Space Shuttle Viweing Adventures (1988-1990)

From Discovery's 1988 "Back In Space" mission (following the hiatus after the Challenger disaster in 1986) until moving from California in 1990, I went to every shuttle landing at Edwards AFB - with the exception of the classified missions.  These latter DOD missions were landed in secrecy and the public was not allowed.  However, in those 16 months, beginning with that first trip to Edwards, I witnessed three orbiters returning six different times.  Each time was just as exciting (if not more so) than the previous, and each one was a unique adventure for me.  Here, I offer words and pictures that recount those wonderful experiences.

Dryden Flight Research Center Aerial Views
Dryden Flight Research Center Aerial Views

STS 51L Challenger
Back to TOP


As with many Americans, I can remember, vividly, where I was, and exactly what I was doing on January 28, 1986.  Shortly after leaving the Navy in September of 1985, I was hired with Hughes and began working at NAS Mirimar on the F-14 Mission Trainer flight simulator (the back seat, or RIO).  I loved working there, and still believe that the F-14 is one of the most amazing and capable multi-role jets ever made, anywhere.  My lifelong passion for working with jets was continuing and I was now as close to actually flying one as I would ever get.  I flew both the back seat and the front seat OFT a LOT, almost every chance I could.  I worked primarily the midnight maintenance shift, so I got to fly whenever I wanted.  It was the "Top Gun generation".  Young aviators, inspired a few years ago by the Tom Cruise machismo, were coming into the "real" F-14 community.  The young F-14 jocks I helped train were both cocky, and highly professional.  Work was good.

At home, we were still living in southern California, which is where we wanted to be.  My beautiful young wife of two years [Susie] had blessed us with a beautiful, perfect healthy daughter in June of 1985 [Jessica], and we were just beginning to go through life as a family unit.  Money was tight, but life was good.

At work, the skeleton maintenance crews of Hughes and Grumman listened to a lot of radio in the wee hours of the morning.  That January, I monitored the news for information about the upcoming Challenger launch.  As a loyal follower of the NASA space shuttle program, I was keenly aware of the importance of this particular launch, as was most of the world.  The media exposure for this mission was intense.  With schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, representing the first "civilian in space", the entire world looked forward to the opportunity for others to follow.  The shuttle program had launched twenty-four perfect missions and the world now considered it all to be so routine.  I never felt this way. 

I grew up as a kid the sixties and was weaned on the trials and tribulations of the Apollo program while growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Being this close to Houston, home of the Manned Spaceflight Center (now Johnson Space Center), we felt similarly close to the entire NASA family.  Corpus Christi has a huge Naval Air Station, and naval aviators made great astronauts.  We watched all of the TV coverage for each mission, and I was one of those kids who knew EVERY Apollo astronaut's names, as well as those of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffey, and Ed White - and the great sacrifice they made.  I was well aware of the highly technical, and extraordinarily risky nature of spaceflight.

All that week, the Challenger had one delay after another, several for bad weather.  I had been looking forward to getting to watch it on TV, as it was originally scheduled to lift-off on the afternoon of January 22nd.  The day of the actual launch, January 28, everyone on the radio was talking about the cold in Florida that morning - and the freezing temperatures around the launch pad.  Then, they had another 2-hour technical delay.  For me, this was great, as I would get to see the launch that I would have otherwise missed.  I raced home and turned on the TV at about 8:00 in the morning.  CNN wasn't the only network that was covering the launch [this time]....all the networks were.  It had been a long time since NASA had been so exposed to the public, with the public's genuine interest.  I woke Susie up and made her sit down on the couch with me and watch the launch.  Jessica, just seven months old was sleeping quietly in the crib in her room, the walls covered with a huge contiguous rainbow that Susie and I had painted.

As we watched the last of the countdown, I was enjoying telling Susie all I knew about the shuttle, the makeup of the launching pad, what she would see and the timing sequence of the ascent.  She excitedly listened.  This was the first time we had sat down and experienced anything like this together.  It all felt so great.

It was a beautiful launch.  The sky was deep blue and clear, and the orbiter, boosters and main tank were set against a perfect backdrop.  What we initially saw with the live broadcast were not the close-up, slow motion views that we normally see of the Challenger exploding today.  It all looks so obvious in those clips.  What we saw, after the fateful call to "throttle up," were those two snaking smoke trails split off and then a glimpse of a fireball.  In those few seconds, I held my breath, grabbed Susie's hand tightly and whispered, "that's not right, something isn't right, it's not supposed to do that, something is very wrong".  What was so incredible was that the audio we were hearing was the continuing telemetry from the ground controllers.  We were looking at what appeared [to me] to be a complete catastrophe, and the controllers didn't seem to know it was happening.  Then, shortly, that all changed.  The world changed.

We couldn't move, we switched channels and saw the same things on every station....the launch, then, seventy-two seconds later, the end.  Then, the shots of Christa's parents, unsure of what was happening as they watched from the bleachers at the Cape, and the live feeds from her classroom.  It was indescribably gut-wrenching.  Well, I say indescribable, but anyone who witnessed September 11, 2001 live knows exactly what that feeling was like.  February 1, 2003 was another day of equally stunning disbelief, followed by enormous heartache.

That day in 1986 was the first time I had ever felt emotions like that, and when I could finally tear myself away from the TV, when I was fully convinced that there would be no survivors, when I finally lost hope - I got up, walked into Jessica's room, and just stared at her.  I wanted to tell her what had just happened, and how sad I felt, and how I hoped that someday she would know what brave and wonderful people lost their lives today trying to help us all live a better life and expand our knowledge.  I wanted her to appreciate the sacrifice, and to respect the challenge that would now face us.  But, all I could do was look at her, sleeping so peacefully.

It was then that I cried.

After about an hour, it dawned on me that I should use the VCR to record the news broadcast.  This is in the days long before the sleek VCRs of today.  This was a clunky, top-loading JVC that I bought from the Navy Exchange in the Philippines in 1984.  This day began my own personal affair with this recording technology, and these tapes are the first in a library of hundreds of aviation programs and historic news events [including a 20-tape set of Gulf War footage, with almost all of the military briefings].  I keep them for historical value, and as keepsakes from the actual time period.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, we moved from La Mesa back to the coast and to Ocean Beach, where I had lived from 1981 to 1985.  We lived in a wonderful two-bedroom apartment near Sunset Cliffs, and Jessica had a new room, complete with a new wall-to-wall rainbow. She began growing up, and I had the wonderful opportunity [still working the midnight shift] to be with her every day, all day, while Susie began her medical career.  Thus, began the incredible bond we have today.  I took her to the beach on the back of our bike, I took her to airshows, we did everything together [and still do].

All this time, the Challenger hearings came and went, and I recorded multiple random hours of the testimony that was televised. The investigative process was amazing, and CNN [and John Holliman] took us all the way through it. NASA was on the right track to fix the problem with the booster o'ring design, and a new orbiter [Endeavor] would be built.  I monitored this recovery with a reborn enthusiasm.

STS-26 Mission Patch
Back to TOP


When it was announced that Discovery would take us back into space in late 1988, I thought about the landing at Edwards AFB.  I don't know why I had never thought about it before.  There I was, living in California since 1981 and it never even occurred to me to go up there and check it out.  I felt so stupid!  I was then, I was then obsessed with going up there.  I made every phone call it took to get directions, dates, times, and other pertinent information from the extremely helpful folks at the Edwards & Dryden Public Affairs Offices.

I then called all of my close friends in the southern California area.  I tried to get everybody I knew to go.  I only managed to talk Ed (which was easy), and Monte (in Newport) into the trek.  I would take Jessica with me.  Susie could not go to the landing, as it was on a Monday and she could not get the time off from work.  We were set to go.

