Go At Throttle Up.

On the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

From my book, Rise Of The Rocket Boy.

…My head craned back and boy balanced on my shoulders, I staggered a bit under the weight, both physical and emotional. Not even noticing that I was slowly stepping backwards like an ant in awe of monolith, eventually causing me to collide with another Shuttle watcher also focused on events not on this planet. My shouted apology to be heard over the still impressive roar of the engines seemed to snap Short Stack out of his contemplation.

“Daddy?” The only reason I heard his voice was its close proximity to my ear.

“Yah, Bud? What is it?” I was ready for rocket questions. Any question! Deeply in my element and watching this awe inspiring spectacle, I wanted nothing more than some great technical query from my little, budding rocket scientist. Rocket fueled adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt I could handle anything.

“Is…” He hesitated. “Is that it?”

…What?

In my pocket, my phone was still beeping like mad with announcements of messages coming in from those who knew where we were. Half a country away, my wife had gotten up far earlier than is comfortable so that she could watch along on the computer. So, according to the incoming texts, had my parents and our friend Coley.

My Parents, 6:24: “Wow! So glad you’re seeing this!”
Coley, 6:24: “Pretty Cool, what a lucky kid!!!”
My Wife, 6:24: “Yippee!”

After all that we had worked through to get here, his question had been, “Is that it?” Thinking on the youth of my audience, I hoped beyond hope that he had simply phrased the question in an easily misunderstood way rather than a more blasé meaning.

“What, ah…. What do you mean, Short Stack?” I cranked my head to get my ear closer to his four year old voice.

“Is that the Space Shuttle up there?

The crowd was still bathed in the light of five burning engines pushing seven people into low earth orbit and the roar was pervasive, rattling around the inside of my brain like an unending thunderclap. Even though it would have been hard to mistake the Shuttle for just about anything else, after a second’s reflection, I could see the problem. Or rather, I couldn’t see it. None of us could, for that matter. It was still before dawn and the sky was painted pitch black with the exception of the incandescent shine rising through the air. The Shuttle it self was invisible. Trying to squint to see it riding atop the flame was like trying to read the writing on the top of a lit 100 watt light bulb. You just couldn’t do it. Not without risking some serious retinal damage, anyway. Short Stack wasn’t let down, he was confused. Something that happens so rarely, that I missed the cues all together. I brightened immediately.

“Oh! YAH! Tha..”

“DISOVERY,” Launch control was being relayed on the public address system. “YOU ARE GO FOR THROTTLE UP!”

My eyes snapped back up to the Shuttle, unblinking. Those words were like a bucket of ice water.

“Roger.” The voice of Shuttle commander came through, calm and even. “Go at throttle up.”

In a flash, I was thirteen again.

In 1986, I was not watching the launch of the Shuttle Challenger.

Most of us, in fact, weren’t. In all but a very few special cases, the Shuttle launch that cold January day was viewable only by taped delay. The stories of kids sitting crossed legged on floors of classrooms and gymnasiums, eyes wide in confusion at STS-51-L ripping itself apart for all to see in that clear Florida sky, have become a thing of invention and legend. We talk about it as if we had all seen it happen as it happened, but the truth is, unless there was a communications van with a satellite dish on it parked out front, such as at a certain High School in Concord, New Hampshire, what we saw was after the fact. A taped delay.

This does not make it any less chilling to those who somehow remember the exact second when we heard the news, though.

In my junior high school, students who had a free period could volunteer to run errands for the main office if they desired, and thinking it more fun than sitting in study hall, dutifully being silent and working on that pesky math homework, it was something I did often. As I sat on the small bench near the door I heard the news from the school secretary, whom had heard it from an administrator, whom had in tern, heard it via a radio in his office. I’m not actually even sure if I had heard it directly or simply overhead when she informed someone else. What I do know is that just a few moments later, my science teacher, Mr. Waltkins walked through the door on some errand and I, for whatever reason, stopped him.

“Mr. Waltkins, did you hear the news?”

Looking back, I realize now that Mr. Watkins is almost an American clone of Alan Rickman. He had the same somewhat severe look on his face at all times, was rare to smile and possessed a cutting wit as well as an explosive temper. Regardless of this and somewhat mystifyingly, I had a good rapport with him. Now a days, the comparison to Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame is a no-brainer. Back then, in our pre-HP world, he was simply feared by much of the student body and generally given a wide berth by them. He was all no-nonsense, but then again, I didn’t get into much nonsense and genuinely found his science classes to be fascinating and interestingly educational. We tended to get along quite well.

At my unsolicited remark, he stopped short and looked down at me with a furrowed brow.

“What news?” The remark was delivered as from an army officer not inclined to guessing games. I immediately wondered if this had been a good idea, but there was no backing out now. There was nowhere to go.

“The Space Shuttle just exploded.”

As his body stiffened, I realized that I was on perilous ground. I was indeed short on details having just heard the news myself and then, third or forth hand. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m willing to bet that I squirmed a bit.

Mr. Watkins looked stone faced, his wide opening eyes betraying the only sign of alarm.

