posted 02-01-2013 08:02 AM
Having already seen launches of Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, I finally got to see space shuttle Columbia launch. I was living too far away when Challenger was flying and never got to see her. So the launch of STS-107 Columbia completed the checklist. It was the 7th shuttle launch I saw at Kennedy Space Center. There would eventually be 20 more. I've been asked many times, "What's it like?" What's it like, you ask? Okay, let's talk. I'm always accommodating because I realize that what people are asking about is something they never saw, and now never will. After explaining what it was like to watch people being launched into space literally right in front of you, and even after showing photos and videos, I end with, "But if you've never saw it in person, I really can't explain it to you." And that's the honest truth. It really is.
10 years ago...
It had been 16 days since I saw Columbia launch. And now she was coming home. I had never seen a shuttle landing. They're more unpredictable than a launch as they have multiple times and days in which to land. I tried twice but both landings were delayed to later days and I was unable to return. Columbia would be my third attempt. Now that I had seen all active shuttles launch, I was going to try and see each one land, and Columbia seemed like a good start. Another thing about a landing was that even if you knew for sure one was going to land, NASA could change the approach direction to the landing facility in such a short time that you wouldn't have time to travel to the oppposite area to get a decent view. And about the view - unless you were invited to the landing facility itself, (rarer than a VIP launch ticket) the best view you could get was watching the shuttle fly in and disappear behind distant trees before she actually touched down. If viewed from the north, the best view was going to be about 12 miles away in Titusville. And though those landings did occur, thankfully, most landings were scheduled to come in from the south, as was this one.
I arrived at Kennedy Space Center the day before on January 31. I spent a great afternoon on the Cape Canaveral Then & Now Tour. This tour is still operating at KSC. It takes you through the old areas of Canaveral where the Mercury, Gemini and the first manned Apollo launches took place. After the tour I picked the brains of a couple of KSC employees about the next day's landing... The best viewing spot - When to listen for the sonic booms - From what direction the shuttle would approach - How fast it would speed by. Both employees had been there for landings before and knew their stuff. So, the next morning while everyone else would be inside the crowded visitor complex, I would be in the parking lot. No people. No trees or buildings to obstruct the view. I knew from which way Columbia would approach, and she was going to fly directly in front of me, right to left.
I got up early that Saturday morning, February 1st. There would be tons of traffic going to KSC. When I arrived I found a parking place I thought was suitable for watching Columbia, far out enough to see her well, but close enough as not to have to walk too far to the visitor complex. Inside the complex at the rear was what I called the Mission Control Tent. It was a domed one room area where you could learn about and stay up to date on the present mission. (I may be mistaken, but after looking at KSC's new map it may have been done away with to make room for the Atlantis display opening this year.) When I went inside I learned Columbia was still scheduled to land from the south at KSC at 9:16am, but hung around just in case NASA decided to re-route to the northern approach. I kept my fingers crossed. Time went by and 8:55am rolled around. Columbia was still on schedule, so I left and quickly proceeded through the crowds and back out to my car.
When I got there I saw a few others who had apparently found out that the parking lot was the best viewing spot, not many though. I had with me my cheap little camera as well as my video camera. I decided to video tape instead of taking photos. But with about five minutes left I recruited two nearby ladies to take pictures with my camera while I video taped the homecoming. The day before, the employees had told me that you can't see the shuttle before you hear the sonic booms, so I had my video rolling in order to catch the booms on the audio during her approach from the south. The two ladies and I chatted briefly while waiting.
9:13am. Sonic booms anytime now!
9:14am. Anytime now!
9:15am. Mmm. Had they changed course to the north? I still would have heard the sonic booms.
9:16am. ?? Was my watch off a little? What's going on?
9:17am. ?? Still...nothing. The ladies I was with didn't know any specifics about shuttles, and I explained that since the de-orbit burn had occurred, it would have to land somewhere.
9:18am. Oh, my God...
9:19am. Oh, my God. Something is wrong. Something is definitely wrong.
We were closer to the ladies' car and I asked one of them to turn on the radio. My mind raced. Maybe Columbia somehow had landed on an interstate or some other flat surface, I thought. Or maybe she was low enough in altitude that the crew had safely ejected. All I knew is that she was not at Kennedy. One of the ladies found a good radio station: "No word from Columbia since about 9:00am." I looked up at the sky. My heart sank. Within a few minutes I heard the word 'contingency' and all those memories of Challenger came rushing in. We listened in disbelief as the horrible truth emerged.
Oh, no. They're gone. They're gone.
Those families are waiting at the runway.
No. No, not again.
After a few minutes, more news came in from Texas from eyewitneses who saw the breakup. I couldn't believe it. A few minutes later I turned the video camera off and made the slow walk back into the complex. I've been there well over 100 times for various events and launches over 20 years. That day is one that will stick in my mind like no other. It was very surreal and so sad. So very sad. Like a bad dream from which you cannot wake up. But this was real. The sadness. I could actually feel it. Some people were very upset and crying, consoling one another. Others were walking around alone in disbelief like zombies, just walking quietly with blank stares. Some sat motionless staring at the ground. Others would catch my eye with a look of complete shock. Older children, some crying, seemed scared and confused, while younger ones, not able to really understand what had happened, were playing and laughing. I can never forget that laughter, echoing through all of that pure sadness. I'll never forget that.
I had planned to travel the three hours back home after the landing, but ended up staying there all day, just walking around, speaking with a few people and attending a memorial service at the Astronaut Memorial Space Mirror. The news was all over the radio during my drive back home that late afternoon. About an hour into the drive and listening to the news it finally all sank in. The realization. Those poor families. The sadness. Those faces. The children's laughter. Thank God I was finally able to cry.