuttle did that kind of stuff to you.
A little more than 8 minutes later the United States had accomplished something never before done- they had reused a manned spaceflight vehicle. Columbia was safely in orbit and soon we were safely back aboard the bus- feeling that strange sense of pride, as if we had launched Columbia ourselves.
If you liked this real life adventure, and would like to read the rest just go to www.authorwes.com and get an autographed and personalized copy of his books, or if you prefer e-book, visit Amazon and see the whole set. Of course it's much harder for the author to autograph e-books because they're... ya' know... just ones and zeros flowing across the internet.