“What… What did you say? Is this a joke?”

“No. I just heard that Challenger exploded on liftoff.” I bit my lip. “They were talking about it in the office.”

There was a pause as the information digested. I was not the kind of kid who made stuff like this up, nor was I the sort who tread on such a sensitive topic lightly. In short, I was trust worthy and Mr. Waltkins new it. It was at the heart of why we got along well in the first place, I’m sure.

“I’ve got to go!”

And with that, he turned on his heels and raced out the door in search of hard news on the developing tragedy. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to ignore the icky feeling that was quickly developing in the pit of my stomach. Prior to telling someone, it hadn’t seemed real. It was just news. The sort of stuff which swirls around the head of every kid for much of their young lives but never really connects. You knew it was important, you knew you should be concerned, but it never really resonated. There simply wasn’t the historical perspective needed to make a mark on your life. This time, it was different and I started to understand that more as the seconds ticked by and I had the quiet time to think hard about what I had just said.

My mother was a teacher. Back when NASA had been looking for a teacher to enter the Space Program, my Father and I had joking told her that she should apply. To be honest, we had only been half-joking. We new it wasn’t her cup of tea, but we also knew that she was very eligible for the position. She was, almost exactly, who they were looking for. How amazing would it have been to have an astronaut for a Mom?

As it turned out, a teacher almost exactly the same age as my own Mother, and only an hour away was picked instead. They taught the same subject even, and I remember when Christa McAuliffe was named that I felt just a bit that an opportunity in my family had been missed. Two other kids in New Hampshire had gotten to say that their Mom was an astronaut. Now, 73 seconds after liftoff, she was gone forever.

It might have been my Mom. That was all I could think of. I remember that very, very clearly.

Later that night, we, along with much of the nation, watched the news over and over again, hearing those last words from Shuttle commander Dick Scobee:

“Roger. Go at throttle up.”

There was nothing but fire and smoke a half second later.

Up in my room, I had a partly finished model of the Space Shuttle. It would be put back into its box and forgotten.

_______

It would be a long time before I paid attention again to the Space Program. NASA took a nearly three year break to sort out what had happened to Challenger and make the required changes. By the time the Shuttle, Discovery had lifted off on September of 1988, my attentions and affections had drifted to other things. Space became sort of a footnote in my life and my model was never completed.

Now, things were different. With the incandescent love of all things rockety by my young son, that old bed of coals in my own heart had been givin life anew. Though this trip we were on was undoubtedly all about him, I too had been catapulted back into the world of raw excitement over space and what we were doing to get there. Still watching the glow from the boosters and three main engines, I waited and held my breath.

“Go at throttle up.”

The roar continued. Discovery, the first Shuttle to fly after the loss of the STS-51-L crew, was racing into the pre-dawn sky, faster than the speed of sound. As I looked down, I could see the lit up memorial to those lost in the pursuit of space, not more than a short walk away.

Short Stacks chirpy voice broke in. “Dad, is it gone?”

“Gone? No, it’s not gone. It’s just heading for space now.” I smiled. “Watch carefully and you can see the solid rocket boosters disengage. They’ll look like faint lights moving away from the Shuttle.”

Almost on cue, the SRB’s detached and soon, Discovery its self was gone from sight. As dawn lit up horizon, the voices of Mission Control and the Shuttle’s commander continued to boom over the grounds until finally, almost nine minutes since launch, the Shuttle was where it needed to be. In orbit around the planet Earth.

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Arrival. Part IV

I sifted through the pile of debris in the trunk that was our baggage and I managed to produce a good set of clothes for my boy, our one man tent, the stroller and all other provisions for the adventure at hand. Casting sideways looks at our soon to be Shuttle watching contemporaries, I could see the same ballet being undertaken at hundreds of cars around us. Careful unpacking, sleepy children in strollers waiting as patently as they could or simply sleeping through the entire process and adults looking somewhere between excited and exhausted.

“Is it going to launch soon?” Short Stack was craning his head around at the quickly filling parking lot and taking the odd, weary glance skyward lest he miss the whole show that we had traveled so far to see.

“NO!” I laughed a little bit when I considered the next six and a half hours that we needed to get through before things started, then realized that “soon” was all relative and that I probably ought to elaborate if I was to avoid potentially crushing some heavily stoked hopes. “Well… yes.” I stopped unpacking for a second so we could face each other. “It’s going to launch today, but it’s going to be many hours until that time. The astronauts are probably still getting ready for their mission. The Shuttle too! They need to finish filling up the external fuel tank, check all the systems and make sure everything is safe and ready to go. It takes a lot of people a lot of time and hard work to make a Shuttle launch happen.”

“Why?”

It’s amazing how a four year old can reduce the world to one question.

“Why, what?”

“Why does it take so many people so long?”

This was one of those parenting moments where what you want to say is, “Because” and let it go at that. Being right in the middle of our preparations for the night, the last thing I wanted was to have my attention divided and allow for the line at the door to grow ever longer in our absence or worse, give my brain the slight hiccup it requires that would allow it to forget some crucial part of our cargo such as the tent, the tickets or my name and address. Sadly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t seem to take much. I’ve also learned, however that pat answers do not work with my son and that he WILL call you on them.

