It’s been 40 years… and the experience still feels like glimpsing the future.
April 12, 1981
Columbia sits on launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center ready to lift off on the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program.
I was in absolute heaven. It was my senior year of high school… literally a month from graduation. My ticket was punched to The University of Texas at Austin in the fall and a degree in Aerospace Engineering. What I was seeing on the television screen, though, was the stuff of science fiction dreams.
Lit up with anticipation
We arrive at the launching site
The sky is still dark, nearing dawn
On the Florida coastline
Circling choppers slash the night
With roving searchlight beams
This magic day when super-science
Mingles with the bright stuff of dreams
This is the maiden voyage of a new vehicle, a new program, and a new direction for the latest United States spaceflight program. The Space Transportation System (STS) includes a new flight numbering scheme that will actually change a couple of times during the program – but for today, it’s STS-1. It’s a completely new look – getting away from the familiar ballistic missile shape and towards a futuristic spaceplane mounted on the side of a large fuel tank with a pair of rockets on each side.
Floodlit in the hazy distance
The star of this unearthly show
Venting vapours, like the breath
Of a sleeping white dragon
Now of course, I had seen the artist’s renderings and followed along with every Approach and Landing Test of Enterprise. This was different. This was real. This was about to have a crew onboard for the first launch of a completely new and VERY complex launch system. And we were all watching it together.
Excitement so thick you could cut it with a knife
Technology high, on the leading edge of life
Columbia was ready to go. I was ready to go. There was nothing else in the world that I wanted at that moment to get started with my adult life and be a part of this program.
The timing of this launch as both perfect and a massive tease, as I would have to wait a couple of years before I had enough credits under me to be a part of the Co-Op program and actually be at JSC. It would be a couple of years after that before I completed my degree and was a permanent fixture there.
Meanwhile – on my television, this beautiful futuristic vision was unfolding. The familiar countdown reached zero and this absolutely glorious vehicle lifted off the launch pad.
Scorching blast of golden fire
As it slowly leaves the ground
Tears away with a mighty force
The air is shattered by the awesome sound
It was clear that my life had just changed – and for the better.
It was time to get to work.
In fascination with the eyes of the world
You’ve seen some lyrics throughout this post. They’re from the blog-eponymous song “Countdown” by the Canadian rock band Rush. Released in 1983 on their Signals album, “Countdown” was written on a flight from Florida to Texas after they had witnessed the STS-1 launch in person. Among other space-related rock and pop songs, “Countdown” stands near the pinnacle with Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (Major Tom) as favorites of so many of us who lived, worked, or were just fans of the space program throughout the years.
"We Came Here, You and I"
This essay is dedicated to the men and women of space exploration and was written after Columbia was lost in 2003.
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