Grieving Space

On the Job Where Columbia Should Have Landed

The space program is so flatly braided into my life that I use it as an alarm clock. When an orbiter (for that is the proper, NASA-ized name for the part of the space shuttle that carries astronauts about the earth) returns to Kennedy Space Center at the end of a mission, it rips two massive sonic booms across the face of Central Florida. The colonies of mobile homes clustered around Tampa Bay, the great golf ball of EPCOT, my little square of an apartment in Cape Canaveral: they all tremble before the engineering marvel that is man’s first reusable spacecraft.

I work in education at the Kennedy Space Center, and there is an awful sense of d?j? vu when I walk along the Astronaut Memorial and bend down to read letters and drawings left behind by entire classrooms. “We are sad,” they write in crayon over lumpy drawings of rockets and lopsided American flags.

The scent of the dying carnations takes me back to my third grade classroom. As I sat in reading group, the principal crackled over the loudspeaker to tell the faculty to find a television, because the space shuttle?in that great and delicate parlance of the Southern Ohio school system?had “blown up.”

“Oh, my God,” said the grownup at the front of the room, and crossed the floor in great, horrified strides to bring to life black and white images of an awful Y-shaped explosion.

At dismissal I pounded up the parking lot steps to my mother and flung myself against her: “What happened?” I said. “What happened?”

The loss of Challenger sent me to the space science section of the library and, many years later, down I-75 to a writer’s day job at KSC. But all those years of hunching over The Right Stuff and pointing little fingers at control panel diagrams in The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual failed to prepare me for working side by side with the hardware of NASA. It is impossible to live and work on this swampy little sandbar and not become emotionally attached to these piles of titanium and sweat that ferry the American space program back and forth, back and forth.

I took to referring to the orbiters, these great ships, as “shes,” just as the astronauts do, and speak of them as the living, breathing ladies we believe them to be. “There’s Atlantis ,” I’d say in classroom presentations to crowds of visitors, pointing at a black and white camera feed of an orbiter with her huge payload bay doors split wide open. “She’s cranky because her hydrogen fuel lines need a little soldering.”

And so it was only right and good to welcome my friend Columbia home after an exhausting sixteen-day mission. I did not set an alarm clock. I didn’t have to. Her sonic booms would throw me out of bed at about 9 a.m., plenty of time to watch her swoop safely home. As she always did.

The phone woke me up instead. “I thought you’d need someone to talk to,” said my mother from her hotel room in Orlando.

I shoved hair out of my face. “Talk about what?”

“You don’t know?”

When I found a feed from Mission Control and saw Columbia’s return trajectory arcing into nowhere, I knew. “The space shuttle,” reported an eyewitness in Texas, “is everywhere.”

Orlando sits about an hour from the Cape. I pounded off the numb and hazy miles clutching on my lap a framed photo of Columbia’s last launch and a battered copy of The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual. When I felt my mother’s arms around me I stared over her shoulder at a flawless Florida sky. Perfect landing weather.

“What happened?” she said.

I did not go to work the next day. Or the day after that. “Get back on the horse,” my parents urged, but the horse lay shattered over a massive debris field somewhere between Texas, Louisiana, and why.

On the sixth day of the aftermath, NASA staged a memorial service at the landing strip that was to have welcomed Columbia. Someone laid a mission patch in the center of the runway, precisely where commander Rick Husband would have set her down. “Columbia was a fineship,” said Bob Crippen , the first man to pilot her or any other orbiter. “I’m sure that Columbia, which had traveled millions of miles, and made that fiery re-entry 27 times before, struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home safely once again.”

The thrumming wall of shock began to fade. “She’s in pieces,” I said, bending towards a blurry runway as coworkers grabbed me on either side. “She’s right here,” whispered one of them, tapping me above the heart.

Two hours later found me in the classroom between a picture of Columbia’s crew and an audience of curious American taxpayers. “This is an orbiter,” I said, holding a tiny model aloft, high over everyone’s head.

The space shuttle is everywhere.