I can't recall how we pulled off the logistics, but I seem to remember that we drove up to Newport, picked up Monte, and then made our way to San Bernadino and then over the mountains to the high desert.  We followed the map we had, then we followed the cars and RVs that seemed to know where they were going.  It was all very easy.  We were herded onto the dry lake bed via a designated exit that was gated off from the main public road that circumnavigates the lake bed on two sides.  We were then guided to our parking spot, which was on the front row, facing the open vastness.  Across from us lay the famous Edwards Air Force Base, where the greatest aviation testing exploits in history have taken place.  I was in heaven.

We had intentionally arrived the day before, so that we would not have to worry about the crowd or parking the day of the landing.  This proved to be a sound plan.  The parking lot rapidly filled in behind us.  I was astounded at the number of people that came.  It was truly an inspirational experience.  Row after long row of RVs arrived all afternoon, and all night long.

We all enjoyed the enthusiastic and friendly crowd.  Conversations were easy to strike up.  Everybody there had the common bond of the love of the space program, NASA, and the national pride that came from overcoming the Challenger disaster and regaining our presence "back in space".  This mission, designated STS-26, carried aloft the final TDRS satellite of the constellation series, as well as over a dozen scientific experiments.

There were vendor booths set up along the "flight line" fence and we spent hours poring over the plethora of aviation pins and patches.  The enormous variety made for "sweet pickins" for Ed and I, who had become collectors recently of such paraphernalia.  We scored a huge bounty on this trip.  There were also T-shirts of varying designs, all heralding the Discovery's historic mission, Edwards AFB, and the shuttle program.  I was definitely in my element here.  I was so glad to have brought Jessica with me.  Even though she was only three years old, and cannot remember anything of the event, she can still say she was there, to her kids and grand kids; and I have the photos to show it.

This would be the last event I would attend with my long-time friend and partner, Monte Aye.  I would see him only a few more times before he would take off for Hawaii, where he has remained.  We keep talking about reuniting somewhere soon...

In the late afternoon, we had "neighbors" watch our parking spot and I drove my car up to the exit to take some photos of the constant stream of vehicles coming to the viewing area.  I shot the sunset from up there.  This would also happen to be the spot that I would see my final view of a space shuttle on the dry lake bed at Edwards (see Atlantis - March 1990).

The night was festive, and the air was filled with the soft rumble of generators, distant varied music sources, and the sights and sounds of hundreds of thousands of well-mannered American patriots.  It was difficult to sleep.  No matter, we enjoyed staying up all night.  Ed, Monte and I attached a Coleman lantern to a tripod at our "campsite" and we alternated spending time there, and riding bikes up and down the "flight line".  There were jets flying overhead all night and it was fun speculating about what they were, and what they were doing up there.  The morning came soon enough.

Ed and I had each brought portable Radio Shack scanners and we got the frequencies to security and the NASA telemetry from various people we met.  So, we felt clued-in to the behind-the-scenes aspect of the landing event.  I shot lots of photos of the security patrols, the buzzing helicopters, and I shot several multi-shot "G Scott Panoramas."  Then, I loaded the camera for the landing, which occurred around 9:30 in the morning.  When we heard that the shuttle was definitely inbound, we made our way to the low fence line and set up some lawn chairs and the tripod for the camera.  I squeezed off a few more shots at the fence line (with the fisheye lens) and then snapped 14 images of the actual landing, which was awesome!

It never occurred to me that the landing would be so quiet, with the exception of the twin sonic booms.  When the shuttle returns through the transonic (sound) barrier, it creates a unique set of shockwaves that form on the fuselage.  This has the effect of creating two rapid sonic booms.  This happened at about sixty thousand feet.  From then, it is a silent glide for about 2-3 minutes until the wheels touch down.  The crowd cheered at the booms, then became excitedly hushed until touch down.  Then, spontaneous applause and cheers erupted from the lake bed throng of observers.

When the shuttle came to complete stop, there was a mass exodus of RVs.  Seeing that, we opted to just wait it out right there for a few hours.  I shot two more rolls, including a roll of slide film (which I never used), over the next few hours.  Then, we made our way off the dry lake and onto the highway, heading for home.  We had to drop Monte off in Newport, which made for a long trip back to San Diego.

It was a glorious experience, and Ed and I instantly became addicted to it - vowing not to ever miss another one, unless completely unavoidable.

When we got home, we were excited to find that coverage of the landing was still being played out on CNN.  In fact, we found out that there were over 400,000 people on the dry lake bed with us!  There was film footage that was shot from one of the various helicopters there and we actually saw ourselves in the broadcast footage!  We had witnessed, and had thereby become, a part of history.


STS-29 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

For the 2nd time in six months, Ed, Jessica and I trekked up to Edwards AFB for a glimpse of the space shuttle Discovery returning to earth after a successful mission.  There had been another shuttle flight, featuring Atlantis (STS-27), returning on December 6, 1988 - but that mission was a classified DoD payload deployment.  For that landing, the public was not allowed to go to the desert viewing area.  Discovery's return would be early in the morning of March 20th, which was a Saturday.  As such, we left on Friday, March 19 [around noon].  Susie could not get off work to go with us, once again.

The trip began with a scare as we traveled up Interstate 15 from San Diego.  At some point, I heard a loud "THWACK" - like something had hit the passenger side of the car, towards the rear.  A little concerned.  I pulled off the highway at the next exit to investigate.  I was somewhat horrified to find a 6-inch splattered blue spot on the bottom of the hatchback's rear window.  Somebody had hit us with a paintball as we were on the highway.  Either it came from someone staked out in the shrubbery on the side of the road, or from another car. Either way, living in the land of the drive-by-shootings and road-rage, it freaked me out.  The rest of the drive was uneventful.

This time, we got there a little later in the afternoon (the day before the landing) and we found the front row of the Rogers Dry Lake public viewing area parking lot to be full.  So, we parked in the 2nd row.  Once again, we took our bikes and we also took a kite for Jessica - her first.  [her first experiences of being self-propelled and with the concept of man-made flight occurred here at Edwards AFB - I was trying to inspire her].  The parking lot again filled up rapidly behind us, and soon the familiar party atmosphere of NASA loving American patriots was in full swing.  These were all GOOD people, here to share the common experience of simply watching the last few moments of the mission flight of one of the most amazing flying machines ever created by man.

The moon was almost full, and in complete view in the late afternoon light, and the sunset was one of those colorful ones that you wish you could hold in your mind forever.  The photos I took help with that notion.  I shot a complete roll in the late afternoon, and then half of another one of the sunset.  I finished the 2nd roll of film during the evening - experimenting with the red filter on the fisheye lens around the "base camp" between Ed's and my cars.  I also shot some nice long exposure shots of the Edwards AFB lights across the endless lake bed, with the near-full moon glowing in the light clouds above.

Once again, we stayed up most of the night, enjoying the subdued revelry of the constantly growing crowd.  Ed and I each caught a few winks in our cars, but the Subaru was not conducive to comfortable sleeping (unless you are three years old).  No matter, new vendors kept opening their booths of aviation pins, patches, and T-shirts all night.  Ed and I were kept busy perusing their wares, riding the bikes, and monitoring the traffic on the scanners.

Dawn came soon enough, and the now-familiar security patrols began their stepped-up perimeter sweeps.  The Hueys were beautiful in the early morning light.  Edwards, at dawn, is also quite the sight - when viewed from across the vast dry lake bed.  I shot another roll of dawn's early light.

This mission, designated STS-29, was the 28th space shuttle mission.  It carried aloft a TDRS-D satellite, an IMAX camera, and a plethora of student and Air Force experiments, including crucial experiments featuring technology to be used on the future space station.

