My Close Encounter: STS-1

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I’m feeling a bit melancholy about the end of the US Space Shuttle Program.  Today, via the wonders of the internet, I witnessed the 135th and final launch of these awesome machines.

As I write this, Shuttle Atlantis is in orbit over the Earth, making its way to a docking with the International Space Station.

The photos you see above were taken by me on April 27, 1981,  just a few weeks after the completion of the first Shuttle mission, STS-1, by Shuttle Columbia.   It had landed at Edwards AFB in California and was being transferred back to Florida piggybacked on a NASA 747.

My college roommate at the time, Michael Ryan, and I had heard that the shuttle was going to make a stop at Tinker AFB just outside of Oklahoma City.  When we heard that it was going to be open to the public, we couldn’t resist seeing it.

We made a mad dash from Stillwater, OK, driving the 70 miles to Tinker, arriving just in time to see the shuttle/747 descending over the highway towards the runway.  Traffic for miles around came to a standstill and people got out of their cars to watch.

Eventually making it onto the Air Force base, we were allowed to view the shuttle from less than 100 yards away. I can’t imagine being allowed to do that today.

I have been captivated by the manned space program my whole life.  In the ’60s and 70’s, I was mesmerized by the Apollo program and vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, during Apollo 11.

For 30 years, the Shuttle program has waxed and waned in my attention, but I remember, almost painfully, where I was when I learned of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

And so, yes, there’s melancholy to see this program end and I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see America continue its manned exploration of space.

Americans have always been curious explorers of the frontier.  It’s part of our definition and our genetics.  I worry about the cohesion of our national identity when we set this aside.

Oh, how I pray we remember to be pioneers.  I take hope from Commander Christopher Ferguson, who before the flight,  saluted all those who contributed over the years to the shuttle program.

“The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through,” he said. “We’re not ending the journey today … we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.”


4 thoughts on “My Close Encounter: STS-1

  1. Thanks so much for posting these images. I was feeling nostalgic for the end of the Shuttle program as well when I did a search for the first time I saw the Shuttle at Tinker AFB in OKC and ran across these wonderful images. I was just a kid at the time and didn’t realize the full impact of what I was witnessing. I didn’t realize or remember that it was the FIRST shuttle in space! Through your images I get to relive it again. Thanks! 🙂

  2. I, too, was at Tinker that glorious day! I have pictures!

    I scheduled a morning visit with my customer that morning so I got through Tinker security early. We all walked over to the landing area together and planted our toes on the runway. My BEST memory was the flyby done by the 747 pilot. We thought he was going to land, but instead, he cruised the length of the field at 200-300 feet. What a “photo op” that was! Then he did what looked like to be a lap around the entire city of Oklahoma City. How fine was that? Before coming back and landing, the pilot wanted to show Columbia off to all who could see! What a thrill it was that day! I will never forget the emotion and excitement. Columbia, darlin’, it was love at first sight. Who would have ever imagined the tragedy that was to come?

    Continue to part 2

  3. I was living in Fort Worth on the day of Columbia’s last flight. What a heart breaking day that was. It still makes me sad. The Orbiter broke up directly overhead. At the time, I had no idea that this was the “boom” I heard that morning. I knew Columbia was on her way back to the space center, but I would have never connected her to the explosion I heard.

    Then I heard the news.

    All day we were warned what to do if we encountered “space debris”. The TXDOT signs along the freeways were covered with information about what we should do if we encountered what we thought might be part of Columbia. “Space debris” still seems too undignified a term for the passing of such a dignified lady.

    Late that night, I realized that this was a moment in time. I went out and took pictures of the TXDOT signs, and prayed that such a moment would never be seen again in our time.

    Lanell Allen

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