Dawn had just broken over the Desert Southwest of the United States of America on Saturday 1 February as the Space Shuttle Columbia, the oldest of the American Space Shuttle fleet, streaked overhead on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere enroute to a scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 9:16 AM Eastern Standard Time, some 20 minutes ahead. Although it will take some time to determine just what happened and exactly why, we do already know that- at this moment- Columbia was in trouble: something was wrong- or at least in the process of quickly becoming wrong- in the vicinity of the Shuttle's left wing. Whatever this anomaly was, Columbia disintegrated some 5 minutes or so later as it continued to descend over Texas, scattering debris- pieces large and small, including the remains of the crew- all over the northeastern portion of that State (what Texans generally refer to as "the Piney Woods") and on into southwestern Louisiana: weather radar even picked up the debris trail, appearing like an unusually wide line of severe thunderstorms along what should have been the Shuttle's glide path out over the Gulf of Mexico towards Florida.
This is not a Commentary about the future of spaceflight in general or that of the American Manned Space Program in particular: such a Commentary will have to wait for the future, especially once we all can learn more about the cause and the effect of that cause- while never to be forgotten- begins to recede at least somewhat in the mind. What I merely want to do herein is to discuss a little about what the American Space Program has meant to me personally in light of this third and most recent American space tragedy. I am not writing this in an attempt to make a claim that my story is at all unique: I dare say that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans of my generation most likely have stories very similar to my own insofar as their awareness of, interest in and- perhaps- appreciation of the Space Program are concerned. I also dare say that those of us who have lived our entire lives with spaceflight as a reality and yet are at an age where we can recall that adventure we all were able to feel, as children- and even witness, thanks to that other technology known as television [for unlike those who set out during the classic Age of Exploration in the earliest decades and centuries of what we tend to call "Modern History" (c. 1500 on), our era's bold explorers more or less took us all along for the ride]- have been given, largely thanks to this very experience, a certain perspective on this terrible event that has, as of this typing, only so recently occurred.
I am old enough (47 years old next month) to state that I have truly grown up with spaceflight, as I was not yet a year and a half old when Russia's Sputnik 1 marked the dawn of what we once, without the slightest hint of abject hubris, called "the Space Age": more to the point, I am old enough to remember- and have been inspired by- the events that transpired as spaceflight evolved. My earliest memory of spaceflight is one of watching on the black-and-white television in my maternal grandfather's basement the launch of one of the two Mercury-Redstone flights (I'd very much like to think that it was that of Alan Shepard becoming the first American to be sent into space but, truth be told, it is much more likely to have been Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 2 1/2 months later). I can clearly remember, while attending Kindergarten, watching the TV coverage of one of the early orbital Mercury-Atlas missions (again, I would like to believe that it was John Glenn's flight... but I also remember wearing short pants while watching-- in Connecticut... no, it wasn't February 1962- it had to be May: thus, it is Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7 I am more likely recalling).
I didn't really begin becoming even the least bit knowledgeable about spaceflight until the Gemini program was already well underway in 1965 (I have to confess I only vaguely remember the first manned Gemini flight in March 1965): I was so excited to find out that Gemini 4's Ed White, the first American to walk in space, had been an Air Force buddy of my stepDad's and that fact might very well have made me the more interested. I do know that I spent quite a few years (as I moved from single digits on into double digits in age) devouring whatever I could about manned spaceflight: for instance, when I was the age of 12, I recall taking a book titled The Encyclopedia of Manned Spacecraft out of the local library over and over again until I had practically memorized both the text and the drawings within its covers. And I began, even earlier, to follow the progress of manned spaceflight almost religiously.
On the first Saturday afternoon of December in that same year that Ed White took his 20-minute "tour" outside his spacecraft, while my Mom and stepDad looked over homes in Northern New Jersey (including the one in which I would grow into my teen years and young adulthood), I insisted on listening to the launch of Gemini 7 on the car radio; I held my breath on the Sunday 8 days later when the engines of the Titan II booster atop which sat Gemini 6 (a postponed mission scheduled to "chase" Gemini 7) inexplicably shut down at the moment of scheduled liftoff; I thrilled when- the following Wednesday afternoon- I was in school on New York City's Staten Island watching the TV coverage of the two Geminis rendezvousing; I watched such coverage with concern three months later on the Wednesday evening before my family would be moving from Staten Island to New Jersey as Gemini 8 began tumbling shortly after becoming the first spacecraft to complete docking with an Agena target vehicle; I probably gave much amusement to my new classmates in New Jersey as I commandeered the tiny transistor radio belonging to a girl in my 4th grade class during recess in order to get the latest news about Gemini 9 (the mission most famous for the "angry alligator" created when the target vehicle's payload shroud was discovered to have jammed open during its separate launch).
