Seeing the movie Gravity brought back a flood of memories of my work on the space program. Here’s a glimpse…
When the Challenger exploded January 28, 1986, I was working through lunch. Tom stopped by my office. “They lost the Challenger.”
It took long seconds before I understood him. I’d been away from the space shuttle program for three years and had forgotten about the launch.
I’d been too young when 19 years earlier the first Apollo capsule caught fire on the pad, killing the astronauts trapped inside. I do remember my first few days working on the shuttle program when a veteran engineer took me to a capsule tucked away in a Rockwell Downey assembly area and showed me the complex door mechanisms developed to ensure that would never happen again.
Although the Challenger failure was different, tragedy did happen again. Tom may have continued talking, but later I only remembered quiet in a flood of memories.
The first shuttle Columbia’s maiden launch slipped to April 1981, and I was sitting in a small Alaskan motel room watching television while my sister stood at the window watching the blizzard, punctuating the countdown with: “We should leave now to make it to Prince George.”
I refused to miss seeing the launch live, but our return trip was harrowing, snow falling thick and fast. I felt exuberant after the successful launch as we crept down the thin highway with only a single snowplow for company. Roadside drifts were sometimes glacial blue, and the white stretching into infinity enveloped us in silence.
Shuttle flight engineer Jerry Ross, who tied for most (seven) shuttle rides, said: “To an astronaut space is infinite quiet. I had a strong sensation that I was at one with the universe and that I was doing exactly what God had designed me to do.”
As Columbia was already in Florida when I joined the program in 1979 as a newly minted engineer, the Challenger had been my shuttle. I spent months in Palmdale during integration testing, cutting through the Challenger’s hangar on my way to morning briefings, marveling at its snub-nosed beauty, my hands itching to touch its tiled skin. Astronauts joined us during tests as they loved having time on the command deck; they flew from Houston in the morning, participated in long sequences, and returned home in the T-37 they’d left parked by the back door.
One evening the lanky astronaut I’d been working with yelled good-bye, and the astronaut with him waved too. I’d been talking to a test engineer, and he interrupted me. “See who’s with Dave? It’s Crip.” Bob Crippen, the Navy pilot who’d flown STS-1 with John Young as I watched that snowy April day.
Hours after the Challenger explosion, in the quiet of my car I grappled with grief, the unwavering belief in exploring space, the cost of losing heroes, and the infinite latitude of destiny.
That evening as I heard President Reagan’s speech, I cried as he said: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.””