For this landing, the shuttle used the long concrete runway on the dry lake bed, Runway 22, which meant that the approach path was closer to our position.  After hearing the twin sonic booms, it was easy to spot the shuttle in the clear, blue sky.  This time, it flew (glided) almost right over head, and the view I had through 310mm of zoom was incredible.  I shot 23 photos of the awesome 3-minute landing sequence.  These pictures are the best I ever took of a shuttle landing, and only three of them were affected by that nasty light leak problem that my cheap (and dying) Nikon EM had become prone to lately [intermittently].  This time, instead of a profile shot of the landing, we were almost directly behind it, slightly to its left.

With the crowd significantly smaller than the previous publicly viewable shuttle landing, we opted to "get out of Dodge" quickly [as soon as the orbiter came to a complete stop.  This was accomplished easily, as we were in cars, not a giant house with wheels.  The drive home was quick and uneventful and we got home in time to get the photos processed and in our hands.  That is, all except the last roll (of the actual landing).  I didn't actually hang around long enough to finish it off while at Edwards.  It was eventually completed at an airshow at Norton AFB the following weekend.  At THAT airshow, a heartbreaking amount of otherwise beautiful photos would be ruined by that enormously frustrating light leak problem.  Those photos can be soon seen in the AIR SHOW section of this website.

Another great shuttle viewing experience..MISSION COMPLETE !!

STS-30 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

These images were taken at Edwards AFB in May 1989.  This was my 3rd shuttle landing in just nine months, and it was almost getting routine.  By this time, we had trimmed the excursion down to just my car, due to parking logistics.  It was easier to maneuver my little car between the giant RVs in the enormous parking area to get a better spot.  It was much more difficult to do this with TWO cars (when Ed also drove his).  We had figured out "the ropes" of watching the shuttle land in the high desert of California, and we had become almost complacent in our actions.  We brought old Army cots to sleep on, and bikes to cruise around the parking lot during the night of festive, though subdued, revelry that always provided the prelude for the actual landing day.

This mission, designated STS-30, had carried aloft the radar mapping satellite, Magellan - along with a host of other experiments.  This satellite would go on to provide unprecedented radar topography of Venus.

This landing occurred on May 8, 1989 - which was a Monday.  It still amazes me how many people would show up, in the middle of the desert, on a weekday, to catch a brief glimpse of an aircraft landing on a distant runway.  Most people actually arrived during the night (Sunday).  We did the same, arriving at the dry lake bed viewing area sometime around 10:00 p.m.  There were tens of thousands of people, all of them there for one expressed purpose - to watch three minutes of silent aviation history.  It always took about 24 hours to ramp up to that moment, and the good folks at Edwards AFB always opened the desert viewing area up that much early, to accommodate the crowds.  These crowds were always well-mannered and ultra-patriotic - a wonderful group of people that were just as thrilled to be there as we were.  It made for a full night of semi-carnival atmosphere that lasted all the way til dawn.

Ed and I tried cat-napping, but I was always too pumped up for sleeping when I was there - too afraid I'd miss something.  We had our hands-free headset walkie talkies from Radio Shack with us, and we'd don them whenever one of us strayed from our campsite and down the several mile long "flight line".  This way, we could talk to each other and relate the happenings to each other.  This was long before the days of cell phones.  We both collected aviation pins & patches, and each of these events provided a new opportunity to expand our collections.  There were always booths set up by vendors selling these, and usually there was much more of a selection here than what we had seen at the numerous air shows we had been to during these years.  We wiled away the hours poring over thousands of pins and patches - looking for just the right one to augment our collections.  Again, this was long before the Internet, and you couldn't just go ON-LINE and buy anything you want - you had to search for it the old fashioned way.

As dawn approached, I began shooting the area with long exposures, trying to capture the early morning light.  I also shot two "G Scott Panoramas".  They didn't turn out as well as I had hoped, due to the enormous change in lighting conditions as I spun the camera around on the tripod, one frame at a time.  Still, they offer a unique, contiguous view of where we were in the parking lot on the enormous dry lake bed.  I shot one roll before the sun even came up.  I shot a 2nd roll of film just after sunrise, as Edwards AFB and Dryden Flight Research Center came to life.  There were multiple aircraft taking off on the runways in the distance (across the lake bed), and I shot a bunch of NASA, test, and training jets as they flew overhead.  The light was still low, and most of these shots came out blurry, as the camera's auto-exposure feature kept the shutter open too long for aviation photography this early in the morning.

It is here that things get a little fuzzy.........

You see, the beauty of having as many photos as I do, is that I don't have to rely on my memory so much.  My memory is quite selective, and I often remember events more clearly when I also have a visual reference burned into my brain to provide an extra sensory retrieval tag.  This is where the photos come to play.  When there are no photos, my memory is prone to not being able to retreive the information........AT ALL.  Unfortunately, such is the case here.  These photos have been in large photo albums, complete with labeled, sleeved negatives, since about 1990 - which was when I began to put my photos in albums, because I was accumulating so many of them.  I haven't looked in these albums in at least 10 years.  As I am assembling this web sight, I am also scanning and archiving all of these old photos.  When I began scanning the two rolls (mentioned above) from this trip, I was stunned to find NO MORE photos from this landing.  At first, I thought I must have just misplaced them in another album (I have 37 of these 400 photo albums).  But further (almost panic-stricken) searching has led me to realize that this is not the case.  Certainly, if there had been some kind of "photo trauma" causing me to be unable to film the shuttle that day on the desert lake bed, I WOULD REMEMBER THAT!!

So, I am led to believe that I DID film the shuttle.  But, what happened to the photos? In my mind, I could not picture having ever seen any other shuttle photos (of mine) than those I rediscovered in all of my albums.

Then, it hit me...........SMACK !!!

Back then, photography was a hobby for me.  With a young family, and living in San Diego, life was expensive.  Even with both of us working, money was ultratight - and we lived paycheck-to-paycheck.  So, these trips to the desert were expensive diversions for me.  As such, I was always looking for BARGAIN film and developing.  I had been sent a few sample rolls of film from a place called Seattle Film Works.  It was supposed to be very high quality film, and could only be processed by them (you had to mail it to them).  Sometime during the late 1980's, I shot 4 rolls of this film, and never sent it in for processing, as we never seemed to have the money for that.  For a dozen years, I held on to these rolls, having LONG AGO forgotten what was on them, or when they were shot.  When I returned from Saudi Arabia in 2001, I did a LOT of tossing out of old stuff from my office, and I specifically remember throwing these 4 rolls away.  I even remember thinking to myself as I did it - "I don't remember what is on them, and certainly film this old would not be processable".

It is now my firm belief that what was on at least ONE of THOSE rolls, was in fact the footage I shot of the Atlantis landing at Edwards on May 8, 1989.  Those images are now lost forever.

What I am left with is a fuzzy memory of the actual landing, and some decent shots of the area of the lake bed parking lot we occupied for the event.  But, this is enough for me.  I would NOT make this mistake again, and I would be better prepared the next time we came to the high desert to witness history.

STS-34 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

These images were taken at the public viewing area at Edwards AFB on October 22 & 23, 1989.  It had been five months since I had been up to the high desert to watch a shuttle orbiter return to earth.  There had been one other landing during the summer, but that was one of those classified DoD missions and the public was not allowed to come out and watch the shuttle's return to Edwards AFB.  That mission, designated STS-28, had featured the orbiter Columbia and returned to earth on August 8th. 

Since the last trip up here had met with such a lack of ON-HAND photographic materials (of the actual LANDING), I was determined to make up for that with this viewing.  I came fully loaded with four rolls of QUALITY film that could be developed ANYWHERE.  A lesson learned.  Remember, this isn't an airshow, or an event that is full of visual excitement.  It is simply tens of thousands of people gathered together on the floor of a dry lake bed near an air base.  So, there isn't necessarily a lot to take pictures of.  The actual orbiter landing, from the time it becomes visible in the sky, until the time it comes to a complete stop, is barely FIVE minutes.  Four rolls of film certainly should be enough.

