Friday, January 29, 2010

It seems like yesterday

For those of you who don't read Silverback's blog regularly, his post yesterday was a tribute to the crew of the Challenger space shuttle that exploded on January 28, 1986, twenty-eight years ago.

The crew consisted of Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (commander), Michael J. Smith (pilot), Judith A. Resnik (mission specialist), Ronald E. McNair (mission specialist), Ellison S. Onizuka (mission specialist), Gregory P. Jarvis (payload specialist), and Sharon Christa McAuliffe (schoolteacher). The last two were civilans, not employees of the Federal Government, and they are the ones in the center of the back row in this photograph:

I don't know whether it is still the same, but launches from Cape Canaveral used to have a tremendously exhilarating effect on people living in Florida. Mrs. RWP and I watched one from a balcony in New Smyrna Beach, 28 miles north of the Cape, and it was spectacular. Another time we were staying in Kissimmee with friends at their condo for a week, and one morning the four of us decided to drive down to see another couple in Winter Haven. We had turned south off I-4 onto U.S. 27 and were somewhere between Haines City and Lake Wales when we saw a shuttle rising off to the east along the coast. We must have been 75 miles as the crow flies from the Cape, but it was clear as day and a beautiful sight.

I will never forget the nighttime launch of Apollo 17 as long as I live. We were living in Boca Raton and the children were small. The launch had been delayed a bit earlier in the evening, so we had put the children to bed, but we woke them about twenty minutes after midnight and took them out into the back yard, not really knowing what we might be able to see. Way off to the north the sky was filled with clouds, but when the big Saturn V rocket lifted off at 12:33 a.m., the entire northern sky was lit up like day. Apollo 17 appeared to be very close, five or ten miles away, maybe just up the road in Delray Beach, but it was 175 miles to the north. It was a sight I shall always remember. Here is a photo of the launch site itself:

Perhaps even more thrilling than seeing a shuttle launch, though, was feeling one. Mrs. RWP and I saw -- and felt -- one daytime shuttle launch from the middle of the Indian River, having ridden down from New Smyrna Beach with a few others on a “luncheon cruise” with leaping dolphins for company and an occasional cormorant standing on a post in mid-river drying its outspread wings.

We must have gotten within two or three miles of the launch pad, very close, when our boat was stopped by the Coast Guard at the edge of the Space Center property and we could advance no further. But what an awesome moment it was to experience the sound waves from the shuttle pass through our bodies with a roar, entering at the chest and departing at the shoulders.

I have one last memory to share with you. In 1962 I was an enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at McCoy Air Force Base south of Orlando. Alan Sheppard had achieved fame earlier on a sub-orbital flight, and a couple of Russians had already orbited the earth, but John Glenn would become the first American to do so, circling the earth three times and traveling more than 75,000 miles in less than five hours. I suppose we were about forty or fifty miles from the launch site. As his journey began, we left our radios and televisions and rushed outdoors to see what we could see, and sure enough, there was his missile with the capsule atop, rising in the distance, just above the treetops. We watched until it was out of sight.

Is it any wonder that we return to Florida again and again?

The weather, of course, has nothing to do with it.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. It's true that the best writing comes from things known intimately. What a lovely personal insight into things I have never experienced. Thanks Robert.
    I was lucky enough to be the only person in the class to have a transistor radio on that special day when we landed on the moon. ('Man' I mean, not my class). All my classmates were gathered around me listening. Happened to be Geography class too. 'One small radio for Katherine, one giant leap for mankind.'