Sunday, April 11, 2021


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.

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Saturday, April 10, 2021



        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 tonight.

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 convention. 

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 several days.”

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 fun.”

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.

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