The 25th Anniversary of the First Shuttle Launch

Early in 1981, my dad presented me with a potentially incredible birthday gift: a trip to Florida to see the very first space shuttle launch. I say “potentially” because the shuttle program had been through many, many delays as problem after problem cropped up with what was often referred to as “the most complex machine ever made.”

Dad said we could go to Florida for a week, staying at Disneyworld, and driving over to the Cape for the actual launch. He left it up to me. Which week? When did I think they’d actually launch? I stared at the calendar. I thought about all the “another two week delay” stories in the news. At that point, in January, they were planning to fly right around my birthday, March 21. I assumed one more big delay, and chose April 7th through the 13th.

Earlier than I’d hoped, I think in February, the next big delay was announced… and now they were going right in the middle of our visit, on April 10th! But I was worried. Now over a month had to pass without another major problem cropping up. Nothing did.

Disneyworld itself didn’t hold much interest for a high school sophomore or a middle-aged man. The surrounding resort was more fun. I spent most of my time on a jet-ski and Dad golfed.

Mid afternoon on April 9, I was back in the room and watching TV. People were already arriving in Cocoa Beach to watch the launch (this is the place where spectators have gone since the beginning of America’s space program to watch rockets fly into space.) We hopped in the rental car and took off for the coast, hoping to find a good spot.

Cocoa Beach was a circus. Cars and RV’s took up every inch of beach and the local vendors were out in force with soda, hot dogs, and souvenirs. We found a good spot in the second row of cars on the beach and settled in.

And as night fell, there it was, in the distance. The most powerful rocket of its day. Lit up by rows and rows of floodlights. A beacon. A flare of light that, to me back then, held my hopes for the future. Even at that distance I could make out the shape of the shuttle stack.

We slept in the car, with the radio down low, just incase there were any announcements. All night long, the station played “Rocket Man” by Elton John and “Major Tom” by David Bowie. Over and over. And over. We could hear the same music drifting from every car, every RV around us, echoing off into the distance, only the music, and the waves on the beach, in the darkness, the only real light coming from the floodlights surrounding the shuttle in the distance.

Dawn, April 10. The people in a nearby RV had a live NASA feed, blaring distortedly from a small radio. “At this time the crew is in transit to the launch vehicle.” “At this time the crew is entering the launch vehicle.” “The shuttle door has been sealed for flight.”

The sun was rising in the sky and it was a beautiful, warm day. Through the zoom in my little super-8 film camera I could see clouds of steam wafting off the shuttle as excess fuel evaporated into the air. Up and down the beach, anticipation was growing.

For shuttle flights, the countdown doesn’t happen in “real time.” That is, there are built-in holds to the count. One happens at T-30 minutes, another at T-9 minutes. At those points, the engineers prepping for launch have a little time to make sure all the systems are running properly. When the clock started running again after the T-30 hold, that’s when I started getting excited.

Then we got to the T-9 minute hold. And there was a problem with the most complex machine ever created.

The shuttle depends heavily on computers to run almost every system. Computer control is doubly important during launch, when thousands of sensors monitor the myriad fuel lines, turbo pumps, and rocket engines, watching for problems, fine-tuning performance. The computers can fix a small problem or shut off the engines far faster than any human could. They’re important. You get the idea.

So the designers installed a set of four identical computers to control liftoff. That way, any three could fail during flight and the shuttle would still be okay. A backup of a backup of a backup. Plus, there was a fifth computer, to backup the backups.

But during the T-9 minute hold that morning, the computers weren’t talking to each other, at least not as expected. The four main computers have to produce the exact same results, at the exact same time, or the shuttle won’t launch. The fifth computer has to be online to support them, or the shuttle won’t launch.

The fifth computer was being late with its responses. By 40 milliseconds. That’s 40/1,000,000ths of a second. But that was enough. We were still holding at T-9 minutes. Half a million people, up and down the beach, were holding at T-9 minutes.

Now the sun was high overhead. BBQ’s were starting to spring up as people relaxed from the nervous rush of the morning, when the time to launch tended to descend, to now, when the time to launch tended to get further away.

Finally, over the radio, they gave the official word that the launch was scrubbed for today. The massive external fuel tank would be emptied, and the computer guys would loosen their ties, roll up their sleeves, and try to figure out what went wrong. The earliest they’d launch would be Sunday, the 12th.

