By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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 Columbiashuttle 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.
It may sound weird, but for the past 22 years I’ve measured my life against Columbiaand 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), Columbiawas the one constant no matter how much everything else in my life changed. How to explain this succinctly: Columbiawas 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 Columbiawas 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.”