“Well… Because the Space Shuttle is a very complicated piece of equipment. There are thousands and thousands of little parts that have to work exactly right just when they are supposed to and they all need to work together. People called engineers check every single last part of the Shuttle, its boosters, the launch tower and everything to make sure it’s all in perfect order.”

Without a pause, he asked the question I had just unwittingly opened my self up to.

“What happens if it doesn’t all work just right?”

That was a question I didn’t really want to get too close to, first because it could mean that we came all the way to Florida only to have the mission canceled but secondly, because it brought up a darker issue.

What I said was, “Then they delay the launch, fix the problem and try again later.” But what I thought was, “Challenger…” and the unexpected eruption of that memory right in the middle of all this fun and excitement caught me as off guard as being hit by a car in the middle of the dessert. In my mind, all I could see right then was grill and headlights.

Tonight, we had come to watch OV-104 “Discovery” lift off and from this time forward, to my son, it was likely to always remain “his” Shuttle. It would be the one that he saw fly with his own eyes. It would mean the most to him for the rest of his life. He’d have that connection. Long, long ago, I was a young boy too wrapped in the awe of the Shuttle program and I had also picked my own Shuttle. The one that, for my own reasons, I had considered “mine” was Challenger. I swallowed hard as the memory of that long forgotten fact flooded back through unseen doorways, unbidden.

Prior to the Challenger disaster of 1986, NASA had had a hugely successful run with their Shuttle fleet of two. Columbia had been the first, fully functional Space Shuttle or OV (Orbital Vehicle) and was designated OV-102, being constructed after OV-101 Enterprise, which had been outfitted only as a test bed aircraft without engines or heat shield and was intended to determine if this 230,000 pound glider could actually do what the engineers and designers had said it could. It was a radical departure in design and theory for the space agency and chocked full of unknowns and previously untried ideas.

Like any technological breakthrough, it was crammed with “firsts”, and as we all know, firsts are risky things. It was the first reusable space vehicle. It was the first to be flown with a real crew for its maiden voyage. It was the first to be covered in the now famous heat resistant tiles. It had a giant robot arm and that monstrously cavernous cargo bay. It was the first time that astronauts looked directly ahead at where they are going when the countdown reached zero. Engineers love the idea of firsts but when it comes time to try them out, they get understandably jumpy. America’s rocket scientists had just spent better than the last twenty years perfecting the art of balancing human beings on the tips of progressively larger and larger rockets and bring those humans back in one piece, and to be fair, they had gotten very, very good at it. For NASA, now to adopt the Shuttle program was the equivalent of taking the playbook, throwing it away and tossing the lot of them back into uncharted waters. Lots of people even within the Space Program were highly skeptical that this was a good path to take.

It was different.

Many of then feared it.

Kids loved it.

I know I did!

It was our ROCKET PLANE and it fascinated and thrilled us.

Now, as I stood at the handles of our red umbrella stroller, my own little astronaut in training sitting happily in its canvas seat, that long faded enthusiasm was coming back to life. As color rushed back into old dreams, I was re-experiencing the excitement, but with the knowledge of some of the costs that were paid along the way, I felt the sadness too. Short Stack knew nothing of these costs and my stomach knotted up a bit as I tried to figure out when he should find out. This was, after all, his dream vacation and he is only four. Who am I to bring up such a hard and unmoving fact?

The answer is simple enough. I’m his father. And so, I feel that it does indeed fall to me… But not just now. Though I have sworn to myself never to tell him an untruth, that does not mean that I am obligated to speak it all. Especially right now.

“Are we ready to go NOW, Dad?”

I hooked into that impatient enthusiasm and tilted the stroller back on its rear wheels and smiled down at his upside down face. “Alright Buddy! I think we’ve got everything.” I locked the car and joined the happy hoards as we rolled toward the gate, the crowd funneling to a pinch point as the doors to the main entrance opened wide. Following a refreshingly short wait in a quickly moving line, I fumbled for our ticket and had the chance to hand them over to the less than enthusiastic woman at the turn stile.

“Tickets…” A robot like hand from a tired looking woman was extended toward me and, in true “like me” fashion, I managed to drop both of them at my feet. Apologizing, I stooped to retrieve them only to find on my return to the vertical that she hadn’t moved an inch and was still staring blankly ahead, hand still extended. She could have been a mannequin.

“Sorry! Here they are.” I handed them over.

“Go through here,” She motioned mechanically to a stile-less opening intended for wheelchairs and stroller pushing parents “and wait at the metal detectors.”

We’re going to see the SPACE SHUTTLE!”

The announcement had, naturally, come from my son and to my surprise, our security robot looked down, donned a weak but sincere smiled and no doubt for the six-hundredth time that evening replied, “Well, you’re in the right place for it. Have fun.” And with that bit of encouragement, we headed on to checkpoint two and three.

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