By this time, I had told everybody [that I knew] about the unique excitement that comes with taking these little ventures.  As a result, for this trip I was joined not only by my 4-year old daughter Jessica, but also by my good friend Colby Getchell and his new family (Renee and son, Lance).  They drove a nice RV there to make for a luxurious campout on the dry lake bed (as opposed to the normally spartan accommodations [sleeping on cots or in the car] that Ed and I had previously experienced).  Ed would not be along on this adventure (the only one he missed).  We arrived at the enormous lake bed public viewing area late in the afternoon of October 22nd, which was a Sunday.  The landing was scheduled for 9:00 am the following morning.

This mission, designated STS-34, carried aloft an amazing payload array that included the Galileo satellite (which gave us enormous information about Jupiter), an IMAX camera, and a plethora of scientific experiments.

The mood for this adventure to Edwards was much like it was with the Discovery "Back In Space" landing.  The Galileo probe had received an enormous amount of press coverage, thanks to CNN [which has always given WAY more coverage to NASA than the other networks].  Specifically, thanks to John Holliman.  In case you don't remember him, he was to the "shuttle generation" what Walter Cronkite was to the "Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo generation".  By that, I mean that he brought the very technical world of this amazing program, and those of NASA, and JPL, into the home of the everyday American, with language, words, pictures and graphics that made them interesting, educational, and inspiring.  The world suffered a great loss with his untimely death in 1998.

In getting there as early as we did, we had a great parking spot, in the 2nd long row of RVs.  In the late afternoon sun, we set up the campsite between our two vehicles.  Colby got a grill going and the kids soon met other kids and all were playing on the giant, flat, hard-packed playground - none of them realizing WHERE they really were.  To them, it was just a different place to fart around and be kids.  We took their bikes and they rode around and around, up and down the growing rows of newly arriving RVs.  This continued into the night.  We eventually cooked up steaks and burgers and were able to comfortably relax and enjoy the soft festive atmosphere in relative luxury.  Colby brought out his guitar, the kids roasted marshmallows over the grill, and the scene was incredibly comfortable.  I stayed up as late as I could, monitoring the growing crowd and checking out the different vendors setting up their booths of patches, pins, T-shirts and other relevant paraphernalia.  Eventually, we all drifted off to sleep.  For me, this sleep would not last too long, as I was still bound to sleeping in my small hatchback, which just WASN'T comfortable.  Add to that the fact that it is quite chilly in the high desert in October.

I was up and around before dawn, and I was amazed at the size of the crowd.  While it had appeared that there were RVs arriving all night long, there was nowhere near the crowd levels we had seen previously.  There were only two or three LONG rows of parked vehicles as the predawn light began to illuminate the surreal scene.  There couldn't have been more than a few thousand people here this time.  Then, the visual scene became almost ghostly.  A huge bank of fog literally came out of nowhere and rolled over us, coming from the northeast.  It settled over us, then moved on - rolling across the huge expanse of lake bed, towards the base.  The photos I took barely capture the view we had of the low fog layer, with the distant buildings and hangers of Edwards looming up out of the gloom in the first rays of sun.

At this point, the scanners were alive with chatter about the fog.  But, it wasn't much of an actual problem, as it eventually cleared off, lasting only about 30 minutes.  The STA (Shuttle Training Aircraft) was up and flying for hours and continually made approaches on the appropriate vector to the runway that the shuttle would use.  There were also the usual array of security helicopters buzzing around.  The gathered throng emerged shortly after the sun popped up, and the atmosphere immediately took the air of an airshow - in between performances.  There were vendors selling donuts and coffee, the security patrols were all very nice and friendly, and everyone anxiously awaited the morning's "show".

I shot a partial roll (the remainder of a roll already in the camera) the previous afternoon and evening.  Then, I shot another complete roll during the night (some nice long exposure shots across the lake bed), finishing it off before the sun rose.  I shot a 2nd and 3rd complete roll of this early morning activity and the fog.  This left the 4th roll for Atlantis' landing.

When we heard the telemetry coming across the scanners say that the orbiter had crossed over the coast (coming in from the Pacific), all eyes turned upward and soon the morning quiet was interrupted by the twin sonic booms heralding Atlantis' close proximity.  I looked to the sky, while keeping an eye on the crowd.  Soon, fingers were pointing to a tiny, light grey speck and I zoomed all 310mm of the Soligar telephoto lens on the trusty (though trouble-prone) Nikon and began firing.  I shot 23 photos over the next three minutes and captured wonderful images of the lake-bed runway touchdown.  These are true keepsakes for me, even though four of them are marred by the light leakage problem that this camera had become prone to recently.  For the last photo on the roll, I pointed the camera down and took a picture of Jessica, barely 4 years old.  Just behind her, my good friend Colby has just sat down in a lawn chair and is reading the newspaper, mere moments after the orbiter stopped on the runway.  Typical Colby.  I love this photo.  Someday, she will treasure these photos as well, and the story that goes with them...something she can pass on to her own children someday.

Since the landing occurred so early in the morning, we essentially had all day to pack up and go home.  So it was again, very relaxed.  We shopped around some more at the various booths and generally goofed around for a few hours before departing.  The drive home was uneventful and Jessica and I arrived back in San Diego before dark.  Colby, Renee and Lance made their way to their home in beautiful San Clemente.


STS-32 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

These images were taken at Edwards Air Force Base in January 1990.  I knew that this was going to be my last opportunity to see a shuttle land at Edwards AFB.  I had accepted a job installing and maintaining the T-45 flight simulator suite (starting in April 1990), which was to be based in Kingsville, Texas.  So, I knew that there would be no more of these adventures.  On top of this, NASA was already planning on curtailing landings at Edwards AFB.  Due the cost of transporting the shuttle back to the launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA began landing at KSC almost exclusively beginning in 1992, using Edwards Air Force Base as an emergency landing area (in case of weather at the Cape).  Plus, this was the longest shuttle flight (to date), making it that much more historical.  Its payload (that it brought BACK from space) also made it the heaviest shuttle ever to return to earth.  During the mission, designated STS-32, it captured (for Earth return) the LDEF satellite, whose decaying orbit would have kept it in space for no longer than one more month.  This satellite had been in orbit for over 5 years, and had been stranded there due to the Challenger disaster.  Its mission was to test materials to be used on future satellites, and the future space station.  The fact that it had spent years longer in space than planned actually made it that much more valuable to NASA, and MUCH was learned from the various material "swatches" that covered its exterior.  Thus, I was determined to make the most of this last chance to witness the earthbound arrival of the most amazing machine ever built by mankind, with its priceless payload.

The weeklong series of events began with a departure from San Diego on the afternoon of the 18th.  With Susie working and Jessica in preschool, it was just Ed and I on this "mission".  As usual, we took both of our cars.  Like NASA, we believed in redundant systems. The drive to Edwards was without incident, though the snow on the mountains outside of San Bernadino hinted at the temperatures we would find in the high desert.

