Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986 (Outward Odyssey: A People's History of S) (2 page)

Bob Crippen

Preface

When I (David) first became involved in the Outward Odyssey series, working on the Skylab volume, my coauthors and I were shown a list of proposed titles for the first eight books in the series. As authors working on our first book, coming up with a title seemed like one of the more exciting parts of the job. We were thus somewhat pleased to be disappointed with the working title the publisher had provided: “Exemplary Outpost.” It was an accurate title, but it lacked the poetry of the other titles on the list—titles like
Into That Silent Sea
and
In the Shadow of the Moon
. I’m not sure that we quite lived up to that standard with
Homesteading Space
, but we made our best effort.

Even though it meant giving up the privilege of titling this volume, Heather and I were quite happy to go along with the name the publisher had suggested for this book:
Bold They Rise
. It was, quite literally, poetic, taken from the poem by series editor Colin Burgess that appears as the epigraph.

When we first read the poem, very early on in the process of writing this volume, we pictured the title as being about the Space Shuttles themselves, reflecting the poem’s reference to “winged emissaries.” As the book took shape, however, we realized that was no longer true; the title had taken on a new meaning for us. Rather than being about the hardware, it was about the men and women who risked their lives to expand humankind’s frontiers.

And in that vein, this book owes an incredible debt of gratitude to the
NASA
Johnson Space Center (
JSC
) Oral History Project, without which it quite literally would not exist.

With
Homesteading Space
, it was relatively easy to create a book that filled a unique niche—with a few notable exceptions, such as a handful of official
NASA
publications and David Shayler’s
Skylab
, very little had been written about America’s first space station. Breaking new ground was not a particular challenge.

With this book, the challenge was a little greater. There are more books about the Space Shuttle program, so it was somewhat harder to create something unique. Most of the previous works, however, fall into one of three categories—technical volumes, which span the entire program but include none of the human experience; astronaut memoirs, which relate the human experience, but only from one person’s perspective; or specific histories, which are more exhaustive but focus on only a limited slice of the program.

Based on the overall goal of the Outward Odyssey series, a new niche we could address became clear—a book relating the human experience of the Space Shuttle program, not limited to one person’s story but including a variety of viewpoints and spanning the early years of the program. Originally the goal was to create a “
Homesteading Space
of the shuttle program,” but it quickly became apparent that was a misdirected goal.
Homesteading
had only three manned missions to cover, and thus we could delve much deeper and more broadly in covering them. To attempt to write about the subject of this book in that manner would be to do either the subject or the reader a grave disservice; we needed to narrow our approach to create something that was both relevant and readable.

When we began reading from the
JSC
oral history interviews early in our research, the ideal approach for the book became apparent. Here was a wealth of first-person experience, describing in detail what it was like to be there—what it was like to involved in the design of a new spacecraft, what it was like to risk one’s life testing that vehicle, what it was like to do things that no one had done before in space, what it was like to float freely in the vacuum of space as a one-man satellite, what it was like to hold thousands of pounds of hardware in one’s hands, what it was like to watch friends die.

This book almost exclusively offers the astronauts’ perspective on the early years of the Space Shuttle program, and, while research for the volume drew on several resources, the extensive quoted material draws heavily from the
JSC
Oral History Project. It’s the astronauts’ story, told in their own words, about their own experiences.

Bold They Rise
is not a technical volume. We would love for this volume to inspire you seek out another book that delves more deeply into the technical aspects of the shuttle. There are parts of the story that we had to deal with in what seemed like a relatively superficial manner; even dedicating an entire chapter to the
Challenger
accident and the effects it had seems woeful
ly insufficient. Entire books could, and have, been written about the
Challenger
accident. If this book leaves you wanting to know more about that incident or other aspects of the shuttle’s history, we encourage you to seek out those volumes. And of course, individual astronauts have told their stories in memoirs with more personality than we were able to capture here. The subject of this book is such that it can’t be covered by any one volume exhaustively, but hopefully we have provided a unique, informative, and engaging overview here.

The chronological scope of the book was also set by the publisher to fit within the Outward Odyssey series. (Another volume, written by Rick Houston, picks up the Space Shuttle story where this one leaves off.) Initially, the ending point of the book was a bit discomfiting; the
Challenger
accident seemed a rather low note on which to end a book. There were any number of successes both before and after
Challenger
. Why would one pick the lowest point of the early years as a place to end the story? But, in a very real way, it was the best possible way to turn this history into a story arc.

As astronaut Mike Mullane wrote in his memoir
Riding Rockets
,

The
NASA
team responsible for the design of the Space Shuttle was the same team that had put twelve Americans on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth across a quarter million miles of space. The Apollo program represented the greatest engineering achievement in the history of humanity. Nothing else, from the Pyramids to the Manhattan Project, comes remotely close. The men and women who were responsible for the glory of Apollo had to have been affected by their success. While no member of the Shuttle design team would have ever made the blasphemous claim, “We’re gods. We can do anything,” the reality was this: The Space Shuttle itself was such a statement. Mere mortals might not be able to design and safely operate a reusable spacecraft boosted by the world’s largest, segmented, uncontrollable solid-fueled rockets, but gods certainly could.

That, then, is the story of this book—a Greek tragedy about hubris and its price. It’s a story of the confidence that bred some of the most amazing achievements in human history but also led to overconfidence.

But make no mistake, this book is also a love letter. Both authors of this volume were born after the end of the last Saturn-Apollo flight; the Space Shuttle is “our” spacecraft. The
Challenger
accident occurred when we were still children; it was our “where were you” equivalent of the Kennedy assas
sination. In our “day jobs” as
NASA
education writers, we wrote extensively about the shuttle, its crews, its missions, its accomplishment and ultimately its retirement. We write this with a fondness for the shuttle, even when that means telling the story with warts-and-all honesty.

