So it is over. The Atlantis has landed. The space shuttles are going into museums, and a lot of people who attended the first thunderous dawn launch of the first space shuttle 30 years ago have written their stories. Here is mine.
In the spring of the year 1981, it was my pleasure to be acquainted with John and Chris Lyons, two people prominent in the New York media world. John worked for ABC Radio News. Chris was a news correspondent with her own news show. They lived in a house on Skimhampton Road in East Hampton and had just come back from touring the country—a la John Steinbeck and his Travels With Charley—but for ABC Radio. They had interviewed blacksmiths, flying saucer experts, even a man who was building a rocket to the moon in his backyard, in California, of course. I thought they would make a good interview for the paper and they sure did.
Soon thereafter, John became the Chief of the News Department at ABC Radio, and in that capacity, he called me up one day, told me he was down in Florida and invited my wife and I to be ABC media people, get badges as part of his team, and join him. Chris Lyons had stayed home.
The launch was scheduled for a Friday, April 10 at 7 a.m. My wife and I left East Hampton at dawn on Thursday morning, drove to J.F.K. and flew down the night before with the plan to put ourselves up in a motel. Of course, when we got there, there were none to be had. So we rented a hatchback. Maybe we should just stay up all night. If we needed to nap, we could sleep in the back. Late in the afternoon, we drove through enormous crowds of people along the highways—more than a million people would watch this—to the launch site where we were appropriately badged and checked in. [expand]
John was in great spirits greeting us when we arrived in the late afternoon, and then ushered us to the ABC trailer for our badges, some coffee and so forth. He indicated the big tent where the media could take its meals. And then at the main ABC studio—there were three studios for all three networks—we went inside and, as nobody was paying any attention to us, we sat down in the chairs where anchors Tom Jarriel and David Brinkley would be sitting in a few hours. Then we went over to the media tent. Here there were rows and rows of tables with people sitting in chairs writing on electric typewriters about, well, nothing, as far as I could see. Next to them were individual telephones.
John Lyons, after a while, said we were on our own but he would be nearby if we needed him. He would be quite busy. Toward evening, he invited us into a tent where the press was interviewing a woman astronaut who was in training for a later mission. Her name was Kathryn Sullivan, and she was a tall, blocky woman in her late 20s who had a strange, unemotional demeanor as she spoke about this and that. She said the space shuttle had never been flown before. This was the first time. But they were very confident they would have it right. After she spoke and took questions and answers, I got a chance to briefly talk to her and shake her hand. Other than that, we spent the time alternately staring at the rocket ship, going into the food tent and eating donuts, and talking to people. Among those in attendance were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but we never saw them.
In the dark—it was now after sunset—the rocket was the star of the show bathed in spotlights and there was much activity going on at the site. I recall it was quite windy. Even up close as we were, there were tens of thousands of people, probably half of whom were press, either sitting in temporary bleachers set up there in the dark, or camped out in trailers. There was no moon. What there was, however, was the Space Shuttle Columbia standing on its tail on a concrete pad next to its gantry, with occasional wisps of white smoke billowing out the top. Its engines were running, it seemed, or at least certain small electric engines were running to activate this or that on board.
The astronauts, John Young and Robert Crippin, were not yet inside the beast. There was an escalator inside the gantry. Apparently there were several hours of work to do in preparation for the launch before that would happen. Of course, in the middle of the night, when it did, we were just told that had happened. We could not see it.
I recall it being a very eerie thing, as dawn finally began to break over the Atlantic Ocean behind the space ship. It exposed the entire landscape, which consisted essentially of marshland and birds, some of them very large and swoopy, a peaceable scene. I could hardly imagine what was about to happen to all that once the countdown began.
And now, the countdown began on an enormous electrified sign on poles in front of the rocket. It ran the time backwards, indicating the day, which was zero, the hour, the minute and the seconds, pealing down.
Then the sun rose, bathing the scene in great yellow light. The wind also died down. It was going to be an absolutely magnificent day.
