I loved NASA’s Space Shuttle program from day one. Having been a junior journalist on the Associated Press team that covered the Apollo Soyuz mission, I’d heard about the program when it was just dreams on drawingboards. I was on hand to see Enterprise land. A Shuttle prototype, she’d flown to high altitude piggy-backed on a 747, then separated for a test landing. The huge plane with its tiny wings had seemed barely able to fly, but we’d all been filled with a sense of promise that day.
When the very first Shuttle ever to fly in space was due to land, I pointed my car north again to find Edwards Air Force Base way out in the Mojave Desert. The chill of desert dawn passed like the flick of a road-runner’s tail, and by nine a.m. we’d peeled off our jackets. About to experience the marvel of aerospace’s latest technology, we were now greeted by dry lake bed, three-hundred-sixty degrees of sky, and the few inches of shade our vehicles afforded. Having expected to see something resembling an airport landing strip, we discovered Shuttle’s runway was a stretch of parched earth demarcated by two white lines of chalk.
Heat waves danced on the desert floor while my thoughts wandered into a mathematical contemplation. The planet was hurtling through its solar orbit at 67,000 miles per hour, encircled by a craft speeding ahead of Earth’s own rotation by traveling 17,000 mph. While the moon completed one orbit in 27.3 days, Shuttle’s two-day mission would take it around Earth 36 times, and would soon have traveled 933,757 nautical miles. My heart was beating 120 times a minute.
Today, two men were gliding on desert currents back to Earth. But someday, women would go into space. And this would be the craft to take them. And African-Americans and Native-Americans would fly. And one day they’d be joined by compatriots from other countries. And someday teachers and scientists would go, and send their images into classrooms and board rooms. And not long after that, journalists would take the ride. My name was on the list.
An unseen explosion cracked the sky, and then cracked it again. The double sonic boom shattered the desert silence, Shuttle’s signature salutation heard for the first time. A lone shout, and we all strained our eyes trying to confirm the speck we saw was no mirage. And then the speck grew larger, a flick of silver, a wing, and a prayer. We could see her, then, more clearly by the second, a magical craft appearing from a cloudless sky, dropped into Earth’s atmosphere like an alien visitant. But these were our guys, and they were coming home. Unpremeditated exuberance ripped through the sedate line of reporters and we leapt to our feet like children at a circus who’d waited all day for the artists of the high wire to appear. Photographers who’d been polishing their bumpers now jumped onto the hoods of their cars to get three feet closer to the sky. Tears streaming down our faces, we yelled till we were hoarse, “Go, Baby, Go!”
And then we watched a triangle of brick float gently to Earth, defying rumor, overcoming fear. We clutched one another’s arms to keep her on course and pulled our hair to prevent the tires from hitting too hard when she bounced one final time. Self-deprecating as astronauts always are, Bob Crippen said in the Press briefing, “I think I landed her twice.” Our laughter was in relief, delight, and admiration. Despite his senior status, John Young looked both boyishly joyful, and unsurprised at the day’s grand accomplishment.
One hundred million Americans were watching the images transmitted that day. Hundreds of millions more watched around the world and joined us in spirit. But they couldn’t feel the heat, or sense the sheer wonder of a friendly spaceship landing safely in the neighborhood.
Despite the tragedies of Columbia and Challenger, the Shuttle program changed the face of Earth and all that orbits overhead, with its millions of miles traveled and hundreds of missions accomplished. I found the old notebook I was given at that first landing. I flip the cover to see. “Reporter’s Space Flight Note Pad.” In the center of its cover the notebook has a logo. A picture of the prototype Shuttle is landing safely, its tires spewing smoke and runway dust. Around the circular photo is the slogan, “Our Spaceship Landed On Earth.”
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