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Tue, Apr 12, 2011

STS-1… I SAW IT! Part 3 Of A Series

Go Baby GO!!

Special To ANN By Wes Oleszewski

The night before the second launch attempt we got a later start out of Daytona than we had the first time. We stopped and ate and this time we were all armed with sleeping bags. Just as we had planned Friday morning, almost everyone parked where they had been for the scrub. This time, however, some of us crawled into our sleeping bags and grabbed a few hours of sleep. I have to admit that I kept waking up, looking at the shuttle in the spotlights and then covering back up thinking "Wow."

As dawn broke folks began milling around again. This time there as a different feeling in the air- I had a sense that the shuttle was gonna go for sure. A few hucksters were walking up and down the crowd, as they had done on the day of the scrub, trying to sell assorted souvenirs. One guy had a simple white bumper-sticker that had a rough shuttle image on it and the words "I SAW IT." Someone, I believe it may have been Jennings shouted to him "What if it blows up?" Without missing a beat the huckster reached into his pocket and pulled out a large black marker. He pointed to an open space on the right hand corner of the bumper-sticker and he said "Then you take this marker and over here you write BLOW UP." He was apparently a huckster with the Right Stuff.

Our friend with the mobile Space Shuttle flight following station in the trunk of his car had taken his place right next to us again. Just like on scrub day, I had remembered to bring along my tape recorder. I'd been taping launch broadcasts from the TV since I was 13 years old and I got Apollo 14, so I wanted to get this one. I asked our pal with the battery powered TV if I could place my tape recorder next to his TV at launch time and pick up some of the broadcast. He happily agreed and we all waited as the countdown passed every milestone that it had stumbled upon during the first attempt. No one knew what to expect- in fact, the damned thing just might blow up.

We saw nothing but a silhouette of the shuttle and pad 39A as the sun came up. It was a bit hazy and so our view remained that of a silhouette while the count ticked down. Like expectant parents we paced a bit and alternated between looking at the pad in the distance and focusing on the little TV set. I kept running through my mind the fact that this was indeed history that could be considered on the scale of witnessing Freedom 7, or Friendship 7, or Gemini 3, or Apollo 8 or perhaps even Apollo 11. Countless space firsts were about to take place right in front of our eyes. I just had to hope that I did not forget to turn on my tape recorder.

As the countdown hit the two minute mark I hit the record button and set the tape recorder down next to the TV. Oddly, about that same time no one was looking at the TV set, every eye that had a view of the pad was focused toward the silhouette of the shuttle backed by the amber sky. Everything seemed to get quite still.

At main engine start we saw the silhouette of the steam billowing from the engines working against the sound suppression water. Three seconds later the solids lit and we saw what looked like a second sunrise. Then the STS-1 stood up on two stilts of flame as bright as the sun. Everyone was screaming "GO!... Go Baby GO!... GO!" I heard myself screaming it and I heard it echoing up and down the riverbank. What I did not hear, was the shuttle. Then I remembered something I read in Mike Collin's book "Carrying the Fire." When he described watching the first Saturn V, Apollo 4, launch he said that about the time he said to himself "you can't hear it." the sound hit him. And just as I had that thought, the sound hit us.

Although there were certainly a few Saturn V veterans present, most folks who were there to witness STS-1 had never experienced anything like the shuttle. It reached out and took hold of you and shook the ground under our feet. My tape recorder picked up the sound of the items in the trunk of the car rattling. The only thing louder was the sound of the shouts, screams, squeals and rebel yells coming from the crowd. People were jumping up and down and punching their fists into the air as STS-1 ripped into the sky. You really had to work to hear any of the calls coming from mission control. The whole thing kept going for over two minutes and then we heard the "Go for SRB sep." call. It was then that everything seemed to grow comparatively quiet with just a smattering of "Hoots" and "Whoooos". A few seconds later at SRB separation we saw the translucent white plume and then saw the two solids dropping away. At that moment a spontaneous cheer went up followed by a rolling applause produced by the half million or so people who now lined the riverbank as far as the eye could see. It was as if the home team had made a fantastically great play in front of a sellout crowd. It was sudden and it was contagious- I found myself clapping as if someone in NASA could actually hear me. That applause was actually captured on my tape.

Following SRB separation we turned our attention to the tiny TV set, watching and listening as STS-1 headed for its target in orbit. In the distance out over the Atlantic the vehicle looked like a very bright star hanging in the sky. As the boost continued we had the illusion that the vehicle was actually heading downward toward the horizon- because that was what it was actually doing. Soon the star simply faded into a pinpoint. A glance at the TV and then a look back toward the sky found the shuttle lost to the eye. At Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) everyone seemed to snap back to reality. There was pure joy in the crowd and you heard a lot of "Man! Did you see that?" as if someone could have missed it. We patted one another on the back, smiled and felt great, even though we had done nothing more than be there and watch. One fellow coined it all when he grinned widely and said "Gee… I wish they had another one."

Even the ride home was conducted as a festive traffic jamb. People were filled with pride and in our car the clogged roadway simply gave us more time to chatter about the launch. I got back to Kmart in time to start my Sunday shift on schedule. Over in the appliance department a small crowd had gathered around the TV sets. One of guys working in that department had thought ahead and set one of the VCRs to record the launch which was playing over and over again as customers stood and watched- over and over again.

On that Sunday the folks that I worked with all heard that I had been there and the guys in the appliance department told their customers and pointed toward me. As I stocked my shampoo, denture cream and glycerin suppositories, dozens of people came up to me and asked "How was it?" The best I could do was to simply reply that it was indescribable and urge them to go down and see one.

Since STS-1 I've been able to witness shuttle launches from the beach, from the press site, from Embry Riddle's campus, from the grounds of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, from the Ormond Beach Bridge, from the NASA Causeway and twice from different KSC VIP sites. In all I've seen a total of 19 shuttle launches in person. I state that figure with regret as I, like most space-buffs, thought that the shuttle would go on and on and serve out the system's designed life-span of 100 missions per orbiter. I fell into the trap set by NASA itself when it decided to make shuttle missions appear commonplace. Now, the program is ending and there is no equal replacement ready to fly. I managed to take my two little girls to KSC to see the STS-125 launch. I wanted them to be able to say "I saw it" when the subject of that fantastic vehicle that launched like a rocket and flew back like an aircraft comes up in history class and the teacher tells about the days when we as a nation did amazing things that we no longer do.

On the 30th anniversary of STS-1 we have come full circle as a space fairing nation. We went from having the shuttle as a drawing board concept that teetered on the funding votes of Congress, suffered the doubts of the critics and over-ran its schedule into a launch test series that led it to become operational. On that day the skyline of KSC looked much the same as it does today. The Apollo LUT number 1 sat idle near the VAB as LC-39B was under construction. Today, the Ares I LUT sits idle near the VAB while LC-39B is being demolished. The shuttle is coming out of an era of successful operation while the Obama administration defunds its replacement which, after suffering at the hands of critics, had a single test flight and the vehicle meant to replace it teeters on Congressional funding whims and remains little more than a drawing board concept. I'm happy that my kids can say "I saw it" but I hold deep regret for future kids who will not be able to say the same.

FMI: www.nasa.gov/shuttle

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