The crowd got very emotional as the last 10 minutes before the launch were counted down. I recall it all to this day. There were now announcements over a loudspeaker. TEN MINUTES. NINE MINUTES. Everybody was in their seats, not moving, staring at this thing, which, it now seemed, was not doing anything new except belching white smoke out of its bottom, rather than its top. Were we far enough away not to be overwhelmed by this launch? Would it be an earsplitting sound? Would we be enveloped in white smoke? Some people told us the earth would shake.
But then, when it got to eight minutes, the countdown stopped.
For a long time, the big sign said 0.00.08.00 and that was that. What had gone wrong? What was this all about? I couldn’t believe it. We’d been there all night. We hadn’t slept since leaving the Hamptons at 3 a.m. the day before. Now this?
After awhile we heard there was a computer malfunction of some sort. They would look into it. They were going to re-set the launch. It was going back to 0.03.00.00 beginning at 11 a.m. Then three hours all over again. That would make the launch at 2 p.m.
I could live with that. There was nothing to do. Just the donuts and the talking and the wandering around. What was a seven-hour wait? Nothing. On the other hand, it must be much harder on the astronauts all strapped in there. They could hardly move in there.
It was already quite a hot day by this time. The temperature would get up into the 80s.
They never made it to plus three hours. At 10 a.m., we were told that the launch was being scrubbed. The countdown would begin again at 6 a.m. the next day. They would try again to launch, this time on Saturday. All there was to watch for the rest of the day was the disembarking of the two astronauts until the next day.
At this point, with nearly 30 hours without sleep, we had to make a decision about either taking the plane back to New York late that night—we had the flight reserved—or staying overnight, in the hatchback, for another day. Mostly on the consideration that we’d be charged for those seats anyway and another flight out with these millions of people almost impossible, we decided to bail out. If they couldn’t do the launch in our timeframe, they’d just have to do it without us.
At the airport, at 4 p.m., sitting on the seats in the gate, we both conked out on the chairs there completely for awhile. We slept for only about a half hour or so. There was some kind of commotion.
It was Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, all bright and cheerful, walking into our gate to welcome some new arrivals and make a speech about the upcoming launch. I walked over and chatted with her again, told her I had met her a day and a half earlier and talked to her, and she recalled us.
She had this big grin. She seemed to not have a care in the world. We were staggering around, hollow eyed, barely able to stand.
“Have you been up the whole time?” I asked her. She looked fresh and new.
“We’re trained to do this,” she said. “I’ll be staying up as long as necessary.”
And so we left.
We slept the whole way. Turned out they postponed the launch still one more day. The explanation was really odd. Kathryn Sullivan had told it to everybody in the terminal. Apparently, she was the designated astronaut PR person. They had five computers, all doing essentially the same thing, each a backup or partner for the others, and as it was explained to us, at least the first three had to agree on whatever they had to do next. If they didn’t, they went to the fourth and if now it was a tie, they would go to the fifth for the tiebreaker. I know this seems preposterous, but this was the state of computer science at that time and how you worked around the flaws. The fifth computer had been the one that had malfunctioned. And without it, in a very unlikely circumstance, the computer vote could be a tie. It had taken all this time to reset it and get it back up to speed.
And so, back at home, we saw the launch just as a billion other people did that April 12, the space ship blasting this sudden wave of air and light as it flew straight up, broke away from its first stage, and disappeared into the heavens.
When you couldn’t see it anymore, there was an animation showing what was happening, with the two anchors at ABC sitting in “our” seats down there.
Yay, we said.
A week later, there arrived in the mail a certificate from NASA that apparently was handed out to all who had witnessed that first launch. Where your name was supposed to be filled in, they left it blank for you to fill in.
This had come from John Lyons. A gift for all we had gone through. In the space where the name could be put in, John had, with a pen, written DAN AND TRACY RATTINER FAILED TO. The entire document reads:
“On April 10, 1981 (the month and day were filled in—the date was two days before the launch), Dan and Tracy Rattiner failed to witness (the “ED” at the end of witness was Whited out) the launch of America’s first space shuttle from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida. This flight by John Young and Robert Crippen pioneered the new era in space flight much the same as the Wright Brothers did for manned flight.”
I framed it. And it hangs in the upstairs bathroom at the Dan’s Papers building in Bridgehampton to this day.