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Sat, Apr 09, 2011

STS-1… I Saw It

What Led Up To The First Shuttle Flight

Part 1 Of A Series By Wes Oleszewski

Over the years I've encountered scores of folks who are interested in spaceflight. Yet many of them only know the Space Shuttle and many of those folks only have recall of the program post-Challenger. They were either too young to pay much attention before then, or they simply had yet to be born. For that reason I have composed this series of stories to give them my personal perspective on the first Space Shuttle mission as I witnessed it.

Being a person who sat as a pre-schooler, legs crossed, on the floor of my grandma's house and watched Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 launch and later sat, legs crossed on the hallway floor of Nelle Haley Elementary School along with all of the other students and watched Gemini 3 launch on TV, I later became a rabid space-buff. I think because of that I can offer an interesting perspective. For those of you who are of my same generation, I hope I can offer another angle to your own memories.

A good yardstick to use in measuring public interest in the space program is the news media. Prior to wide-spread cable TV, the three major networks directed most of the public's attention toward current events. After Apollo 11, people who- sadly- were born without the aviation and aerospace gene began to lose interest in the space program and that included the producers of national TV news. Those of us who were farther evolved, however, simply did our best to follow the program through any source we could find. My parents let me stay home from school to watch the televised critical events of Apollos 12, 13, 14,16, and 17 as well as Skylab 1, 2 and 4. My mom said I was learning more in those few hours than I was in school anyhow. I also tried to do my best to help those who had been born without the spaceflight gene. As a sixth grader I spent every single one of my opportunities at classroom "show-N-tell" holding a model of a Saturn V or an Apollo CSM or LEM in front of my class and explaining assorted aspects of the vehicle and program until my teacher Mrs. Rosure said "That will be enough now Wes." I never caught on to the glazed eyes of my classmates who had no idea as to what I was talking about. By the spring of 1970, my classmates would groan when it was my turn at the front of the class. They later got even with me on the dodge ball field.

Skylab was the hardest program for any space-buff to follow. In the shadow of Watergate, most of the news media had other things to cover and we were left with occasional radio reports by folks like Jay Barbree. In fact, so indifferent had the news media become about manned spaceflight that the reentry and splashdown of Skylab 4, on February 8, 1974, was the only return to earth of United States astronauts on a US spacecraft that was not covered on national television. I was left in my parent's living room frantically spinning the tuner on the TV between the three major channels and mumbling "What the…?" The media came back for the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in July of 1975. Although the coverage was pretty good, we space-buffs were struck by one single, cold fact- as far as manned spaceflight was concerned this was pretty much "it" for the next few years.

Unlike today's situation where any plans for NASA's human spaceflight efforts are quagmired in presidential disdain while the agency itself dithers leaving America's space future adrift, in 1975 when ASTP splashed down there at least was the Space Shuttle in the future. Just a year and a half after ASTP, the orbiter test-bed Enterprise was flying at Edwards AFB on the back of the 747 carrier aircraft. At first, the media did not see this as much of a story, but by August 12, 1977, when the first free flight of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) took place- at least for the moment the media came back, and so did many folks in America. The coverage began early in the morning and ABC News nearly covered the event from wheels up to wheels stop. After all, the Shuttle was new and somewhat exciting. TV rating points may be gained. For me, ALT blended both of my passions- aviation and space. The first ALT free flight took place just 16 days before I arrived at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach to begin my aviation career. Although much of America once again rapidly lost interest in the ALT flights after that first test drop, I carried my interest with me onto the Embry-Riddle campus. Suddenly I found myself among a whole crowd of people who were just as crazy about flying and space as I was. As my younger brother put it, "It's like he's finally been institutionalized."

Being that Daytona was so close to "The Cape" meant a lot of trouble for a space-nut as it easily distract from required my studies. So, I decided to put my space-nutdom on the back burner and focus on becoming a professional aviator. Still, it was not easy- in the late 70s a lot of work leading toward the shuttle was going on. The 15,000 foot long Shuttle Runway had been constructed and actually had an active tower. Unfortunately, the guys in the tower had almost nothing to do. Thus, in those days, you could call them up on the tower frequency listed on the sectional chart and request a touch-and-go. They were always more than happy to grant that request. So it was that as a student pilot on one of my dual flights I landed a Cessna 172 on the Shuttle runway. Just a couple of years later, such a thing would have been unthinkable.

On the 24th day of March, 1979 the Shuttle runway received its first orbiter as the Columbia arrived from Palmdale, California. Three of us drove down together and parked across the river to watch the 747 land with the orbiter aboard. From across the river, they looked great- like a majestic preface to the future in space. Later, on the evening news, the story appeared quite different. Of the 38,000 tiles in the vehicle's thermal protection system, only 60% had been installed and of those nearly a thousand had come off on the flight to KSC. The up-close images looked far worse than what we saw from Titusville. Two months later the Enterprise herself came to Florida and a lot of us made the pilgrimage to the Kennedy Space Center to take the bus tour and see her being test-fitted on Pad 39A. Meanwhile, along the crawlerway and over by the VAB, the number 2 and 3 Apollo launch towers as well as the mobile service structure were being cut up. Large sections of the launch towers had already been re-planted at pads 39 A and B to act as shuttle Fixed Service Structures, but the portions not serving as such were sold for scrap. The number 1 launch tower was sitting behind the VAB, un-used. For the next year and a half the work on the shuttle would be intense and completely behind the scenes. Even the most rabid of space-buffs would hear very little about the shuttle and at KSC the bus tours would see a lot of weeds growing where fantastic things once happened. The vast majority of Americans would focus on much more important things… like disco, The Dukes of Hazard and the growing tally of days that the hostages had been held in Iran. My focus was on my critical job of stocking shelves and ringing up prescriptions in the cosmetics department of the Daytona Kmart store in a effort to not only get back into college, but to also somehow feed myself… where is Sally Struthers when you need her?

It was a bitter cold Monday across Florida on the 29th of December, 1980 as the first operational Space Shuttle stack rolled out of the VAB. I was rolling a big metal cart of shampoo, denture cream and glycerin suppositories out of the stockroom at the Kmart at the same time. In the store's appliance department, the TVs showed clips of the rollout on the local central Florida networks. Oddly, they completely ignored my rollout of shampoo, denture cream and glycerin suppositories. It seemed, however, that the rest of America ignored both events alike. The stack for STS-1 (Shuttle Transportation System- 1) resided on pad 39A for nearly two more months until February 20, 1981 when the Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) took place. In that test the Shuttle's main engines were fired for 20 seconds at 100% thrust while the stack remained held to the pad. The noise not only woke up central Florida, but it woke up the nation- the vehicle was alive!

A month a seven days following the FRF NASA announced officially that the launch date for the first Space Shuttle would be April 10th. Standing there in the Kmart cosmetics department I decided that I was not going to miss it. I told Andy the pharmacist that I was gonna be down there to see it. Andy asked what I was going to do if I couldn't get the day off? I replied "I'll quit the job." Knowing I only had a bicycle he asked, "How're you gonna get down there?" I replied that if I could not get a ride, I would ride my bike and get as far south as I could. He just shook his head and snickered. The fact was that I had spent my whole life passionately following spaceflight and nearly every bit of that had been sitting in front of a TV set. There was no way I was going to be this close to that piece of spaceflight history and again have to watch it on TV. I was going to be THERE to witness it first hand- even if I had to ride my bicycle.

FMI: www.nasa.gov/shuttle

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