A month and seven days following the Flight Readiness Firing, NASA announced officially
that the launch date for the first Space Shuttle would be April 10, 1981.
Standing there in the Daytona Kmart cosmetics department and wearing my nametag and badly worn tie as I held a price sticker gun, I decided that I was not going
to miss it. I told Andy the pharmacist that I was gonna be down there to see
it. Andy asked what I was going to do if I could not get the day off?
“I’ll quit the job,” I replied
Knowing I only had a bicycle for
my personal transportation he asked, “How’re you gonna get down there?”
I answered that if I could not get
a ride, I would ride my bicycle and get as far south as I could. He just shook
his head and snickered. The fact was that I had spent nearly my whole life
passionately following spaceflight and nearly every bit of that had been
sitting in front of a TV set. There was no way I was going to be this close to
that piece of spaceflight history and again have to watch it on TV. I was going
to be THERE to witness it first hand, even if I had to ride my bicycle. The
only problem was that the best eyewitness location for the launch was almost 50
miles away, a bit longer than the distance I usually rode my bicycle.
As luck would have it, launch day
for STS-1 happened to fall on my day off, so now my only problem was getting
down to the Space Coast. A day before the launch I ventured to the Avion
student newspaper office on Embry-Riddle’s campus, and was told that AIAA was
chartering two buses to go from the campus to KSC for the launch of STS-1. I
hustled down to buy a ticket, but found that the tickets had sold out almost
immediately. Dejected, I returned to the newspaper office and began to plot my
bicycle ride down US1 to Titusville. I figured it would take me most of the
night to get down there, and although riding a bicycle down US1 in the middle
of the night to see a space launch may seem a bit nuts, the term “A bit nuts”
is denoted on my birth certificate.
Just as I was about to head out
and start peddling, my girlfriend of that time stopped me and said that she
knew of two guys in her dorm who were driving down. She suggested that we
should go to their room and she could introduce me to them. If they had an
extra seat, it may keep me from becoming a road pizza on US1. As it turned out
the two guys were happy to have me ride along. They were, in fact, both space-buffs
just like me and we instantly became friends. Jennings, who owned the land-boat
of a car that we drove down in, was from Michigan, just like me, and to this
day I consider him to be a good friend. Brian, the other guy, was an expert in
everything that flies, and would go on to not only work at the National Air and
Space Museum as a photo archivist as well as becoming the author of a most
comprehensive book on rockets and missiles, but would also serve as the best
man in my wedding seven years later. Together, the three of us headed out that
Thursday evening to witness aviation history… or so we thought.
On the trip down toward the launch
site we chattered about spaceflight history. Then, as we came within a dozen
miles of Titusville, we suddenly saw spaceflight history. Above the trees the
darkness was slashed by the crossed white beams of the pad spotlights. Although
we could not yet see the shuttle, it was an image that we had always seen in
books, magazines and on television. In spite of yourself, it made your heart
stop and your jaw drop.
Entering the town of Titusville we
suddenly discovered that we had no idea where the hell we were going. Where
would we park? What about private property? Collectively we decided just to
turn toward the river. Driving down Grace Street we hit Riverview Street and the
riverbank itself. For a few minutes we cruised up and down Riverview
calculating a good place to park. I spotted a county pumping station and
suggested we should park near it. That way if any of the locals gave us a hard
time, we could just go onto county property. We pulled in, bailed out of the
car and just stood there frozen by the sight of the white Space Shuttle bathed
in those crossed spotlight beams. For a moment, all three of us were kids again
gazing at the wonder of spaceflight.
Snapping out of the Shuttle’s
spell for a moment, I saw that it was just after 10 pm and I decided to hike up
Grace Street to the Mister Doughnut shop up on US1. There I found a pay phone
and I called my folks up in Michigan to ask “Guess where I am tonight?” Being
the parents of a rabid space-buff, it was an easy guess for them. When I
returned to the car I was amazed to see that in the past 20 minutes, nearly
every parking spot along the riverbank near us had been taken, and there were
more cars coming. Clearly, there would be no problems with the local residents
Opening the trunk of his car, the
guy who had parked right next to us, revealed a sort of mobile Space Shuttle
flight-following station. Attached to the underside of the trunk lid he had a
poster depicting each phase of the STS-1 flight profile. He had charts and
table that listed each mission event, as well as assorted abort profiles and
abort destinations. He had Shuttle cut-away diagrams that detailed every
component. Most importantly, however, he had a small portable TV that ran off
of his car battery. In 1981 such TVs were not rare, but in our present location
his TV was the center of attention.
