Today is the launch of the final mission of any of the space shuttles.
The first test launches occurred when I was in high school. I loved space and space science. I always dreamed of being the first computer programmer to live on the moon – someone would have to keep those things running. I attended a 2-week summer “camp” that was space themed at Texas A&M, Galveston in high school. I wanted to return the following year, but was too old having just graduated, so instead I was an intern on the same program I’d attended the year before.
June Scobee was the head of the program and I loved working with her. She happened to be married to an astronaut, so we got a lot of great access to things going on at NASA JSC. I had talks with June about her husband and her son (an air force pilot at the time). At the end of that program I helped June move stuff back to her place and met her husband Dick, and shared an iced tea with him on his back porch: casual, friendly, Houston warm.
I was almost always aware of when there was a shuttle launch. In the early years of the program it would still be mentioned on the lead-up, and interrupt most television for the launch. But six months later, in January of 1986, I was returning from a test a bit before noon. This was a time before mobil phones or social networks. I remember the post-test relief walking across a sunny campus back to my dorm. I exited the elevator on my floor to the area that was the TV Lounge.
It took all of 10 seconds before “it blew up, the space shuttle blew up”. Initially, I though he was confused. Then I thought maybe it was a launch pad fire. I tried to get him to explain it; all he could say was “it blew up”. I sat. The sinking feeling was deep, waiting for the news people to figure out what they knew. The tone of their voices told me it was bad. Then I back-calculated the launches and remembered this was Dick’s launch. The sinking feeling got deeper.
Then the replays. It was bad. I sat there for hours. I felt guilty for having forgotten when the launch date was. Even looking at the smoke plume, it was surprising for them to finally determine the outcome. It took a while. I was glad the test was taken and no others on the schedule for a while. I was surprised how much it effected me emotionally.
Four and a half years later I graduated and started working at NASA. I was working in a department that was responsible for technology transfer to the general public. I was the main programmer on a software-based training project. It was for all SPACEHAB missions. After 2 1/2 years at CSC working for NASA, I left for something else that enticed me more. The first SPACEHAB mission launched the year after I left. A later one actually loaded the training (which included a simulator within it) on a laptop and took it with them. My code has flown in space.
When I lived in Webster (near NASA), my roommate John D was an aerospace engineer, and a fluid flow specialist. One task he had was to watch the launches from every single angle it was videoed from. The local cable had a channel that did this, it took several hours to show them all. He usually would watch it at home. A few times I sat with him while he watched and he would describe to me what we were seeing. What was expected. What caused it. What was anomalous. What was problematic. It was interesting.
Once in the early 90’s the shuttle landed in California and had to be piggybacked to Florida. The 747 carrying it did a fly-by of JSC, we all went outside to see it. It stayed the night at Ellington field, everyone visited. We did too of course.
In a few weeks there will never again be a shuttle in space. It’s been an Era, and I’ve lived through it all.