This landing, like all of them, had it's own unique aspects (other than what I already mentioned) and one more was that the orbiter was going to land on the concrete landing strip (Runway 22).  Not only that, but the only viewing area was going to be ON the base, at a place called the VIP viewing area.  Having never been on the base (except for an airshow once before), and since it was late at night when we arrived, just finding where we were supposed to go was the first obstacle to be handled.  My credentials from NAS Miramar got us through the gate with no effort, but "where to go from there"? Edwards is a HUGE base.  I elected to go to the security office and ask for directions.  The guard on duty was extremely helpful and gave us a map (and I think the shuttle frequencies for the evening).  All I really remember was looking at the amazing photos that adorned the walls of the security office.  Classic photos of the most exotic aircraft, flying over the aviation testing center of the known universe.  Yes, this was a personally thrilling experience just BEING on this base, and it felt like we were getting our own custom, fairly unguided, tour of it.  We took the map, and realized that we needed to be on the Dryden Research part of the base.  It took us awhile to figure things out and get our bearings in the dark, but we had purposely arrived there early for such a contingency, so we had plenty of time.  When we DID find the "VIP viewing area", we were a little disappointed.  It was just a series of metal bleachers at the side of a road, almost 3 miles away from the runway.  There were no more than a few hundred people there, which was also strikingly different from our past adventures, where there were hundreds of thousands of people.

We were guided into a small dirt parking area and we set up our usual base camp between the cars.  We set up the lantern and lawn chairs, popped open a Lowenbrau and celebrated our good fortune at being at another special aviation event together.  We monitored the scanners and listened in on NASA's plans for bringing the shuttle in from their overhead orbit.  It was bitter cold and the talk on the radios soon turned to the weather conditions at the primary landing site (that's us).  The concern was about the "potential" for fog, even though there was no hint of fog in sight (other than what came out of our lungs with every breath).  Then, they decided to take "another lap" around the earth and come back and check out the conditions in 90 minutes, the time it takes to orbit the earth).  Upon hearing that, Ed and I decided we'd had enough of the cold and got in his car to wait out the "go around".  We tuned in the only station we could find on the little portable TV that I had brought, and continued to monitor the scanners.

Unfortunately, the conditions had not changed when they had come back around, and NASA decided to just "try again tomorrow".  So, at 4:00 in the morning (the 19th), we packed up the cars and drove disappointed back to San Diego.  We would HAVE to come back again - later on in the day.  Which is exactly what we did.  Even though it was now a Friday night, the cold that we told about kept Susie and Jessica from joining us.  Again, Ed and I drove back to the high desert.  We had our walkie-talkie headsets on and kept in close contact with each other, which made the drive more fun.

This time, we knew where we were going on the base and it was like we were old veterans, driving directly to the VIP viewing area at Edwards. This time, there were less than a hundred people in attendance for the orbiter's arrival, which made us feel all the more privileged.

I should mention here that I had just bought my first camcorder about a month prior to coming on this trip, and I was determined to get the landing on both 35mm film and video tape.  This was a JVC VHS-C camcorder, and I was a complete rookie at video camera operation.  Ed was even less skilled, but he was put in charge of the video for the landing, and I was shooting the stills (with a Nikon EM camera with a Soligar 85-310mm zoom lens).  I had the only tripod, because I needed a stable platform for the long exposures needed in the dark of the night.  I mention this, because our video "noviceness" would kick our asses later on.

As the deorbit burn was announced on the loudspeakers (broadcasting the same shuttle frequency we had all been listening to on the scanners), the excitement began to build and the small group of gathered human popsicles began to still quietly.  The STA (Shuttle Training Aircraft) and various helicopters had been flying around in the sky, and it was then that we all began asking the same question..."does the shuttle even HAVE lights?" Nobody seemed to know, but it made sense that it wouldn't, what with having to endure re-entry and all.  Then, we heard (and felt) the BOOM-BOOM from Columbia's return through the transonic barrier over head.  Nobody could see a thing, but we knew the shuttle was now no more than a few short minutes away.  Luckily, we had the video tape running and it captured the twin sonic booms (and is one of my most prized possessions).

All we could see of the runway from our far away vantage point, was two large white spotlight beams that pointed down the runway.  We were perpendicular to the runway, which was lit up for a left-to-right approach (from our viewpoint).  However, we could only see about a thousand feet of the runway, at the threshold end, due to buildings in the distance.  Whatever we were gonna see, was going to be brief.  We listened intently, but could hear no sign of its arrival, only the sound of the verbal telemetry coming over the loudspeakers avery few moments.  When we heard that it was a mere five miles downrange, there was anxiety in the hushed crowd.  We all knew that if it were daytime we could see it, it would be essentially right in front of us.  When we heard "gear down", and still saw nothing, we knew that only seconds remained until touchdown.  The crowd began wondering aloud, "where IS it?", knowing it was right THERE.  And then, far down in the beam of the search lights, a brief glimpse of "something", and then it was gone behind the buildings and out of view.  I saw it through my zoom lens, but there was no time to get a photo.  Ed also saw it, he thought, thought the tiny black-and-white viewfinder of the camcorder.  Immediately, we wanted to see the "instant replay".  We rewound the tape and I scanned it myself.  Now this is LONG before there were LCD display screens, and I only had a tiny viewfinder, looking at essentially a black background with a line of white (the search lights) extending horizontally.  But, there it was, a quick image floating into the beams and then out of the frame.  We had it.  I then backed up the tape again and showed it to Ed.  We were STOKED !! I then looked at again, and stopped the camera (to save film and batteries) as soon as the shuttle left the frame. This would turn out to be a HORRIBLE mistake.

Buoyed by our success, considering the limited actual sighting we had of the shuttle, we ventured to see if we could drive somewhere on the base to get a better view of Columbia as it was being "safed" at the far end of the runway.  We could see it out there, all by itself (along with the special trucks that make it safe), all lit up in it's own against the completely black desert backdrop.  We found a spot that afforded us the closest view possible.  Here, I shot the last photo on the roll of film that I had been shooting all night.  I then loaded up my only other roll (which I had grabbed off of a shelf in the house as we left the previous afternoon).  I proceeded to shoot that whole roll from this perfect vantage point.  I used the tripod and varied the exposure times and aperture settings to be sure that ONE of those photos would be excellent.  We also shot a bit of video.  When we looked at the video tape one more time before heading home, we were DEVASTATED!!

Unknown to us, the camcorder had a nasty habit of rewinding a little bit, as it retensioned the tape (when you turned it on and off).  So what we saw, to our horror, was the few frames of the shuttle actually touching down had been OVER WRITTEN by the footage of the shuttle now sitting on the end of the runway.  We checked it over and over, but it was gone....forever.  To say we were bummed, would be an understatement to the extreme.  All we had (of the orbiter) were the still photos that I took as it was being safed at the end of the runway. The drive home, after this 48 hour road trip, was a LONG one.

When I got the photos developed the next day, the disappointment was amplified a thousand fold.  That roll I had grabbed, the one I thought was fresh, was actually an exposed roll that my wife had shot at her work.  Her camera had a BAD feature in that it would rewind the film automatically after a roll was shot, but it did not roll the film ALL THE WAY into the can.  Instead, it left the exact amount of leader as is found in a fresh roll.  So, the 36 beautiful photos of the Columbia, all alone and lit-up against a black backdrop, were ALL superimposed onto shots of the interior of a doctor's office.  UGH !!

It was a complete failure except for the LONE photo I got from the tail end of the other roll I shot.  But it it a bit washed out, as the exposure was too long. With this utter photographic failure, Ed and I decided we would make up for our incompetence by going BACK to Edwards and trying to catch the orbiter atop its 747 transport flying off on its way back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  We found out when the flight was expected to depart Edwards (7:00 a.m.  on the morning of the 25th) and made plans to be there.

