Nothing like it had ever flown before.
It was a winged spaceship the size of a jetliner.
It stood on end on a rocket’s launch pad strapped to two towering solid rocket boosters and a huge tank filled with more than 500,000 gallons of super-cold fuels. Those engineers who should know about such things said it would blast off like a rocket, perform all kinds of useful maneuvers in space, and return to land on an airport runway.
While I was in and out of town on other assignments, NASA engineers spent five years solving the problems that beset the revolutionary spaceship. The high-tech machine was called the Space Shuttle, and it was pushing the technological envelope with main engines and booster rockets and fragile thermal tiles and reinforced carbon-carbon panels needed to protect it and its crew through the volcanic heat of reentry.
Slowly the problems were overcome, and NASA set about its job of building four of these revolutionary fliers. The agency named them after historic sailing ships: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis.
Columbia was the first rolled out, and the media horde returned, settling on the press site only three miles from the Shuttle’s launch pad. Most major news organization, as did NBC, had their own building on the six-acre mound along with trailers, television trucks, bleachers, high viewing stands, camera mounts, and a blizzard of antennas.
My friend Dixon Gannett had the latest in RV comfort and we managed to outfox security. We parked his recreational vehicle on the press site near the NBC building. When the security guards weren’t looking, we enjoyed “not permitted on federal property” libations. Our on-air performance was noticeably improved.
Speaking about not permitted, all accredited members of the media had the freedom of driving through the security gate directly to the press site, where we were to remain with a couple of exceptions. We had the freedom of moving about the press mound and permission to drive to the nearby cafeteria, but nowhere else. Anyone caught elsewhere on the federal complex would be jailed. Some out-of-town coworkers had to test it. They felt the urge to leave the mound for a close-up look at an Apollo Saturn Vrocket display. They were having a good time crawling all over the huge moon rocket when they were arrested. They were thrown behind bars and, crying for help, they called our executive producer, Joe Angotti.
Now Joe is definitely a great newsperson and a great boss. He’s also definitely a gentleman. But he’s just a little bit stupid. “I’ll come over and get you out,” he said, and proceeded to drive to the rescue of his crew. Joe had forgotten one minor detail: He wasn’t permitted to leave the press mound either. He introduced himself to the gendarmes, and they in turn introduced him to their jail.
Sitting behind bars, a light glowed. Should I call someone who would know what to do? Yep Joe, I would say that would be a good idea. We sent official NASA escorts to haul the red-faced culprits back to the permitted area about the time John Chancellor arrived.
Chancellor, anchor of NBC Nightly News, would host our launch coverage. Naturally we were all concerned about John’s well-being and comfort. Not that he demanded it; such a gentleman never would. But Chancellor deserved it. So we moved him into Dixon Gannett’s RV. It was a happy union. The largest stockholder in the Gannett newspaper chain was fully stocked with whatever he wanted, and when it came to beer, Dixon wanted Coors. Coors in those days could not be bought east of the Mississippi River because of its brewer’s discipline of constantly refrigerating his Rocky Mountain brew. Coors just happened to be John Chancellor’s favorite, and he found instant happiness in Gannett’s home on wheels. Only work forced him to leave.
Dixon Gannett and John Chancellor. Who has the Coors? (Gannett Collection).
Veteran moonwalker and NASA’s most experienced astronaut, John Young, had been assigned the command of Columbia’s maiden flight—the same John Young who’d carried a corned beef sandwich on board the first Gemini with Gus Grissom. The same John Young who would later fly twice to the moon, nearly wrecking his moon buggy in a lunar rock field. And, keeping with “the good old boy” spirit, NASA managers told the son of an east Texas roughneck to join Young for the Space Shuttle’s first launch. The rookie’s name was Robert “Crip” Crippen, and true to his east Texas roots, he drove a pickup truck with about a square foot of metal that hadn’t been dented.
NASA officials patted themselves on their decision-making backs. They knew in Crippen they had picked an outstanding test pilot, and they also knew they had selected an outstanding “Space Shuttle shakedown crew.” But on April 12, 1981, no one really thought the first Space Shuttle would lift off on only its second countdown. The machine was too complicated. Too testy, too damn many parts…over a million of them that had to work before the computers would cut the space plane loose.
The first countdown had been scrubbed two days earlier by a computer glitch. No harm; it had been expected. Launch-team members and astronauts alike were sure it was only the first of many. They even bought tickets for a cash-up-front pool on how many countdowns it would take to get the sophisticated, complicated tangle of high-tech mess into orbit.
Nevertheless, John Young and Robert Crippen sat fat and happy atop their 500,000 gallons of high explosives. They waited for the rich combustible liquid to ignite in the chambers of Columbia’s three main rocket engines. That should be a kick in the pants within itself, but the firing of the twin solid booster rockets should be something else. Talk about a kick! The power of the Saturn V moon rocket would be booting them into orbit, and I told our NBC audience, “Astronauts Young and Crippen are strapped in their ejection seats, and if there should be an emergency the two pilots could eject themselves safely away from any disaster.”
My radio colleague Steve Porter and I were broadcasting from the NBC building’s porch three miles away. We couldn’t believe the countdown was actually moving closer and closer to a liftoff.