While I was in 5th grade, I became something of an "unofficial Space Reporter" for my elementary school: during the missions of both Gemini 11 and Gemini 12 that Fall, I went into the classrooms of the upper grades (3rd through 6th) and give a brief oral report about each mission. The following January, I had to give my most difficult report, that involving the Apollo 1 fire which killed three astronauts (including my stepDad's one-time Air Force cohort, Ed White) during a test of the capsule systems on the ground... I already knew that Ed White had a daughter who, at the time, was just about the same age (10 years old) I and my classmates were and that made it even more poignant, for 10 years old is often described as "the age of awareness"- the age at which the average human begins to become aware of a world well beyond that of one's family, neighborhood and hometown, the age at which concepts such as the finality of death become more evident to the conscious mind.
Fortunately, America's Space Program got through that, its first tragedy, and I was soon able to thrill to the resumption of the Apollo program: how well I remember Apollo 8 circumnavigating the Moon around Christmastime of 1968; how well I can recall being among a bunch of those in our junior high school the following May poring over detailed newspaper accounts of the Apollo 10 "dress rehearsal" during lunch; how vivid is my memory of, two months later, sitting in my maternal grandfather's basement (the very same basement where, most likely almost 8 years to the day earlier, I had watched that Mercury-Redstone launch) watching as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. One April Monday evening, upon returning home from a meeting of my Boy Scout troop, I turned on the TV to learn that Apollo 13 had a "problem": the following Friday, those of us who- almost a year earlier- had been excitedly discussing Apollo 10 were anxiously eating our lunches in the same cafeteria awaiting news that Apollo 13 had made it safely home. How well I can recall Original Seven'er Alan Shepard allegedly driving a golf ball "miles and miles" before leaving the lunar surface and Apollo 15's David Scott- at the same moment in that mission- dropping a hammer and a falcon's feather at the same time to demonstrate that "Galileo was right"; how fascinating it was to be able to watch the Lunar Module's Ascent Stage silently lift off the moon at the conclusion of the lunar portion of each of the last three Apollo missions (I watched the first of these while on a family vacation on New Jersey's Long Beach Island during the Summer of 1971).
The Space Program often marked many of the rites of passage during my teenage years: I was confirmed in my church the morning of the very same Sunday at the end of January 1971 on the afternoon of which Apollo 14 would launch Original Seven'er Alan Shepard to the Moon. I first walked a girl to whom I had become especially close while in high school home from that school while Apollo 17- the final American lunar mission- was still aloft in mid-December 1972; I took that same girl to my high school class's Junior Prom five months later during a period when NASA was wrestling with how- or even whether- the crippled Skylab launched earlier that week could be fixed by the crew that would be launched to first man it a week hence. Even as a college student home on break during the Summer of 1975, I just had to watch the first-ever live TV coverage of the launch of a Russian A2/SL-4 (these, by the way, being the Western designations for the Soviet- now Russian- launch vehicle still being used- in the early 21st Century- for the Soyuz spacecraft): I was fascinated as the rocket's stabilizing "tulip" fell back and, not all that long thereafter, its engines fired and the Soyuz launcher slowly rose from Baikonur Cosmodrome in the midst of the deserts of Kazakhstan. There was much that, even given the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) of which this launch was part, we ordinary Americans did not- and, indeed, could not- then know about the Soviet Space Program: even today, I so regret that- because of the political situation in those Cold War days- we in the West could not, in real time, thrill with the first space walk of Alexei Leonov or grieve with the widow of Vladimir Komarov, the first person to die in the course of an actual space mission or shudder at the tragic deaths of the three Soyuz 11 cosmonauts as they left the Salyut 1 space station and prepared for re-entry (a spaceflight tragedy not very unlike our most recent one-- as those expected to come home to Earth never arrived safely).
Yet, even as- to use the phraseology of that same Alexei Leonov during ASTP- "Apollo and Soyuz [were] shaking hands", my own interest in the Space Program was already well waning- as, so it appears, was the case with many of my fellow countrymen. In my case, I could always look back and claim the excuse that the myriad concerns of impending adulthood were- by the mid 1970s- beginning to take the place of what had been largely a childhood interest. I did not, as things turned out, go into a technical field, as had many of those with whom I had once excitedly discussed the Apollo missions over lunch in the junior high school- and later high school- cafeteria, and so- to me- unlike many of them, the Skylab program (once Skylab itself had been repaired by its first crew and that particular "adventure" was over and done with) did not provide anywhere near the interest for me. I have to admit that much of this was due to no little disappointment: that Encyclopedia of Manned Spacecraft I had once pored over about a half decade earlier had contained a great deal of information about something called the 'Apollo Applications Program', of which the actual Skylab program was merely a scaled-down version.
Missions of no more than two weeks were relatively easy to keep an eye on, but Skylab missions of weeks to months at a time just seemed to grind onward so as to come to seem almost everyday in nature; missions to explore the Moon always had the stuff of adventure, while missions involving an orbiting laboratory had just about as much comparable adventure for the average American as a felt-tipped pen, graph paper and a slide rule-- and, as much as following the Space Program in my youth had meant to me, I was not destined to become either a scientist or an engineer, merely just another average American whose "career path" would take him elsewhere. I have since read much about how my age peers in the Soviet Union were encouraged to be interested in the goings-on aboard the so-called "civilian" (as opposed to the "military") Salyut space stations- perhaps some late 40-something year old Russian reading this piece on the Internet will confirm or deny this impression of mine for me- but I can tell you that no such encouragement much stirred the average American: and the gap between the last Apollo mission as part of ASTP in July 1975 and STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight, in April 1981 didn't much help matters; the 21 Soviet space missions in the meantime were, at best, so much "background noise" buried well within American TV evening news programs.