When the afternoon of the 24th rolled around, we triple checked the photo gear and headed back to Edwards AFB with absolute determination to succeed at all costs.  The drive was made only in my car (Subaru hatchback), to cut down on our exposure.  Since the departure is not really a public viewing event, this adventure was again, unique. We did not know what to expect, but were pleased to again gain access to the base easily with my NAS Miramar badges and the sticker on the car.  We proceeded back to the Dryden portion of the base and were amazed to find the shuttle and the 747 in the mate/demate assembly, and it was gloriously lit-up.  We decided to be as stealthy as possible and to get as close as we could.  We found a parking lot about 1000 feet from the shuttle and settled in.  We didn't know if what we were doing was legal (we just wanted some pictures of the shuttle), so we sunk down low in our seats, to make the car look empty.  We had arrived around 2:00 a.m., and we spent the next four hours hunkered down like this, as our car was the only one in this darkened parking lot, and we did not want to attract any attention to ourselves.  Every once in a while, when we perceived the coast to be clear, I would quickly get out of the car, set up the camera on the tripod, and take a long exposure shot of the awesome sight we were privy to. We did the same with the video camera.  I shot an entire roll of film this way, again changing the exposures and aperture setting to be sure I got GOOD one.  [I would NOT be disappointed this time].

At about 6:15 a.m., we spied movement of the aircraft and watched the now-single aircraft conglomerate slowly back out of the mate/demate unit.  At that, we decided we needed to also be mobile, and stay as close as possible to this wondrous sight.  We drove right up to the flight line fence and caught glimpses of the shuttle over and between buildings as the two were towed down the tarmac on the other side.  Then, we got a little ahead of it and an open area of tarmac lay in front of us. The sun was just about to peek over the mountains directly across from us, and it became clear that the mated aircraft were going to pass right in front of it, giving us an awesome silhouette.  I was shooting stills, and Ed had the camcorder duty.  We would shoot a few shots, then jump back in the car and race ahead, only to repeat the process several times.  We were absolutely giddy with excitement (and lack of sleep), knowing we were not only getting photos of the shuttle, but EXCEPTIONAL, ONCE IN A LIFETIME photos (and video).  We could not believe our good fortune.  The extra effort had paid off more than we could have ever dreamed.  We shot ahead of some buildings one last time on our fence-line stalk, and saw the 747 / shuttle pull up and stop at a staging area.  Here, I took two incredible photos, and then elected to save the remaining 6 photos for the impending take-off.  Ed continued shooting incredible video.

Unfortunately for us, the rising sun illuminated or cockiness with the cameras at the fence line - and security soon showed up and immediately dispatched us back up the hill to the VIP viewing area - where we had been a few nights before.  The view from here was too far away, and the rising sun made photography from hear nearly impossible.  But, we didn't know where the shuttle-laden 747 would take off.  So, we waited until it began moving again.  At 7:00, it did just that and we began trying to both shadow it and anticipate its runway heading.  We failed to get to an optimum place to view the takeoff, as they did not taxi but a few minutes before jumping into the sky.  We caught it about 200 feet in the air (taking off from behind some buildings which had impeded our view), and I jerked the car off the road and we came out with both cameras firing.  The take-off was captured after all - and it was a glorious sight to behold, zooming off into the early morning sky.

Our mission now complete, we drove back to San Diego still smiling about the sights we had seen, the images we had captured, and the fact that security had not confiscated our film or camera gear.  When the film was developed, I could not have been happier.  Two of the photos from that night rate (in my book) as two of my top five favorite pictures that I have ever taken.  Both of them have been enlarged and have a place of honor on the living room wall of our house.  They never fail to bring wonderful compliments when I have guests over.  That night, and the night of the actual landing, rank as two of my all-time favorite adventures.

It turns out I was wrong about this being the "last" time I would see a shuttle land.  The next mission, STS-36, with the orbiter Atlantis was a "classified" mission and the public would not be allowed to view the landing.  That had discouraged me in the past, but I desperately wanted VIDEO of a shuttle landing at Edwards AFB before the opportunity evaded me forever..........

STS-36 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

This was my last opportunity to see an orbiter return from space and land at Edwards AFB.  Like each of the previous five landings that I was privileged to witness, this one had its own sense of uniqueness.  First, and foremost, this mission, designated STS-36, was one of those termed "CLASSIFIED / DoD" by NASA.  Thus designated, little information was released about it's mission, payload, weight, or orbit.  Even the landing was to be decidedly "non-public".  We DID, however, find out when it would be landing.  My family and I knew that we would be leaving the fair state of California in less than a month, so we decided to at least give the landing a try.  We [Ed & I] had been up and around the base and lake bed seven times over the past 16 months, so we felt fairly familiar with aspects of the landing profile, as well as the overall geographic and roadway layouts.  As such, we figured we could find a road near the lake bed from which we could see the shuttle fly over head.  It was to be a daytime landing, so we felt confident of seeing something.

The landing was on March 4, 1990 - which was a Sunday.  For the first time, my wife didn't have a good reason NOT to come with us, so she joined Jessica, Ed & me on the adventure to Edwards for the first time, knowing full well we may not see anything at all.  She would not be disappointed.

We left San Diego early in the morning (pre-dawn patrol) and arrived at the Desert Market (the only sign of civilization near the isolated base) early in the morning.  We took both Ed's and my cars from San Diego, but decided to rendezvous here and all get into my car.  My car had a Department of Defence sticker on it from NAS Mirimar, and we decided that we should all be in THAT vehicle, since we didn't know where we would end up on this adventure, and the sticker may be our only assurance of entry. We left Ed's car at the Desert Market.  I think we tried to get on the base, but we were denied access, and ended up just driving around on the roads near and around the giant lake bed.  The road that normally led to the lake bed public viewing area was closed off by security forces.  As per Ed and I's previous adventures, we literally stumbled (based on superior navigation, and a hunch) on the prime spot for watching the shuttle glide in.  It would actually end up sliding through the air directly over the spot where we decided to stop.  We were not alone, though.  A few other cars drove by and stopped in the same general area, but there were no more than 20-30 people out on desert floor to witness Atlantis' silent return that cool, clear morning.

We sat around the car and listened to the scanner, and we felt like we part of the "super secret club" - knowing what was happening overhead.  We listened to the familiar NASA controller traffic about the de-orbit burn procedures, and we mentally predicted the timetable til touchdown.  Because of our distance from the lake bed, I was not expecting to get any good photographic material from this landing, but I DID come prepared.  I brought the new video camera, my Nikon, and even a Super 8mm film camera.  I had picked this latter camera up while on a WESPAC cruise in 1984, the same year video cameras (the big ones) became available for the average consumer.  Thus, I never really used it, as it was EXPENSIVE to shoot movie film.  I figured that THIS was worth 50 feet of movie film, so I brought it along.  I had film camera duty on the Nikon & tripod, Susie would be handed off the video camera (once I locked onto the shuttle with it), and Ed would be responsible for the 8mm movie footage.  By this time, Jessica was 4 1/2 years old and she was now bored with these landings in the desert.  She couldn't comprehend the historical significance of it, and the desert offers little fun for a young child (though there are a multitude of things NOT to touch).  It became an exercise of Jessica watching, as much as it was shuttle watching.

When we knew [by the telemetry coming across the scanner] that the shuttle was getting near, we anxiously waited for the tell-tale twin sonic booms which heralded its arrival like an airborne salute.  That sound (actually full body sensation) is something that you just never forget, and Susie was thrilled to experience it.  Now, ALL eyes were on the skies, and everyone audibly scanned for the little glint that would gradually grow to become the underside of the speedy glider.  Unsure of the exact approach path, the sky became a HUGE palette of blue and whispy white, and the shuttle was up there....somewhere.  It was spotted simultaneously by the small crowd and all hands pointed to the small, silent silver speck etching it's way across the sky.  I zoomed the camcorder in and locked on the orbiter, and was quite thrilled with what I was seeing.  We had a MUCH better vantage point that I could have hoped for.  It was literally flying in right over us.  I would have contentedly filmed the whole approach with the camcorder, but I knew that if I could see it this well with the video camera, then I should be able to get remarkable photos with the Nikon and it's 310mm zoom.  I passed the camcorder off to Susie (without giving her clear instructions...MY FAULT) and raced to get the tripod spun around and the Nikon locked on target.  Meanwhile, Susie started complaining (having NEVER used the camcorder before, and knowing NOTHING about it's operation) about not knowing whether it was recording, or even ON (it was BOTH).  Simultaneously, Ed was filming with the 8mm film camera and trying to give her vocal instructions.  She finally reacquired the shuttle and filmed it almost all the way to touchdown.  She lost it in the tiny viewfinder as it touched down way off in the distance on the dry lake bed.  Ed, however, filmed it perfectly with the 8mm camera, and that is a priceless 50 foot roll of film in MY book.

