The parking lot on Twin Peaks is no place for a San Francisco resident from September to October. Huge tourist buses and shiny new rental minivans disgorge hundreds of visitors from England, France, Japan and especially Germany, who line the viewing area to marvel at and photograph the beauty of the City from the Golden Gate Bridge to the South Bay. This morning, the last day of summer 2012, was an exception.
September 21, 2012 marked the final flight of a space shuttle, Endeavour, the youngest vehicle and last to be delivered to an air and space museum for an eternal existence as a static display artifact. This country built five full-operational shuttles, plus one, Enterprise, for testing approach and landing; and after 135 orbital missions, four survived. I witnessed five shuttles in flight, and each time as with today, it was a treasured experience.
My first glimpse of a shuttle in the sky was on June 10, 1983, when the Enterprise returned from the Paris Air Show by way of New York City. I was a lab technician at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital on the edge of Harlem and worked for an attending physician studying a mysterious illness killing young homosexual men. The doctor was a good friend and fellow science geek. Close friendship between an attending physician and a lab tech was as uncommon then as it is now, however in those days, rampant public hysteria about AIDS made our daily contact with sick gay men a closely guarded secret. That summer day we made our way to the hospital roof overlooking Saint John the Divine Cathedral and watched as a Boeing 474 with the shuttle flew down the Hudson River, banked over the Verrazano Bridge, came back up the East River, turned left and headed to Scott AFB in Illinois. We could not have been more amazed had a fire-breathing dragon flown overhead.
About a decade passed, I had became a doctor, moved to San Francisco and started a CD-ROM publishing company before I saw another shuttle. I do not remember which mission/vehicle it was, STS-43 (Atlantis) or STS-50 (Columbia) or STS-51 (Discovery), as all of these had orbital inclinations of 28.45 deg and passed over SF at about 5am, but I clearly remember staring toward the Golden Gate Bridge from my Marina roof as a solitary star turned white, to yellow, to amber, then deep red as it streaked overhead leaving a persistent plasma trail from west to east. I had made it downstairs and back to bed when a pair of sonic booms shook the building.
The time finally came to see a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral. I timed a visit to my folks’ house in Florida to coincide with the STS-95 (Discovery) launch set for October 29, 1998. This was a highly publicized mission of former Project Mercury astronaut and Senator John H. Glenn, Jr.’s return to space for his second space flight, at age 77. The day before the launch, we drove across the state and parked with hundreds of others on the coastal highway near the cape. Our plan was to sit in the car patiently all night for the early morning lift-off, but at about 9pm a pickup truck stopped next to us. A genuine Florida cracker got out, told us he worked on the base and he had a pass to the VIP area and wondered if we wanted it. Another NASA space miracle, right there that night in Florida.
We drove into the swampy VIP area several miles from the launch tower and settled in for a long night lying in the grass. It was the first and last time that I ever spent an entire night talking with my mother and stepfather. The launch went off on schedule, rose rapidly on a pillar of white vapor, the thrust impacting my chest like a rapid succession of quick punches. In ten minutes it was all over and we headed back to their home.
February 1, 2003 was the next shuttle sighting opportunity for me, another early morning re-entry over San Francisco. As the approach ground track was north of the city, I thought we needed a slightly better vantage point, so about 4:30am my soon-to-be wife and I drove up Bernal Hill. This time I had a digital camera on a tripod, and as the glowing dot grew larger and more colorful, I captured 5 images as Columbia crossed over the coast and headed toward Florida. Not more than 15 minutes later I am home looking at the photos with a strangely subdued Mission Control audio in the background. Columbia did not respond to the comm check, approach radar had no target and Flight Controller LeRoy Cain said lock the doors.
Over the next few months, my photos and camera, and those of about 2 dozen other amateur space enthusiasts who spontaneously photographed the re-entry, were examined with every forensic tool available for clues into the breakup of STS-107. One of my images caused more stir than all the others for a brief time, due to an artifact that resembled, for lack of a better description, a purple bolt of lightning hitting the shuttle the second the shuttle sensors began to fail. In the end it was nothing, a coincidence caused by a tiny jiggle of the camera. The FBI in Quantico kept our cameras and NASA generously covered their replacement costs. Over the next few years those of us who took the final photos of Columbia gathered to recall our experiences with each other and just each other. The feelings we shared were unique and infinitely sad.
Today, with Endeavour’s ride up and down California, the space shuttle program has finally ended. On Twin Peaks this Friday morning were hundreds of people of every description. Across town, Baker Beach was packed, so was the Presidio and Marina Green, Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, Chabot Science Center in the East Bay and everywhere in between. A couple near me had brought infant twins to brave the chill air, behind me in handicapped parking an elderly couple climbed slowly from their car with bright eyes and wide smiles, a teenager stared with open mouth, and, as the most improbably-flying machines passed by there were hoots and shouts and applause and tears.
Five times over the past three decades I have taken a few minutes to watch a spaceship move through the sky. Time well spent.
Pete Goldie holds a Ph.D. and 2 other graduate degrees from “old East Coast universities.” “I merely wish it known that I am a licensed ceramic tile & natural stone contractor and everything I write about space science is not only freely available but eagerly disseminated by federal government agencies through the judicious expenditure of income tax revenue.”