STS-1 did bring about a little bit of the "old days" of spaceflight to my consciousness. I can still remember how STS-1, carrying the Space Shuttle Columbia, just seemed to leap right off the pad as I watched the launch on TV that Spring Sunday early morning here in the Eastern US: how much more quickly it cleared the tower and rose atop its lengthening column of fire and smoke than the Saturn Vs I had so often watched on launch days a decade earlier! (Nowadays, of course, having seen so many STS launches since- whether live or as video on the evening news- so that the way the Shuttle leaves the pad is what now seems to be "normal", the Saturn V seems to have been so lumbering and dinosaur-like in comparison when I watch one of its long-ago launches on videotape; however, back when there was only this one Space Shuttle launch- when the Saturn V launching was what still constituted "normal" in my own mind, it was the STS launch system that looked the gazelle in comparison). The first four Shuttle missions were "digestible"- none were more than a week long- and, in the way they put Columbia through its paces, were very reminiscent of the Mercury and Gemini programs in many ways. Even STS-5 (the first to deploy a satellite) and STS-6 (the first flight of Challenger) remained interesting to me; a little over a month after STS-6 had touched down at California's Edwards Air Force Base in April 1983, I made my first and (so far) only visit to the Kennedy Space Center at Florida's Cape Canaveral: a month later, STS-7 was to lift off with the first American woman in space- Sally Ride- from a launch pad within which I had so recently only been spitting distance.
But, soon enough, the "Skylab factor" began to take over again: while there were a few interesting "firsts" (Bruce McCandless- who I always remembered as one of the 'CapCom's [Capsule Communicator- the guy on the ground talking with the crew during a mission] during Apollo days- spacewalking with a powered "backpack" in February 1984 and Dale Gardner using the "backpack", nine months later, to actually retrieve a satellite in need of repair), the Space Shuttle Program began to settle somewhere on the road between Ennui and Dullsville for the average American. We were being sold that spaceflight was now more or less routine- and we Americans thereby took it to be routine, treating the Space Shuttle with all the due affection we were reserving for our microwave ovens or digital clock-radios, especially once NASA began lobbing politicians serving on key Congressional committees overseeing spaceflight into the void beyond Earth's atmosphere. I recall that, while waiting for the launch of the Shuttle mission that carried then-Congressman (now Florida Senator) Ben Nelson into space (what was destined to be the last mission before the Challenger disaster) in January 1986, I tried to name- from memory- the crews of all the American space missions so far: I could name all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo lunar astronauts; I could name the Skylab crews (except that I forgot one of those on the third Skylab mission- "Pogue, Rich... Pogue!"), those who flew ASTP (Russian as well as American) and the first four Shuttle missions but that, as I got into the missions from STS-5 on, my "crew manifest of the mind" became less and less complete and most of the names I did recall did not produce a face to match. American astronauts were becoming more and more obscure... was this a good thing or a bad thing?... then came Tuesday 28 January 1986...
Many Americans have forgotten that the last launch of Challenger was not even shown live on network TV in the USA (the 11:38 AM Eastern Time launch would have put a crimp in their daytime game show lineup, I suppose); I dare say that more schoolchildren were seeing the launch live via the "Teacher in Space" program that had Christa McAuliffe on board than adults at home... but we would all see that particular launch and its sad aftermath over and over again on our TVs soon enough! Many of us would hold our breath on 29 September 1988 while watching the launch of STS-26 that resumed the Space Shuttle Program, the words "Go at throttle-up" (the very last heard during the previous launch nearly three years earlier) causing something of a lump in my own throat until the Space Shuttle Discovery was safely placed into orbit. Again, as in the pre-Challenger disaster days of the Shuttle Program, there were some moments of interest as we headed into the 1990s (the maiden flight of Endeavour, the Space Shuttle that ostensibly replaced the destroyed Challenger and the deployment and then the subsequent successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope [I recall watching the repair live on C-SPAN], for example; I can remember excitedly standing outside one evening in 1993 while watching the glow from the Space Shuttle's main engines just before Main Engine Cutoff as it came up the East Coast of the US [the orbital inclination was 39 degrees but, with my location being just south of 41 degrees North Latitude, the shuttle was high enough above my horizon for it to be clearly visible to my southeast]) but the Space Shuttle Program, for the most part, soon once again settled into dull routine for the average American. After all, while there had been 24 Shuttle flights in the nearly five years prior to the Challenger disaster, there had been nearly 90 Shuttle flights in the nearly 14 1/2 years after Space Shuttle flights were resumed; manned spaceflight once again seemed all too routine...
... until the morning of Saturday 1 February 2003.