When NASA announced their Teacher in Space Program in 1984, more than 11,000 teachers applied. Journalists almost immediately began clamoring for their shot at a trip on a space shuttle too. I was one of them. I was a huge fan of the space program and often fantasized about spaceflight. There was talk of a Journalist in Space Program, but the loss of Challenger and its crew, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, ended any plans for NASA to send civilians into space. But it was still a dream of mine, and I often wondered what it would be like to be launched into space and to experience zero gravity.
In 1988, I did get to see a space shuttle launch, though, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. It was a cool September morning. I was at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and we were anxiously awaiting the launch of Discovery, the first shuttle launch since Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight in January of 1986. We were on one of many causeways just a few miles from the launch pad and could clearly see Discovery in the distance, smaller than the solid rocket boosters and giant external tank that together provide the force needed to launch the shuttle off the pad, out of Earth’s gravity and into space. She looked so tiny in comparison to the external tank, which was filled with a highly explosive liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen mixture.
There were many changes after Challenger, one of the most significant of which was that astronauts on the ground had to concur on the launch. Made sense to me. They were the ones putting their lives on the line and wanted a voice. So the launch procedure involved querying a number of people at different locations, some at Johnson Space Center in Houston, some at Kennedy Space Center, others at landing sites available to the shuttle if an abort became necessary while still in Earth’s gravity.
Large loudspeakers were set up so that we could hear Mission Control taking the entire country through the launch sequence. It was eerie as each voice was heard saying, “Go” as Mission Control queried them. The final concurrence came from an astronaut, Robert Crippen. My stomach was in knots as the count picked up at T-minus nine minutes. Everything was happening very quickly now. With binoculars, I could see the access arm of the shuttle moving away. They were powering up the rocket boosters and I could see wisps of smoke. Then, at T minus two minutes, I could see the beanie cap being retracted from the top of the external tank, which meant they were pressurizing it and that all systems were go for launch.
Now the shuttle’s main engines ignite and as the countdown clock reaches zero, the boosters ignite too, and Discovery lifts off the pad and starts to make its way skyward. Silence. And then, as the speed of sound catches up with the speed of light, I hear an almost deafening rumble as this huge beast is powered into the sky.
We are still only a few seconds into launch and I am watching through binoculars, counting the seconds with the rest of the country, knowing we are not past that 73-second event that took Challenger and her crew . No one is cheering, no one is shouting. We are quiet, apprehensive, remembering and hoping with all our hearts that nothing bad is going to happen.
We hear Mission Control and the Discovery astronauts going through the rest of the launch sequence, and finally, after 73 seconds, there is a collective sigh of relief as Discovery climbs and then sheds the solid rocket boosters and the external tank. She’s on her own now and in less than eight minutes, she’s out of the Earth’s atmosphere and in orbit.
I don’t dream of going into space anymore. When you see it up close and personal, you begin to understand the enormity of the danger associated with spaceflight. From that time forward, every time I would watch a shuttle launch, I would remember—and I knew—that I did not have The Right Stuff.