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.