Gravity’s Afterburn

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.””

About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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10 Responses to Gravity’s Afterburn

  1. Lori Herter says:

    Beautifully written, Michelle. I didn’t know you’d been part of the space program.

  2. mlknowlden says:

    Thanks, Lori. Yep, I worked as a hardware designer on the S-Band communication systems.

  3. Kaye Klem says:

    Tears still come, Michelle. To those who “slip the surly bonds of earth” into that infinite and glorious frontier–with all the hope and daring of the best of our human race. The space program has brought so many benefits to those of us on earth–in medical advancements, computers and the discoveries and research done only with the aid of computers, and to an Internet connected way of life none of us could have dreamed of when the space program started. Those aboard the Challenger were true heroes, all. Thanks for your memories.

  4. mlknowlden says:

    So beautifully said, Kaye. Thank you.

  5. John McElroy says:

    Very moving Michelle. I remember as a kid gathering in front of the black & white and watching the launches in the 60s. And the men- all men at that time it seemed- in their white shirts and black ties in the control room. Those astronauts were such heroes to a young boy. And I distinctly remember the capsule fire in 1967 that killed Grissom, White, and Chaffee. A sobering reminder of just what risks were involved in exploring space. But we became so proficient at it that I, and most people not directly involved like you were, took it for granted and we no longer watched with the tension we once did, until the Challenger tragedy made us realize once again just what a dangerous business this is. Almost every time I see a real clear moon, I say to myself in awe, “How did we actually send people up there and bring them back?”. As someone whose mechanical ability ends with being able to change a light bulb, I marvel at the astronauts and the brilliant team behind them who are able to pull these things off. Same for the Space Shuttle. It is just remarkable. You should be so proud to have been a part of it.

  6. mlknowlden says:

    Considering we’re the same age, you have much clearer memories of the Apollo days than me! Perfectly said, John. Whenever anyone asks what I did as an engineer, this is the first thing I mention. I will always consider my time there a wonder and a privilege.

  7. Jean Riddell says:

    Beautifully written. So touching. Although your memories are sad, they make history very real. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with the shuttle program.

    Sent from my iPad

  8. mlknowlden says:

    Thank you, Jean. Maybe I should post about the fun and joys of working on the space program too. There were certainly more of those.

  9. dayya says:

    Lovely and touching. I was at work in downtown Los Angeles the day of the Challenger disaster. The space program has given us much and those who go where no one has gone before are the pathfinders into the future of humanity in space.

  10. mlknowlden says:

    Lovely, Debra. Well said.

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