Closing the chapter on the space shuttle
Cape Canaveral, Florida
By Joe Skipper
The decades-long assignment started with covering the first space shuttle launch, Columbia, on April 12, 1981. A recent visit to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A wrapped up the story for me. Often we cover assignments not knowing how long it will take, and my part in coverage of NASA’s space shuttle program seemed as if it would last forever. With the landing of the shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, however, we thought the assignment was over.
But it wasn’t complete yet. With the shuttles headed for public display, the assignment continued a bit longer in order to cover the preparation and their ultimate departure from the space center.
Longtime members of our Reuters shuttle photo team, Pierre DuCharme and Scott Audette, joined me for a final look at the historic pad before it would be demolished to be reconfigured for the next U.S. manned spaceflight program. We were hosted by NASA Photo Editor Ken Thornsley and our longtime NASA media escort and friend, Charlie Parker, a retired NASA engineer.
The pad was the focus of so many years of shuttle launch coverage, along with the sister pad, 39B, which has been dismantled and is now being reconfigured as a multi-purpose launch pad. Soon, the Pad A structure will be removed as well. Pad A has been used for more manned missions than any pad at the Kennedy Space Center or the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, including Apollo 11, the first manned landing on the moon, the first and last space shuttle launches and many in between.
Our tour, led by NASA’s Pad Operations Manager Steve Bulloch, began with entering the massive air conditioning support rooms beneath the pad. Beneath the pad, we were shown the amazing Apollo-era Emergency Escape System, which included a slide system and a domed ‘blast room’, built on springs to absorb shock and sealed by massive blast doors, to protect Apollo astronauts and pad crew members if a problem occurred in the final moments before launch. The system was never used. After so many years of shuttle and expendable rocket launch coverage, we had no idea the escape system even existed.
The pad was originally constructed for Apollo missions, and later rebuilt for the space shuttle program.
We went to the pad surface, boarded the elevator used by shuttle astronauts and went to the top of the structure. We descended to the level used for entry into the crew cabins of shuttles by astronauts. We walked down the “yellow brick road,” the walkway to the White Room, where astronauts entered the shuttle. On the same level there is a bathroom used by astronauts, which did not have a door on it until female crew members flew aboard the shuttle.
It was a day to reflect on the highs and lows of the program, the losses of Challenger and Columbia, recovery of the debris of Challenger and the memorial services for the crews, hot days and cold days in the swamp setting up cameras while battling mosquitos and watching out for large alligators and snakes, the 3 a.m. launches with scrub after scrub after scrub and the short tempers and days with little or no sleep, the missed birthdays and holidays, and never being able to plan around NASA’s launch schedule.
Almost two years after the landing of the final shuttle flight, as I turned off the lights and locked the door to our building (feeling like Mary Tyler Moore must have), I knew it was the true end of the assignment.
After covering more than 115 shuttle launches, and watching liftoff of that massive vehicle carrying human beings into space, I recall that deeply patriotic sensation at T-0 and how I could almost hear the “Star Spangled Banner.” There will be another manned flight from Pad A sometime in the next few years, and another book will open.
It is truly an honor to be a witness to amazing events in our history and to have made lifelong friendships with a very special assignment in common.