I was a space brat.
There was no better place to be a kid in the 1960s than Cape Canaveral (then Cape Kennedy). Rockets went off in my backyard. Not just Titans and Deltas, but honest-to-God Saturns. There was nothing quite as amazing as watching (and hearing and feeling) a Saturn V leave the launch pad and climb into the sky on a pillar of fire.
I was born the same year Alan Shepard became the first American in space (1961), losing the first man in space honor by a few weeks to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. In 1963, my father took a job that led us to Florida’s Space Coast. He went to work as an engineer on the Saturn IB project, the rocket destined for the first Apollo missions.
Needless to say, I wanted to be an astronaut more than anything. My favorite toy was a GI Joe in full astronaut regalia that came with a scale model replica of a Mercury capsule that GI Joe and his spacesuit fit into perfectly. We lived close enough to the Cape (on Merritt Island) to see the launches from our backyard. It was close enough to the launch sites so that our sliding glass patio doors would shake in their frames from the roar of the liftoff.
When there would be test flights of the Saturn IB, my father was part of the launch crew, and would be locked down in the Launch Complex 34 blockhouse (a reinforced concrete bunker that housed Launch Control) until after a successful liftoff. On February 21, 1967, while my father was in the blockhouse, tragedy struck during a routine launch pad test of the first manned Apollo mission. A flash fire sparked inside the sealed 100% oxygen-enriched Apollo capsule, and astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed.
This set the Apollo program back as the Command Module (capsule) had to be completely redesigned. My father’s last lockdown in the LC-34 blockhouse was the return of Americans into space, the launch of Apollo 7 on October 11, 1967. That was the last time Complex 34 was used; it sits abandoned in place on the Cape, a memorial to the crew of Apollo 1. (My family left the Cape before the first moon landing in 1969.)
The last time the Saturn IB flew was in 1975 on the joint Apollo/Soyuz mission. In 1981, 20 years after Alan Shepard’s first flight, the Space Shuttle era began as Columbia blasted into orbit. Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis joined Columbia as our fleet of reusable space vehicles. Unfortunately, the shuttle fleet was high-maintenance and cost more than was originally projected, but it served its purpose of getting people and large payloads into Earth orbit.
On January 28, 1986, a solid rocket booster failure caused the disintegration of the Challenger 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts. It took two years and nine months before the next shuttle mission took off. Endeavour was the replacement shuttle, and it first flew in 1992.
Tragedy struck again on February 1, 2003 as Columbia broke apart during reentry, killing its crew of seven astronauts. Two and a half years passed before the shuttle fleet flew again. By this time, completion of the International Space Station had become the Shuttle’s main mission. That mission will end on the final Space Shuttle flight, scheduled to be Atlantis on June 28.
It’s hard to believe that the Shuttle has been ferrying astronauts and cargo into space for 30 years. It’s also hard to believe that 50 years after Alan Shepard’s first flight, that the United States will not have a launch vehicle that can take people into space, nor are there any active plans for NASA to develop one. We will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until such time as a private company comes along and develops the next generation launch vehicle, or until we decide as a nation to resume our role as the world’s leader in peaceful space exploration. It was six years between the final Apollo flight and the first Shuttle flight. I wonder how many years it will be before the next American astronauts blast off from Cape Canaveral.
And I sure hope my father is around to see it.