As for MY photos, I will say that I was more pleased than I could have imagined.  But, the day did not end there.  Knowing now where the shuttle was [out on the dry lake bed], we opted to drive around the road that rings the dry lake bed.  This was closed off (by security forces) before and during the landing, but it opened back up after touchdown. This road has the exit to the lake bed viewing area, but this exit was closed off when we got there.  But, there is an overview here, just off the road. This was our objective.  The roads were empty, and the shuttle was out there, all by itself (along with it's purging and safing vehicles).

We found a spot on the road [behind a large rise] and I stopped the car and got out.  I then took the tripod and the Nikon and quickly hoofed the several hundred feet to the edge of the rise.  From here, I had a beautiful elevated view of the shuttle on the desert floor.  I could also see several of the Huey security choppers (with gunners in the side doors) flying around the area.  Then, through the camera lens, I saw one of these choppers turn right at me and start speeding my way.  For a moment, I was transfixed, like I was watching a cool action movie.  I kept snapping images, then it dawned on me that that I probably SHOULDN'T be there right then, especially with a CAMERA.  So, with the helo still a few thousand yards away, I hoofed it back to the car, got in and we got BACK on the road.  Nothing going on HERE !! Just as I got to the car, the chopper buzzed overhead...LOW & SLOW and banked and I saw the gunner give me a firm hand signal that I immediately understood to be "GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE".  The fact that we didn't get in more trouble right then I owe to the "Ellwood luck", once again.  With Susie freaking out in the passenger seat, Ed more than a little anxious in the back, and Jessica continuing to "fidget", it was a tense drive as we continued our circuitous route around the lake bed....on the way back to the Desert Market.

The helos shadowed us from a distance for awhile, and then went back to the shuttle.  We could still see it way out there, and I stopped a few more times to shoot a frame of film, and take a few feet of video.  By the time we got to the market, we were just plain excited.  We had seen a wondrous sight, among only a handful of people, and we had a true adventure together out there on the lake bed.

As I said before, I had NOT expected to get ANY decent film footage from this trip, considering that the public wasn't ever supposed to see it.  So ANY piece of film from this trip is a treasure (to me).  The video footage is very good [considering the circumstances], but the audio tells the REAL tale of the 90-second landing scenario - Susie was NOT happy about the camera handoff!! The 8mm footage is also very good, and I will get it transferred to video soon.  I just hate to send this to somebody for fear of losing it.  What I am MOST happy with, are the still images that I shot.  They are not the greatest "quality" photography, but they are photos that tell the story I just related, and I am willing to wager that NOBODY has photos like this of THIS shuttle coming in to land, on THIS mission.

STS-73 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

This was the last time I saw Columbia, or any other space shuttle orbiter.  Again, the circumstances surrounding this adventure were unique and I felt especially privileged to have had the opportunity to be there at that place in time.  For a whole host of reasons, THIS experience was the pinnacle of my shuttle viewing adventures, and one of the highlights of my life.

To understand why this was such a meaningful experience, and how it came about requires a bit of background.  Pardon my ramble, but I feel that this helps set the stage properly.

Since moving from San Diego to Corpus Christi in 1990, I had been working on the new T-45 flight simulator suite at NAS Kingsville.  We were living in a new house (our first) and life was continuing along.  My wife [Susie] was working in the medical field as an MA and our daughter [Jessica] began going to a brand new, and highly rated school.  But, life's road is seldom smooth, and we were still living paycheck-to-paycheck.  Any disruption to the normal day-to-day events was inevitably more expensive than our budget allowed.  Like many families starting out, we struggled to keep our heads above water, financially.

Working at NAS Kingsville was an absolute joy, and I didn't mind the fifty-minute commute each way from our house in Corpus.  The Hughes crew I worked with was terrific and motivated.  We all believed in the mission of creating the most advanced training system ever put forth for naval aviators.  The T-45 Goshawk is a sleek little trainer jet, and it replaced both the T-2 Buckeye and the A-4 Skyhawk as a primary and advanced training aircraft.

I quickly became close friends with one of my co-workers, Chris Jonas.  He came from the U.S.  Air Force community of flight simulators and he had his own plane, a Piper Cherokee 140.  We carpooled to work together, and spent the weekends flying, sailing, fishing, and just hanging out on South Padre Island.  Chris ended up leaving Hughes in 1993 and ended up working with some of his previous Air Force buddies on flight simulators for Boeing, in the service of the RSAF (Royal Saudi Air Force) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  We kept in touch and he regaled us with "life in the Kingdom" when he would return to Corpus to visit (every 6 months).  As an outsider, the life he described was difficult to perceive.

In the late summer of 1995, Susie lost her job and our family immediately began to feel the financial pinch.  In fact, the situation rapidly became almost desperate for us.  We were in credit card debt and the calls started coming for restitution.

On the morning of Sep 3, 1995, as we lie in bed on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the phone rang.  It was Chris, calling from Saudi Arabia.  He said that there was an opening for a highly motivated flight simulator technician there, and he asked me to pass this information along to a couple of the single guys that we worked with at Kingsville.  He began to give me some of the specifics of the job, and the perks (for me to pass along) and then I just decided that the person he really needed, was me.  We had come to this.

While I loved working on the T-45, we had finished all of the eight simulator installations and now it was simply a matter of operational maintenance.  While this was not a bad thing, it was not as challenging as the work I had been doing there.  Plus, the management team of Hughes was changing and the technicians whom had demonstrated loyalties and superior work ethics (myself included) were continually passed over for both promotions and pay raises.  As much as I hated to even think the thought, the time was ripe for me to consider moving on to something else.  This call from Chris could not have been more timely.

With that phone call, our lives changed.  The ball started rolling immediately in Saudi Arabia, and within days I was filling out applications, security forms, and sending my military records and accolades to Cocoa Beach, Florida - which is where the Boeing offices for this program were located. In short order, I had tickets in my hand for an Cocoa Beach, on October 1, 1995.

This explains how I got there, at that point in time.  As for why this experience was so meaningful to me requires a bit more dissertation.

My US Navy career lasted from 1981 to 1985.  My chosen field of extpertise was working on F-14 radar weapons systems, specifically, the RF (radio frequency) electronics of the Hughes AWG-9 system.  I worked in the AIMD area and was assigned to VF-2, which was one of the most prestigious F-14 squadrons in the US fleet.  As such, they also had some of the best F-14 pilots in the Navy.  To me, these guys were more than just pilots.  My youthful fascination with all things aviation still burned heavily within me and these men were essentially my heroes.  I know that sounds silly, but this is how I have always felt.

When I was assigned to VF-2, in 1982, the squadron was deployed on the USS Ranger, already off on a WESPAC (western Pacific) cruise.  I ended up joining them in mid-cruise (see my Diego Garcia story).  As soon as I got on board the ship, I was in big trouble.  I won't go into the details, as I am not proud of the circumstances that put me into this position.  But, suffice to say, it was an extreme low point in my life.  I went in front of two F-14 pilots, who were assigned my "case" as part of their collateral duties while at sea.  These two men were Mr. Frost and Mr. Rominger.  Two men who didn't know me from Adam.  All they knew was in the paperwork they had for my "offense", and my service jacket.

