On the night before the second launch attempt we got a later start out of Daytona than we had the first time. We stopped and ate and this time we were all armed with sleeping bags. Just as we had planned Friday morning, almost everyone parked where they had been for the scrub. This time, however, some of us crawled into our sleeping bags and grabbed a few hours of sleep. I have to admit that I kept waking up, looking at the Shuttle in the spotlights and then covering back up thinking “Wow, this is so cool.” I would run through my mind all of the other manned launches that I had watched on TV and remembering how much I always wanted to be where I was at this moment.
As dawn broke folks began milling around again. This time there was a different feeling in the air. I had a sense that the Shuttle was gonna go today. There was an exhilaration among the crowd rather than anticipation, as if we all had our fingers poised on some sort of launch button and were certainly going to push it. A few hucksters were walking up and down the crowd, just as they had done on the day of the scrub, trying to sell assorted souvenirs. One guy had a simple black and white bumper-sticker that had a rough Shuttle image on it and the words “I SAW IT.” Someone, I believe it may have been Jennings, shouted to him,
“What if it blows up?”
Without missing a beat the huckster reached into his pocket and pulled out a large black marker. He pointed to an open space on the right hand corner of the bumper-sticker and he said,
“Then you take this marker and over here you write BLOW UP.”
He was apparently a huckster with the Right Stuff.
Our friend with the mobile Space Shuttle flight following station in the trunk of his car had taken his place right next to us again. Just like on scrub day, I had remembered to bring along my tape recorder. I’d been taping manned launch broadcasts from the TV since I was 13 years old and had recorded Apollo 14, so I was determined to get this one too. I asked our pal with the battery powered TV if I could place my tape recorder next to his TV at launch time and pick up some of the broadcast. He happily agreed and we all waited as the countdown passed every milestone that it had stumbled upon during the first launch attempt. No one knew what to expect. In fact, the damned thing just might blow up.
We saw nothing but a silhouette of the Shuttle and Pad 39A as the sun came up. It was a bit hazy and so our view remained that of a silhouette against a stunning orange sky while the count ticked down. Like expectant parents we paced a bit and alternated between looking at the pad in the distance and focusing on the little TV set. I kept running through my mind the fact that this was indeed history that could be considered on the scale of witnessing Freedom 7, or Friendship 7, or Gemini 3, or Apollo 8 or perhaps even Apollo 11. Countless space firsts were about to take place right in front of our eyes. I just had to hope that I would not forget to turn on my tape recorder.
As the countdown hit the two minute mark I hit the record button and set the tape recorder down next to the TV. Oddly, about that same time no one was looking at the TV set, every eye that had a view of the pad was focused toward the silhouette of the Shuttle backed by the now amber sky. Everything seemed to get quite still. For the first time there was very little talking among all of us on that riverbank- it was as if we all collectively held our breath.
At main engine start we saw the silhouette of the steam cloud billowing from the engines working against the sound suppression water. Six seconds later the solids lit and we saw what looked like a second sunrise. Then the STS-1 stood up on two stilts of flame as bright as the sun. Everyone was screaming “GO!... Go Baby GO!... GO!” I heard myself screaming it and I heard it echoing up and down the riverbank. What I did not hear- was the Shuttle.
Then I remembered something I read in Mike Collins’ book “Carrying the Fire.” He described watching the first Saturn V, Apollo 4, launch. Collins wrote that about the time he said to himself “You can’t hear it,” the sound hit him. And just as I had that thought, the sound hit us.
Although there were certainly a few Saturn V veterans present, most folks who were there to witness STS-1 had never experienced anything like the Shuttle. It reached out, took hold of you and shook your senses as well as the ground under our feet. My tape recorder picked up the sound of the items in the trunk of the car rattling. The only thing louder was the sound of the shouts, screams, squeals and rebel yells coming from the crowd. People were jumping up and down and punching their fists into the air as STS-1 ripped into the sky. You really had to work to hear any of the calls coming from Mission Control. The whole thing kept going for over two minutes and then we heard the “Go for SRB sep.” call. It was then that everything seemed to grow comparatively quiet with just a smattering of “Hoots” and “Whoooos.” A few seconds later at SRB separation we saw the translucent white plume and then saw the two solids dropping away. At that moment a spontaneous cheer went up followed by a rolling applause produced by the near million or so people who now lined the riverbank as far as the eye could see. It was as if the home team had made a fantastically great play in front of a sellout crowd. It was sudden and it was contagious. I found myself clapping as if someone in NASA could actually hear me. That applause was actually captured on my tape. We applauded NASA, the Shuttle and our nation.
Following SRB separation we turned our attention to the tiny TV set once more, watching and listening as STS-1 headed for its target in orbit. In the distance out over the Atlantic the vehicle looked like a very bright star hanging in the sky. As the boost continued we had the illusion that the vehicle was actually heading downward toward the horizon, because that was what it was actually doing. Soon the star simply faded into a pinpoint. A glance at the TV and then a look back toward the sky found the Shuttle lost to the eye. At Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) everyone seemed to snap back to reality.
There was pure joy in the crowd and you heard a lot of “Man! Did you see that?” as if someone there could have missed it. We patted one another on the back, smiled and felt great, even though we had done nothing more than be there and watch. Even complete strangers found one another, smiled gleefully and offered congratulations on a great launch. One fellow coined it all when he grinned widely and said,
“Gee… I wish they had another one.”
Even the ride home was conducted as a festive traffic jam. People were filled with pride, and in our car the clogged roadway simply gave us more time to chatter about the launch.
I got back to Kmart in time to start my Sunday shift on schedule. Over in the appliance department a small crowd had gathered around the TV sets. One of guys working in that department had thought ahead and set one of the VCRs to record the launch which was playing over and over again as customers stood and watched, over and over again. On that Sunday the folks that I worked with all heard that I had been there and the guys in the appliance department told their customers,
“The guy over there in cosmetics was down there for it,” and pointed toward me.
As I stocked my shampoo, denture cream and glycerin suppositories, dozens of people came up to me and asked “How was it?”
The best I could do was to simply reply that it was indescribable and urge them to go down and see one.
For myself, I simply went about my mindless job with a perpetual smile upon my face. After 31 United States manned space launches, all of which I witnessed on TV while growing up with spaceflight, I finally got to be “there” and “see one!” Nearly a million other people who had crowded the length of the Space Coast that morning were thinking that same thought at that same time. Best of all was the feeling that after more than five years without the ability to launch humans into space, our country was finally back in the manned spaceflight business. It was the most exhilarating feeling of my life up to that point, and I could not wait to see the next Shuttle launch.
Indeed, the dream was alive again.