Several hours into the night I
decided to go for a walk up US1 and see what may be happening. The streets were
busy as I strolled along, and every sign that could have its letters rearranged
had a Shuttle best wishes message. After about a mile or so I came upon the
local mall. Even though it was the middle of the night, the parking lot was
filled as if it were the day before Christmas. The doors to the mall were
propped open and people were coming and going. I went inside and was amazed to
see that many of the stores were open and doing a good amount of business. Most
noticeable was the local toy store which had set up a table just outside of their
door. Upon the table was a cash register and stacks of Space Shuttle models
which were apparently selling like crazy.
When I got back to the riverbank
everyone was standing around gazing at the distant Shuttle or talking
spaceflight. We talked about every aspect of spaceflight past, present and
future. Most of us simply agreed that we had no idea as to what STS-1 would do,
or what the Shuttle’s future would really be. It was like going to a space-buff
There was, however, only one problem with our space-buff paradise:
access to a bathroom.
On a later trip up the road to buy a cup of tea I found
out that the guy running the Mister Doughnut shop up on US1 did not mind folks
using his restrooms, as long as they bought a doughnut “or somethin’.” When I
got back to the riverbank I spread the word and soon folks were strolling up
the road to Mister Doughnut and returning “rested” with coffee, or a pastry, or
both in hand. STS-1 was already helping the local economy, and the guy running
the doughnut shop could testify to that.
Shortly after dawn the countdown
hit the first in a series of holds. The TV in our little mobile Space Shuttle
flight following station seemed to pick up the local ABC station the best, so
we were glued to Jules Bergman and Gene Cernan. The issues started with a fuel
cell problem and then a problem with the back-up computer. The guys on the TV
knew about as much about the problems as we did, but Bergman kept down-talking
the prospect of a launch today. As countdown recycles and holds folded up on
one another, Bergman kept talking about NASA officials stating things such as
their “…expectation of having to go through multiple launch attempts over
It was bad enough waiting out the
assorted re-cycles in the countdown, but Bergman simply intensified our
frustration. We had never seen anything like the Shuttle and at the time of
STS-1 we had no idea just how dependant COLUMBIA was on its computers. This was
1981 and desktop computers were just coming out of the “Basic” and “DOS” era.
Talk of a misplaced bit or bite gumming up a spacecraft’s launch seemed quite
strange. In fact two days later we would be told that a simple timing error of 40
milliseconds between the four primary computers aboard COLUMBIA and the vehicle’s
back-up computer was the cause of the problem. It was easily solved the day
following the first launch attempt by shutting everything down and restarting
the system. That simple re-boot, however, could not be done at the point in the
count where we were on Friday morning. So, we were stuck with Bergman throwing the
cold water of truth on our protracted hopes for a Friday launch.
“I’m about ready to swim across
the river,” Jennings growled, “and strangle Jules Bergman.”
Of course, Bergman was correct in
one sense. We were not going to see the Space Shuttle fly today.
Over on NBC, the ever spaceflight-dense
Robert Bazell was interviewing Jim Lovell concerning problems in space.
“What was the worst kind of problem that you
ever had?” Bazell asked the Apollo 13 commander.
Across the nation every space-buff
watching NBC must have chuckled and said, “What!? Is he kidding? He’s asking
the commander of Apollo 13 what was the worst problem he ever had?” The
laughter must have lightened up the on-going holds and delays.
Since we were watching ABC I
missed out on that little meat-puppet moment until it was on the internet
decades later. Finally, after what seemed like an entire day of holds and
recycles, the word came across the loop that they were going to once again
recycle to T-20 minutes and go out and remove the crew. Some two-and-one-half-hours
after the scheduled launch time, the effort came to a halt. Shortly after that
came the official scrub announcement. Frankly, it was almost a relief. We had
all been awake for more than 24 hours and other than a bag of doughnuts that
I’d retrieved from Mister Doughnut, none of us had eaten. Everyone up and down
the riverbank agreed to meet in the same place Saturday night for Sunday
morning’s attempt at a launch.
The next day at work I went into
the personnel manager’s office and told Mary Jane, our personnel manager that although I was scheduled to
work on Sunday, I would be at the Shuttle launch and if it was late, I would be
late too. Unexpectedly, she simply smiled sweetly and said,
“No problem, I understand, have
It’s funny how folks who live in
central Florida have a different view of spaceflight than other people around
the country. Of course, most of the country had watched the whole scrub live on
TV and from the White House to my parent’s house every American seemed to
suffer through the recycles with us.
Most of them, however, were much closer to
a restroom than those of us on the riverbank.
For the whole Shuttle Program experience check out my book!