Dad and I drove back in silence, enjoying the first non-John/Bowie music we’d heard in a day. Was this it? Had I missed the mark? “Sunday.” Yeah, right. They were going to delay for another week or two. We’d be long gone. I went to Florida. I stood on Cocoa Beach. I watched and heard them getting ready. Nine minutes to go. And that’s it. On the seat beside me was a T-shirt that said, “I was there! First shuttle flight, April 10, 1981.”

Back at the hotel, I continued reading a hastily published sci-fi book about the space shuttle fleet saving Earth from an alien invasion. It took place in 1988.

Then, happy news: All the computers were talking! They were really going to try again for April 12! Dad took a little convincing to go back out and spend another night sleeping in the car. I was a pretty good whiner back then. So on April 11, the next day, we were back at the beach.

The crowd was a little thinner, the vendors less common. But there was a sense that we 400,000 were the diehards, the ones who were going to actually see this historic event, no matter what.

Floodlights. Rocket Man. Major Tom. Just as before.

Morning, and another nearby RV with the NASA feed. Only this time, they had it coming out of a big speaker, so it wasn’t all distorted. Do all RVers have the ability to listen to live NASA feeds?

The T-30 hold comes and goes. The T-9 hold comes… and goes! We’re in uncharted territory now!

The crowd was on the beach, as close as possible, some with their feet in the water. I was on the sand with my little movie camera ready to go.

We heard the people in mission control confirming that everything was GO for launch.

About 10 seconds before launch, the main engines fired. A huge, fast-moving cloud of smoke billowed out from one side of the shuttle.

At T-0, the solid rockets were lit. An even larger cloud of smoke billowed out from the other side of the shuttle. And it rose. It rose on a column of fire that was red and orange and brighter than the sun. It was a color I’ve never seen before or since.

400,000 people cheered, and for a minute, that was the loudest sound. Then the shock wave from the launch hit us. Lots of people, especially near the water, actually fell over from the blast. We were miles away from the actual launch, and yet the power of it pushed people over. We all cheered even louder!

At last, after two minutes, the shuttle and its column of fire were out of sight. We’d seen it. The next big step in Human spaceflight.

Dad and I joined the mass of cars leaving Cocoa Beach via the only one-lane highway out of town. After a while, we were in light traffic heading back to Disneyworld. It rained for a little while, then cleared. That night on the news, we saw what the launch looked like up close, from the cameras on the pad. Amazing, but the cameras just didn’t capture that orange flame color, that color that only Humans have made.

So here we are on the 25th anniversary of the first launch of a space shuttle. Things certainly didn’t turn out like I expected.

I didn’t know it then, but the shuttle was the result of a series of crippling bureaucratic compromises. The original design, from the late 60’s, did not use solid rocket boosters or heat-resistant tiles, two of the systems that, by and large, have claimed 14 lives. The original shuttle was meant to be a “truck,” used to construct a massive space station.

In the late 60’s, NASA assumed that they could continue to get Apollo-level funding for a shuttle and space station. But the public was already tired of the ho-hum ultimate Human achievement of going to the Moon. No way were they going to pay for a mere space station.

So cut after cut, compromise after compromise led to the space station becoming Skylab, and the shuttle becoming… what? A spaceship with no mission, outside of “the thing that currently lets U.S. astronauts go into space.”

On the one hand, it’s a very expensive, very dangerous ship with many inherent design flaws. On the other hand, it’s amazing that it works as often as it does. It gave us the Hubble, and it’s finally given us at least a small space station. But the cost is like using a giant dump truck to deliver a bucket of sand.

There is promise for the future. The shuttle fleet is scheduled for retirement in 2010. The various replacement spaceships being designed right now harken back to a more Apollo-like approach, with proven emergency crew escape methods and solid heat shields. These new ships are designed to ferry crews to the space station, and to eventually return us to the Moon. Will that happen? It’s hard to say. The U.S. tends to coast unless there is some perceived competition. China says they want to go to the Moon. When that possibility becomes more real to the average person, there may be the willpower to build a new Moon rocket. Until then, saddled by low budgets and plagued by Bush appointees, NASA will merely…continue.

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