It’s been an honor and a pleasure to tell this story. We hope you enjoy reading it.

David Hitt

Heather R. Smith

Acknowledgments

As mentioned in the preface but bears repeating, this volume owes a great deal of gratitude to the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, without which it would not exist.

In addition, we are grateful to the University of Nebraska Press, and in particular to senior editor Rob Taylor, for their dedication to chronicling the history of space exploration through their publication of the Outward Odyssey series and specifically through their help and support with this volume. In addition, the authors wish to express their substantial thanks to Outward Odyssey series editor Colin Burgess, who has been a loyal shepherd, a wise counsel, and a good friend during the process.

It was an incredible honor to have astronaut Bob Crippen agree to write the foreword for this volume. For David, the journey to writing this book begins in a very real way in front of a television set in 1981 watching Bob Crippen and John Young make history, and to conclude that journey with Crippen being a part of this project is a surreal bookend to the experience.

Astronaut (and
Homesteading Space
coauthor) Owen Garriott provided much assistance early in the project, making contacts and helping to get things moving, and that assistance is much appreciated. In addition, astronaut Bo Bobko was also involved in the early stages of the book and provided insight into its direction and helped open some doors. Astronauts Hank Hartsfield and Joe Kerwin and
NASA
legends Chris Kraft and George Mueller also provided us with material for the book.

Phillip Fox, Jon Meek, Jordan Walker, Rebecca Freeman, Lauren McPherson, and Suzanne Haggerty read early portions of this book in progress and provided feedback.

On a personal note, the authors wish to acknowledge Finn and Caden Smith, ages seven and five at the time the original manuscript was finished, for their sacrifices during deadline work on this book.

In addition, David would like to thank the following:

Heather, who for years has made my writing better and without whom I could not have written this book.

As per last time, my father, Bill Hitt, for engendering my interest in spaceflight that set me on the path to, among other things, writing this book. Jim Abbott, for giving me my first break and being a brilliant editor and a wonderful mentor and for shaping the man I am today. Holly Snow, for opening the door for my new involvement with
NASA
.

Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin, for sponsoring me through Olympus and for sharing their stories, their insight, their knowledge, their expertise, and their friendship.

All of those who traveled with me on multiple road trips to Kennedy Space Center, which occasionally involved successfully watching shuttle launches.

Heather would like also to thank the following:

David, for offering me the opportunity to coauthor a book and for shepherding me through the process.

Mrs. Hughes, for seeing potential in the writing skills of a young, tenth-grade Heather and inviting her to write for the school yearbook staff, sparking an interest in writing and communication that led me down this career path. Mr. Sandy Barnard, for believing that I could write and write well whatever I put my pen to.

The
Times-Mail
in Lawrence County, Indiana, the proud home to three astronauts, including Charlie Walker, who is quoted extensively in this book, for giving me my first professional writing job and an occasional space-related assignment that made a big difference in me ending up writing at
NASA
and thus ending up writing this book. I was blessed to work in a community that adores its hometown astronauts and that still gets excited about spaceflight.

Starbucks locations in Huntsville, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee, and the Flint River Coffee Company in Huntsville, Alabama, for hospitality and tasty coffee. Portions of this book were written and edited there.

And most important, God my Father. Any writing talent that I possess is a gift from You, and You have shepherded my life and career. May You get any and all glory for this volume.

Bold They Rise

1.

The Feeling of Flying

On the one hand is the idea. On the other, the reality.

Sometimes the latter fails to live up to the former. The reality of experience doesn’t always measure up to the way we picture it. So often in the case of space exploration, however, it is the idea that utterly fails to do justice to the reality.

For example, countless descriptions of the Space Shuttle document its specifications to the smallest of details. But knowing that the vehicle stands 184 feet tall and weighs 4.5 million pounds fueled for launch doesn’t begin to capture the experience of standing at the base of the vehicle as it towers on the launchpad.

“I wasn’t intimidated by it,” recalled astronaut Mike Lounge of the first time he saw the fully stacked vehicle. “Well, that’s not exactly true. The first time we went down to the Cape on our class tour, my reaction when seeing the pad, at seeing the orbiter and all that, is, ‘My God, this stuff’s too big. It can’t possibly fly.’ I think that’s a common reaction. I knew how big it was, but it’s different when you actually see it and you’re walking underneath the orbiter and all this stuff. But having gotten over that, it was kind of fun to be there with the hardware. Everyone enjoys hardware over simulations and paper.”

If the vehicle itself transcends expectations,
NASA
’s astronauts found that so, too, did the experience of actually flying aboard the Space Shuttle. Those expectations would have gradually mounted during months of mission preparation and training, but the experience would truly begin in earnest when the highly anticipated launch day arrived.

For an astronaut, that first launch day comes only after years with
NASA
. Since 1978 astronauts have first been selected as “candidates” and must complete an initial orientation period, replete with training in almost every aspect of the agency’s work, before becoming official members of the corps.
Then there are ground assignments supporting the program in ways that have nothing to do with getting ready for a mission.

And then, finally, years after selection, there’s the crew assignment. Followed by more training and preparation. There’s practice on the general things that will occur during the mission, like launch and landing, to make sure everyone is ready. There’s practice for all the things that theoretically could occur during the mission but shouldn’t, the potential anomalies and malfunctions the astronauts have to be ready for. There’s training on mission-specific tasks, the unique things each astronaut will have to do on this particular flight. There’s preparation, working with the scientists or engineers or companies or countries responsible for the mission payloads to make sure that those, too, are ready to go. So when launch day finally arrives, it’s a long-awaited culmination of a great deal of time and effort.

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