My service record, without trying to "toot my own horn" was exemplary.  I was accelerating through the enlisted ranks like a skyrocket.  In boot camp, I was the company yeoman, the scholastic award winner, the company honorman, was meritoriously advanced in rank, and selected by my peers as the outstanding recruit.  As company honorman, I was selected as one of the three finalists (of 640 recruits) for command honorman.  This accolade allowed for my parents and I to have "tea and crumpets" with the admiral on the day of my graduation.  Out of boot camp, I went to technical school in Millington, TN, where I continued to excel, receiving a certificate of honor for completing school with the best grades in an accelerated amount of time.  I was also advanced in rank again.  Because of all of this, I was placed with VF-2, right out of school.  At this point, I was actually contemplating becoming an officer, as everyone I encountered told me that was where I should be.  Unfortunately, I was also told that I was too old at the time [twenty one], with no appreciable college experience [a degree].

With this shining nine-month record in their hands, Mr. Frost & Mr. Rominger found themselves at odds with the "charges" against me.  They listened to my side of things and at the end of that encounter, they gave me the least punishment possible.  They believed in me, had confidence in me, and [I say this with the greatest of emphasis] they gave me a second chance in life.  Right then, my whole life could have been over.  They had it in their hands, to do with as they felt, and they allowed me the opportunity to prove my worth.  It is something that they probably have long forgotten, but something that I recall on an almost daily basis.  I am forever grateful to them both, and have lived my life (since then) in a manner that would not disrespect their decision.

So, what does this have to do with the space shuttle, thirteen years later?

As I have mentioned in the previous encounters on this page, I have been a tremendous fan of the space shuttle program, especially after the Discovery mission in October 1988.  As such, I watched every launch that I could (when they were broadcast on CNN - once again the only network that deemed such events worthy of live coverage).  I also monitored the overall program, and was excited about the knowledge we were just beginning to glean from the various highly specialized satellites we were putting into orbit with the shuttle.  Galileo, Hubble, Magellan, and others were giving us amazing glimpses of the universe. Then, in 1992, I saw a John Holliman report on CNN about astronaut selectees and future missions.  One of the names mentioned in that report was a new astronaut, named Kent Rominger.  The very same top F-14 pilot that had befriended me 10 years previously.  I became a big fan of his, all over again, and for a new reason.

It turns out that Kent Rominger would be the pilot for STS-73, which was his first mission.  This is the orbiter that was sitting on the launch pad.  This was the first shuttle I ever saw (live) on the launch pad, and I knew the pilot (in a hugely personal way).  Try to calculate those odds!

As for STS-73, it shouldn't have even been there when I got to Cocoa Beach on October 1, 1995.  It was originally scheduled to lift off on September 25.  However, a hydrogen main fuel valve leak on the pad prevented that launch.  On September 28, another hydrogen leak, this one in one of the main engines, also prevented the Columbia's launch.  Thus, when I got there on October 1, there it was....ready to go.  Launches were then scrubbed on October 5, 6, 7, 13 and 15 before it finally was was released for flight on October 20, 1995.  The Columbia returned to earth, as I was in the air heading for Saudi Arabia, on November 5, 1995.

My arrival in Florida was an exciting one.  I had been working in the "professional world" for ten years, yet I had never been flown anywhere for an interview, nor had I ever driven a rental car.  So, just handling the logistics for this was new and interesting.  The fact that I knew nothing about Florida toll roads made it all the more fun, as I made my way to Cocoa Beach from Orlando International.  My contact there, Andy Andrews, had given me enough information so that this was all relatively easy.  I arrived at my hotel in the late afternoon of October 1st.

I need to re-emphasize my long-standing familiarity of the space programs of the sixties and early seventies.  For me, Cocoa Beach was the place - this was the home field for all of the astronauts, past, present and future.  This small Florida township is legendary in my mind.  Like Edwards AFB, the Cape and Cocoa Beach are places of reverence to me.  This is the last beach they all saw before being lofted into space.  Just being here, like just being at Edwards, actually made me physically giddy.  I watched the sun go down on that beach that night, and retired to my hotel room, almost unconcerned about getting the job.  I was actually more focused with what the next day's schedule would be, and how I could get to the Kennedy Space Center.

The next day was beautiful.  I made my way to the Boeing offices, attended a briefing on Saudi Arabia, filled out some forms, got grilled by security, filled out some more forms, and then we were free to finish the afternoon anyway we wanted.  There were about six to eight people going through the same process.  Including a couple with whom I would become very close friends, once we all made it to Saudi Arabia.  With the afternoon free, I found an ATM machine, drew out some money, and made my way to KSC.

Once at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, I was at my own personal Disneyland.  I couldn't possibly see everything I wanted to see in one afternoon, and immediately decided I would come back tomorrow and see what I didn't see today.  Boeing just needed us to take a few medical tests in the morning and then we would be essentially finished.  So, I took my time, took lots of pictures, and saw as much as I could see - reading everything.

I stayed until it closed, and then made my way back to Cocoa Beach.  I was ecstatic.  Tomorrow, I would take the bus tour that goes out by the pads, and I would get photos of Columbia on the pad.  For me, it just didn't get any better than this.  Whether I got the job or not, the trip here was the real prize for me.  I had dinner with my new friends, John & Janet Kocab, and then retired to my room.  I excitedly called home to report my day's activities.  Then, like a kid wanting Christmas to come all the more sooner, I was fast asleep early in the evening.

On October 3rd, we reported to the Boeing sponsored medical facility and had a few tests, and a few shots (and not the good ones!) We reported back to Andy Andrews and then we were finished with our obligations, well before noon.  I again made a beeline for KSC and got there in plenty of time to take the anticipated bus tour around the launch complex.  I was almost shaking with excitement as I bounced around from seat to seat, wanting to see absolutely everything.  The windows were curved and contoured and I just couldn't get good pictures, which was frustrating.  Then, we stopped at this little railed cement structure, not more than a few thousand feet from the Columbia, perched on Pad 39B.  We would get a few minutes out of the bus to look at, and photograph, the shuttle from here.  Meanwhile, the bus announcer told us that we would probably be the last tour to ever stop at this particular spot.  There was a new facility opening up for viewing the whole launch area, farther away from the launch pads, that would be enclosed.  Thus, the bus tour would not be stopping here anymore.  As far as I know, we were among the last "non-space shuttle program" people to see a shuttle on the pad from this close.

I finished the day with a tour of the life-size orbiter there, and a sizeable purchase of stuff from the Space Shop.  As I was leaving KSC, the news was on the TV there and the verdict was announced in the trial of OJ Simpson.  I walked out slightly disillusioned.  How could we achieve such amazing feats of technology, but not see the preponderance of evidence against this murderer? No matter, nothing was going to tarnish the mood I was in.  I was almost tempted to cancel my flight home and stay a few days longer, on my own nickel (which I really didn't have), to see the launch - which was then expected on the 5th.  I decided otherwise, because we couldn't possibly afford it.  This was a smart decision, as the launch ended up being delayed until the 20th.

I made my way back to Orlando straight from KSC and had an uneventful flight home.  I was exhausted from the excitement.  When I got the photos developed, I was both elated and disappointed.  Some of the photos were very good, but some that I really wanted turned out just marginal.  The ones from that little cement stand were the shots of a lifetime, though.  These hold a big place in my even bigger one now that this magnificent machine, and her last gallant crew, will never bask in the beauty of the Florida sunshine again.

STS-107 Mission Patch
Back to TOP

This beautiful tribute was designed by my very good friend of many, many years [and fellow aviation enthusiast], Scott Ramsay.  I am honored that he chose to use a few of my Columbia photos in the wonderful montage. 

Many Thanks, Amigo.

Space Shuttle Columbia Tribute (February 2003)