During this Artown month, we turn the clock back to 1982, in the early days of July. We planned to travel to Palmdale, California. The high point of a normal Palmdale weekend would usually be the bookmobile arriving from Los Angeles, or tickets to the matinee performance at Western Auto, but on that weekend the space shuttle Columbia, on its fourth mission STS-4, was arriving on Sunday, July 4th, astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield at the conn.
With that in mind, I went to Senator Howard Cannon’s office then on Booth Street and wrangled a VIP invitation to Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was landing. No problem, I was a good Nevadan. We journeyed to Palmdale on July the second, and on the third, a Saturday, we went to the large NASA hospitality building in Lancaster – adjoining Palmdale as Sparks adjoins Reno. To give credit where due, the name “Cannon” rocked the staff due to his advocacy of the Senate aerospace and defense committees, and the kids were treated like kings – tours of past Gemini capsules, “rides” on moon landers, and other courtesies – and we left with four human passes, one for my Suburban’s windshield and some cool NASA baseball caps like the big guys wear. We were advised the landing had been delayed until 9:02 AM that Sunday (tomorrow) morning, from 8:53 AM, so we changed our plans accordingly.
The view of the Mojave Valley foothills that Saturday night was breathtaking – the firelight of Coleman lanterns and campfires ringing the valley – Caltrans estimated that a million people had camped in the surrounding hills to watch what was planned to be the last west coast space shuttle landing, ever. At oh-dark-thirty on Sunday the Fourth of July we left for Edwards AFB, and upon entering the base, the Suburban was checked from cellar to attic, and beneath with mirrors – for at 9 o’clock the night before it was announced that President Ronald Reagan was coming to witness the shuttle landing. We walked interminably across a parking lot, and I have a photo to this day of a large – make that huge – Rosey Grier look-alike Secret Service agent, who met all at the gate with “Take my picture!” then smiled a display of Ipana-ad white teeth – the purpose to make sure all cameras were indeed cameras and not guns or bombs or whatever. Nice guy.
At thirty minutes before 9 AM three tall young pilots, ramrod-stiff, flat-bellied in their powder blue NASA flight suits, arrived at their parked blue-and-white T-38 jet chase planes; the assembled ladies en mass all went ga-ga, the pilots kicked the tires and lit the fires, taxied out, rolled, and climbed out like a trio of homesick angels to points unknown. A moment later, the baseball-stadium-sized Diamondvision TV screens came to life, and the PA system carried the voice from NASA Houston, who was controlling the shuttle’s landing. The shuttle was then over the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, the chase planes transmitting images of it. “You are angels one-oh-two, four miles downcourse” – basically 102,000 feet straight up from Edwards. “Valve off your hydrazine,” and the shuttle complied with a vapor trail; the chase planes laid orange day smoke – all four aircraft now in full view from Southern California.
“We’re coming down,” announced Hartsfield laconically, and did they ever – straight down, 40,000 people on the Edwards tarmac puckered, expecting the craft to bury itself in the desert. At the last moment, it leveled, its gear fell, the tail split into a brake, and the three T-38s strained to stay above it, using their dive boards, landing gear and full flaps to slow down. The shuttle rolled to a stop. 9:02 AM. How did they know that a whole day earlier? (And I know, most T-38s don’t have dive brakes. These were NASA birds, not your grandfather’s T-38s…)
Ronald Reagan, in the same western-cut informal duds he’d wear on his ranch on a Sunday morning, and his Nancy approached the podium and made a few remarks. He then cleared the NASA transporter for takeoff, a modified 747 with the shuttle Challenger recently completed at Palmdale’s Plant 41 mounted atop it, to fly the new shuttle to Florida. The 747 rolled, rotated, then lifted gently off the desert floor. I watched it – but it never climbed out – just flew across the desert. Curious…
A few minutes later, joined by the crew of the Columbia that had just landed, Reagan made a few more remarks. Then, turning to the audience, he concluded his speech with that great Reagan smile and “Nancy and I want to thank you all for coming out in this hot sun, and we want you to go home now and have one Hell of a Fourth of Jul….”
The 40,000 people, and millions at home watching TV, never heard the “y” in “July”, only the deafening whine of the transporter’s four massive engines and the roar of the three T-38s, all four planes in a tight formation, coming up from behind the audience treetop-high at over 250 knots and pulling with MEDO power. They all dropped their right wings in unison to the American flag behind the podium, just as the Marine band from NAS Miramar cued the Stars and Stripes Forever – John Phillip Sousa never heard it played any better. The planes leveled their wings then climbed rapidly over Reagan’s shoulder as we viewed him, holding their formation in a left departure into the haze.
Our Fourth of July weekend had begun; the Challenger was away on its first trip to Cape Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, in his western White House Levis and a goat-roper shirt on that hot Sunday morning, had shown us the nexus of presidency and showmanship in its highest form. Dry eyes among 40,000 people: zero. Photos of the flyover by the surprised crowd: zero. Offers to re-enlist into the services: 14,307. Pride in the US of A: Priceless.
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Thanks for that morning, Dutch, and God bless America on her 243rd birthday. And a happy and safe holiday to all on this 2019 July 4th!
© Karl Breckenridge … photo credit NASA