Suddenly on board Columbia there was belief too, and Crip turned to John and said, “I think we might just do it!”
Young, the most experienced astronaut in NASA, was widely known for his sense of humor. “Did you lock your pickup?”
Then something never before seen happened. Ignition began in a swift rippling fashion, a savage fire birth as three liquid-fuel engines ignited one after the other, creating a blizzard, a swirling ice storm shaken from the flanks of the Shuttle’s fifteen-story-tall super-cold external tank, and I could not believe what I was seeing. I shouted into my microphone, “They’re going to do it. They’re going to launch.”
And when eight seconds had passed, the three main engines were up and screaming, waiting for the computers to sense all were running and ready to fly, and new flame raged. The giant solid boosters had ignited with six million pounds of thrust instantly growing into two large pillows of fire and steam. The boosters were alive, pushing against concrete, steel, and a Niagara of water flowing through the launch pad’s flame trench. Columbia was suddenly climbing from its insanity of fire—fire that was growing fiercer, then brighter, two legs of rocket thrust pounding into the Shuttle’s launch pad…determined to lift the mighty spaceship from Earth…both pillars of fire stretching longer than two football fields…shattering the quiet of Florida’s spacecoast with earsplitting thunder, thunder never before heard even from the mighty Saturn moon rockets…thunder rolling across water and earth and marsh to pound our chests, to physically move our skin and our clothes, to shake our teeth and bodies.
I looked at Steve Porter; he couldn’t seem to say anything. The all-new Space Shuttle glistened in the morning sun, muscling itself from the grip of gravity, slowly pounding its way skyward. Porter was clearly mesmerized by all the fire and thunder rising before us, so I did my best to tell our NBC audience what we were seeing, what we were hearing, as Columbia blazed its way deeper and deeper into a bright Florida sky.
Some fifty thousand had wormed their way onto the space center itself while three-quarters of a million crowded the fences, the causeways, the thickets, the beaches, anywhere they could to watch this unbelievable new space machine climb toward orbit. It was thunder that never stopped thundering, fire that never stop burning, and when two minutes had passed, Columbia kicked its towering burnt-out solid boosters to each side and sped out of our view, flying like a homesick angel into Earth orbit.
The new space plane shut its main engines down, and Young and Crippen, the gutsy fools, grinned at each other. Crippen savored the joys of weightlessness and told Mission Control, “You’re missing one fantastic sight.”
Then, the astronauts opened the clamshell-like doors covering the Shuttle’s sixty-foot-long cargo bay. The operation was critical. The inside surfaces of the doors were the Space Shuttle’s radiators, and without them the ship could stay in space only hours. Equally important, the doors had to be closed tightly during reentry. Otherwise, the Shuttle would go out of control and tear itself apart.
But mission planners weren’t having any of that. No troubles, thank you. They were keeping this first flight short—only fifty-four hours. They wanted safety margins as wide as possible. Young and Crippen spent the next two days shaking down Columbia’s systems and then headed to the wide-open dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The astronauts wanted all the room they could possibly use for the first Space Shuttle landing.
While flying backward, Young had fired the Shuttle’s twin maneuvering rockets over the Indian Ocean. The braking thrust slowed Columbia’s orbital speed. The new spaceship’s reinforced carbon-carbon wing panels and fragile thermal protection tiles handled the three-thousand-degree fires of reentry. The two fliers glided their new space plane to a perfect touchdown on California’s high Mojave Desert. There, more than 200,000 space fans riding all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, sport-utility vehicles, and RVs chased Columbia across the hard desert.
“Welcome home, Columbia,” Mission Control radioed. “Just beautiful, beautiful.”
Seven months to the day after the first Space Shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral, Columbia became the first spaceship to return to orbit. At the controls was a pair of space rookies: Joe Engle, who had been bumped from his ride to the moon on Apollo 17 to make room for scientist Jack Schmitt, and Richard Truly, a learned gentleman who would later become the boss of NASA. They were followed by shuttle crews sending spinning satellites out of Columbia’s cargo bay and by premiere spacewalker Dr. Story Musgrave. Musgrave opened the space repair business by testing new spacesuits and tools, every tool you could imagine that would be needed in weightless orbit.
Columbia put America into the space transportation business and the next Space Shuttle, Challenger, stepped to the plate and made its debut two years later. It carried the $135 million tracking and data relay satellite (TDRS) into orbit, and then NASA officials turned their attention to a thorn in the agency’s side since its birth: female astronauts.
A female cosmonaut was one of Russia’s first space fliers.
In 1978 and 1979, NASA selected eight qualified women and began their training. After sending eighty-two men into space in twenty-two years, the United States finally was ready to launch a woman. Her name was Sally Ride, and on June 18, 1983, as the Space Shuttle Challenger thundered from its pad, my colleague Steve Porter was shouting into his mike, “Ride Sally Ride.”
Ride did her job exceptionally well, reporting, “It’s the most fun I ever had in my life,” and proved women were just as adaptable to space-flight as were men, and in some cases better. Two months after Sally opened the space door to women, another door was opened. America’s first black astronaut, electrophoresis engineer Guion Bluford, Jr., flew aboard Challenger.
Astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, talks with Mission Control. (NASA).
Shuttle flights were happening so fast and successfully that a smiling NASA was realizing its dream of routine access to Earth orbit. There were problems, however. Computers did terrible, unpredictable things by halting countdowns, shutting down main engines after they had ignited, and, as computers can, just being shits. Of course, there were also the nit-picking mechanical problems, and the weather—always the stinking Florida weather halting one launch attempt after another and diverting landings to Mojave’s high and dry desert lake bed.
But America’s Space Shuttles flew and flew, and their crews delivered satellites and brought some back for repair. Astronomy astronauts gazed at the heavens while other astronauts tested space-station assembly techniques, conducted extensive medical research, and when no one was looking, dropped off secret spy stuff for the military.
Missions were coming and going so fast the media and a large percentage of the public were becoming bored. After all, Space Shuttles were only circling Earth. Many Americans had been rocked to sleep with NASA’s “can do” attitude and safety record. Forget about the fact space flight could be a killer.
The public at large believed the winged spaceships were as reliable as a passenger jet. The fact U.S. Senator Jake Garn was permitted to go into orbit didn’t help discredit that fantasy. As chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversaw NASA’s budget, the senator joked in a meaningful tone that he would not vote for the space agency’s budget if he didn’t get a shuttle ride. When NASA finally said okay, critics accused Garn of using his political clout to make the ultimate congressional junket. But the former navy pilot brushed off the carping and, after four months of training, he rode the shuttle Discovery into orbit on April 12, 1985—four years to the day after Columbia’s maiden launch.
To make himself useful on the journey, Garn volunteered to be a medical guinea pig. NASA needed to better understand space motion sickness. More than half of Shuttle fliers were experiencing the malady. Well, by crackey, Jake Garn turned out to be a perfect subject. It seems, because he’d used his senatorial clout to get his ride, the good senator’s proper meds to reduce space nausea were somehow misplaced. His crewmates returned to Earth hysterical with laughter. They told me Garn was sick the whole flight and, when he appeared just once before the television camera to speak to the voters back home, he was held upright and steady and stuck to Discovery’s cabin wall by Velcro. Since that day, Shuttles fly with the “Memorial Jake Garn Wall” for all those who need a barf bag, and sick astronaut upchucks are measured in one, two, or three Garns.
One might think flying nonessential astronauts in space would have ended there.
Well, it didn’t. NASA now had a congressional problem of its own making. The agency felt it simply could not fly the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversaw its budget without inviting his counterpart in the House of Representatives. Congressman Bill Nelson didn’t ask to go. The gentleman of our capital city would never impose on anyone, but when NASA insisted, he climbed aboard the shuttle Columbia and was given the proper meds. Nelson made it through his flight without once turning green.
And as the old saying goes, when it comes to climbing on the bandwagon, going all out to get what you want, we are all prostitutes. For years we reporters had been told the first citizen in space would be a journalist, and I found it easy to imagine myself an astronaut only temporarily earthbound. I had visions of broadcasting every second of the thundering and rattling ride into orbit no matter how scared out of my wits I was, but President Ronald Reagan was on the prowl for votes he didn’t need. His 1984 reelection campaign went after the large National Teachers’ Union with the promise “a teacher will be the first citizen in space.”
The people voted, and Reagan swept the country and kept his promise. No one could disagree. The teachers’ choice, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, was simply perfect. She was a thirty-seven-year-old social sciences teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, who planned her assignments with all the enthusiasm of a senior going to her prom with permission to stay out all night. Smart and sharp, she won her ride into orbit over eleven thousand other applicants, and we reporters heaped on the deserving praise while the program to select one of us among 1,769 applications moved ahead.
The application to participate in the Journalist in Space Project was itself a trap. It was managed by the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, and it was very specific and discouragingly long. It was filled with demanding essays and structured questions, and the impatient simply tossed it into the nearest waste can.
The selection committee wanted to weed out the “never finish anything you start” bunch from the opening bell. More traps came not only with the requirement of precise answers and essays, but with requests for references qualified to judge your work. The selection committee was not impressed with whom you knew, but with those references who had the expertise to judge your talents. While others put down governors, senators, astronauts, and movie stars, I gave the committee Dixon Gannett, John Chancellor, and Martin Caidin as references—each established and respected in my field. When the 1,769 were whittled down to national semifinalists, I was most pleased to learn I was among them.
As it’s been said, good news comes in bunches. The next morning the mailman brought me a higher-paying contract with NBC News, and wife Jo called the carpenter and had double doors put on the front of the house. She explained we needed the extra width to get my head through. Then she announced loudly, “Come summer, I will be leaving my job.” She reasoned that if her worthless spouse was finally earning enough to feed his family, there was little reason for her to stand on her feet most of the day punching dollars into complaining customers’ bank accounts.
Congressman Bill Nelson’s flight was the twenty-fourth for the Space Shuttle.
Christa McAuliffe’s launch was to be the twenty-fifth.
Challenger was rolled to its launch pad.
A bitter cold wave was rolling, too!