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; Columbiahad lost 15 of them at liftoff. Would the shuttle survive touchdown? After all, this was reality, not Hollywood.
Cheers went up when Columbiacommander 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 Columbiapassed the sonic barrier and slowed down to subsonic speeds. It was only when Columbiabanked 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.