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My Own Private Spaceship 

Thursday, Feb 6 2003
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THERE WE WERE, SIDE BY SIDE IN THE MOJAVE Desert, Steven Spielberg and I. Like me, he had made the odyssey from Cape Canaveral to Edwards Air Force Base to see the first space-shuttle mission begin and end. We were just two dozen strangers, all standing a few hundred yards from Runway 23, outside the yellow-and-white-striped VIP tent, our necks aching from staring up into the sky, when the Columbia shuttle swooped in like a giant condor and touched down at 10:20:57 a.m. on April 14, 1981.

“What a perfect three-point landing,” Spielberg gushed to no one in particular. The director hadn’t yet released Raiders of the Lost Ark or made E.T., so I absurdly zeroed in on the more famous Roy Rogers. (This showed my level of acuity about Hollywood back then.) Wearing a cowboy suit with silk-threaded roses embroidered on the lapels, he fielded my inanely serious questions about the future of the shuttle program with aw-shucks aplomb. “I really don’t know about the cost,” he said earnestly. “I just ride Trigger, you know.” And what payloads did he think the shuttle should transport? Rogers thought hard before replying, “A hair from Trigger’s tail would be nice.”

At the time, I was Houston bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, and the space-shuttle program, not show biz, was one of my beats. Instead of working with a gaggle of other reporters from the newspaper, I flew solo during mission preparation at Johnson Space Center, the liftoff in Florida and the landing in California. This is why, on Saturday, I found myself understandably grieving, like the rest of the world, for the seven dead astronauts — but also strangely wallowing in self-pity for the crashed shuttle itself.

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It may sound weird, but for the past 22 years I’ve measured my life against Columbia and its determination to just stick around. It gave me enormous satisfaction that this first shuttle was still up and running and hadn’t been retired even though we’d both been knocked around a lot in our careers by now. Didn’t matter that it had been overhauled again and again (my own renovation program was always five years in the future), Columbia was the one constant no matter how much everything else in my life changed. How to explain this succinctly: Columbia was my own private spaceship.

But never Hollywood’s. Despite all NASA’s Star Trek–like fanciful scenarios of using the shuttle to put into orbit solar-powered space stations, multibeam communications satellites, even factories, the shuttle bug never infected filmmakers. Maybe that’s because Columbia was intended as a workhorse, not a racehorse. Besides, a shuttle that not just looked like a plane, but which the astronauts could fly, apparently didn’t have as much jeopardy potential as the man-in-a-can NASA Gemini and Apollo crafts.

Yes, its image processing and 3-D graphics tools still serve double duty by helping Hollywood with special effects. Yet Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay opted not to shoot Armageddon on location at NASA because the buildings weren’t “sexy” enough. (Trivia alert: All the launch shots of the space shuttle were actual liftoffs. NASA allowed the filmmakers to shoot a scene of the Armageddon astronauts entering the space shuttle at the launch pad a week before an actual liftoff.) Even as video games, Intellivoice’s and Atari’s space-shuttle programs never got off the ground.

Now, Paramount has pulled its trailer for The Core, about a group of NASA “terranauts,” because it shows the space shuttle in jeopardy. The studio may also alter or excise other shuttle footage from the film itself after Saturday’s tragedy.

But I’m still waiting for a movie to match my own vivid memories of Columbia’s maiden voyage. It was hot and sticky outside Orlando during that much-delayed launch, where the outdoor press stands were pitched in the middle of a drained swamp. Except nobody told the mosquitoes they were homeless, so, night after night, as the launch kept being postponed, all of us were eaten alive.

Just T-minus-10 before 5:30 a.m. on April 10, then hold and hold and hold. The problem was that the computers wouldn’t “talk” among themselves. Two more days of staring in darkness and in sunlight at the spotlighted scene of this gorgeous spaceship, the first NASA invention to be worthy of Buck Rogers. Finally, the earthquakelike blastoff — unbearably loud, unbelievably exciting, everyone being a kid, yelling, “Go, baby, GO,” watching until the shuttle was so small you had to squint to see its mirage.

Exhausted, exhilarated, I sprinted onto the next plane bound for Los Angeles, following the shuttle like a rock-star groupie to a Quonset hut that served as the press facilities at Edwards AFB. The hundreds of media representatives had now dwindled to seemingly two dozen, so officials let down their guard and let us wander alone in the Mojave, where, 15 miles away, caravans of campers had begun arriving one car a minute a day. Soon the small government-designated viewing area was a carnival dubbed “Woodstock West.”

Vendors were hawking everything from egg rolls and pink cotton candy to special-edition Pepsi cans with the shuttle emblazoned on the side. An eerie luminescence surrounded the site with an unearthly glow because of the man-made dust bowl flaring from the constant stream of cars. Like Richard Dreyfuss drawn to the mountaintop in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these 250,000 people gathered for a shared experience: in Joan Didion–speak, rapture-of-the-shuttle.

Back in VIP land, the mostly show-biz crowd of 20,000 was holding its breath for those nerve-jarring 21 minutes when the loudspeakers went silent during Columbia’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere an hour before landing time. During this first mission, too, the shuttle’s heat-protective tiles were worrying; Columbia had lost 15 of them at liftoff. Would the shuttle survive touchdown? After all, this was reality, not Hollywood.

Cheers went up when Columbia commander Robert Crippen’s voice came over loud and clear: “What a way to come to California,” he shouted when he saw ground. We heard the shuttle before seeing it when, like two firecrackers exploding, two big booms rang out as Columbia passed the sonic barrier and slowed down to subsonic speeds. It was only when Columbia banked a 180-degree turn that it appeared in the distance, growing bigger and bigger as it flew to the landing strip with four chase planes and glided to the ground.

That night may have been the first really good sleep that NASA officials had had since the shuttle was put on the drawing boards in 1969, because their endangered species, the U.S. manned space program, was about to thrive. In 1986, I was watching live coverage on CNN when the shuttle blew up. A bizarre sense of relief washed over me when I learned it was Challenger, not Columbia, that had been destroyed. At the time, the rest of the shuttle fleet, including Columbia, was grounded for what could have been all time.

Undoubtedly, Hollywood will make a film about Columbia’s last mission, which it now appears likely was doomed from its very start. But no trick of the trade can ever bring back that small part of me that died with the loss of my longtime pal.

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