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Geek Speak column
[Published in the Key West Citizen Locals Guide on October 29, 2010.]
It was a sunny and cold Tuesday morning in late January as I looked north out of my South Florida office window, and something was cruelly wrong. It was 1986, barely 16 months since I had moved on from my life in Cape Canaveral and my job working on Space Shuttle launch systems. That morning Space Shuttle Challenger, after six postponements, had finally lifted off the pad. It carried a diverse crew, including a Japanese American military man from Hawaii, an African American Karate black-belt from South Carolina and MIT, a female classical pianist and Engineer from Akron, and a civilian woman who had been selected to be the first “teacher in space”. Tragically, she would not reach it.
Even from so far south, on a clear day you could watch the blaze of a launching Shuttle as it shot spaceward from the Cape. But this one was different – the solid rocket booster contrails took a crazy path. The others in the room, who had not witnessed a dozen launches from close-up as I had, didn’t realize there was a problem. But I knew something was wrong. I ran down the hall to a friend’s office that had a small TV (pre-Internet days). There I got the sickening news: 73 seconds into the flight, Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.
Challenger had launched five times during my recent (at the time) tenure working on Shuttle launch systems at Kennedy Space Center. On top of the human tragedy, this punched a big hole in my sails. Something I had worked so hard on was gone.
Flash forward 17 years and almost 100 Shuttle missions later, to another chilly day, February 1, 2003. By this point the Shuttle was almost taken for granted and missions seemed to be routine. Space Shuttle Columbia – the first one to have launched into space – was returning from its 28th mission. Even after all these missions I still tried to catch the launches and landings on TV, and this was no exception. Like Challenger, I could immediately tell that something was wrong when I saw the constellation of objects being tracked by the news relays of the government telescopic cameras. My heart sunk as I realized that Space Shuttle Columbia and seven brave astronauts would only return to Earth as shooting stars.
Columbia had been the first Shuttle to launch into space. I worked on it for six of the dozen missions I’d been involved with. Even though it was around 20 years since that era, this too opened another void for me. Now the Shuttles that had flown into space the first 11 times were gone. Of those I’d worked on, only Discovery (from my twelfth and last mission) continued to fly.
With the losses of Challenger and Columbia, Discovery has been the workhorse of the Shuttle fleet. It’s now flown 38 missions over the last 26 years, more than any other Shuttle. But that will all end this November, when Discovery will fly its last mission. At press time it’s scheduled to go up on the 1st and fly for about 11 days, most of which it will be docked to the International Space Station. This is the 35th Shuttle trip to the Station.
If you’re reading this during the Locals Guide’s first weekend, or if the flight has been delayed, you can still get to the Space Center area to watch the launch. Because the following launch (of Endeavour) is scheduled to be the final launch of the Shuttle Program, you will probably have better luck finding a good viewing spot this time. (Note that there might also end up being another Atlantis launch after Endeavour if funding is allocated.) This launch is still very significant, being the final launch of the oldest surviving Shuttle, and it had the most missions. If you’ve never been to the area for a launch, this could be a good time to drive up.
If you go the best unobstructed public viewing areas are on the NASA causeway (requires tickets) and along the Intracoastal in Titusville. Further away but also a pretty good view is on the Beachline causeway (Highway 528) to the south. Here’s a good reference:
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