We're Gonna Swim Across That River And Strangle Jules
Special To ANN By Wes Oleszewski
Thirty years ago I was a young college student trying to work my
way through Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, and being a life-long
space-buff I had seen every US manned spaceflight launch on TV. As
such, I was determined to be down at "The Cape" to witness,
first-hand, the launch of the first Space Shuttle. The only problem
was I did not own a car and the best eye witness location for the
launch was almost 50 miles away- a bit longer than the distance
that I usually rode my bicycle.
A day before the launch I ventured to the Avion student
newspaper office on Embry-Riddle's campus was told that AIAA was
chartering a bus to go from the campus to KSC for the launch of
STS-1. I hustled down to buy a ticket, but found that the tickets
had sold out almost immediately. Dejected I returned to the
newspaper office and began to plot my bicycle ride down US1 to
Titusville. I figured it would take me most of the night to get
down there and although riding a bicycle down US1 in the middle of
the night to see a space launch may seem a bit nuts, the term "A
bit nuts" is denoted on my birth certificate. Just as I was about
to head out and start peddling, a friend of mine stopped me and
said that she knew of two guys in the dorm who were driving down.
She suggested that we should go and she could introduce me to them.
If they had an extra seat, it may keep me from becoming a road
pizza on US1.
As it turned out the two guys were happy to have me ride along.
They were in fact both space-buffs just like me and we instantly
became friends. Jennings, who owned the land-boat of a car that we
drove down in, was from Michigan just like me, and to this day I
consider him to be a friend. Brian, the other guy, was an expert in
everything that flies and would go on to not only work at the
National Air and Space Museum as a photo archivist, but would also
serve as the best man in my wedding seven years later. Together the
three of us headed out that Thursday evening to witness aviation
history… or so we thought.
On the trip down toward the launch site we chattered about
spaceflight history. As we came within a dozen miles of Titusville,
we suddenly saw that history. Above the trees the darkness was
slashed by the crossed white beams of the pad spotlights. Although
we could not yet see the shuttle, it was an image that we had
always seen in books, magazines and on television. It made your
heart stop and your jaw drop in spite of yourself. Entering the
town of Titusville we suddenly discovered that we had no idea where
the hell we were going. Where would we park? What about private
property? Collectively we decided just to turn toward the river.
Driving down Grace Street we hit Riverview and the riverbank
itself. For a few minutes we cruised up and down Riverview
calculating a good place to park. I spotted a county pumping
station and suggested we should park near it. That way if any of
the locals gave us a hard time, we could just go onto county
property. We pulled in and bailed out of the car and just stood
there frozen by the sight of the white shuttle bathed in those
crossed spotlight beams. For a moment, all three of us were 15
years old again.
Snapping out of the shuttle's spell for a moment, I saw that it
was just after 10 pm and I decided to hike up Grace Street to the
Mister Doughnut shop up on US1. There I found a pay phone and I
called my folks up in Michigan to ask "Guess where I am tonight?"
Being the parents of a rabid space-buff, it was an easy guess for
them. When I returned to the car I was amazed to see that in the
past 20 minutes, nearly every parking spot along the riverbank near
us had been taken, and there were more cars coming. Clearly, there
would be no problems with the local residents.
Opening the trunk of his car, the guy who had parked right next
to us revealed a sort of mobile Space Shuttle flight following
station. Attached to the underside of the trunk lid he had a poster
depicting each phase of the STS-1 flight profile. He had charts and
table that listed each mission event as well as assorted abort
profiles and abort destinations. He had shuttle cut-away diagrams
that detailed ever component. Most importantly, however, he had a
small portable TV that ran off of his car battery. In 1981 such TVs
were not rare, but in our present location his TV was the center of
Several hours into the night I decided to go for a walk up US1
and see what may be happening. The streets were busy as I strolled
along and every sign that could have its letters rearranged had a
shuttle best wishes message. After about a mile or so I came upon
the local mall. Even though it was very late at night, the parking
lot was filled as if it were the day before Christmas. The doors to
the mall were propped open and people were coming and going. I went
inside and many of the stores were open and doing a good amount of
business. Most noticeable was the local toy store which had set up
a table just outside their door. Upon the table was a cash register
and stacks of Space Shuttle models which were apparently selling
When I got back to the riverbank everyone was standing around
gazing at the distant shuttle or talking spaceflight. We talked
about every aspect of spaceflight past, present and future. Most of
us simply agreed that we had no idea as to what STS-1 would do, or
what the shuttle's future would really be. It was like going to
space-buff heaven. The only problem was access to a bathroom. On a
trip up the road to buy a cup of tea I found out that the guy
running the Mister Doughnut up on US1 did not mind folks using his
restrooms, as long as they bought a doughnut "or somethin'." When I
got back to the riverbank I spread the word and soon folks were
strolling up the road to Mister Doughnut and returning "rested"
with coffee or a pastry in hand.
Shortly after dawn the countdown hit the first in a series of
holds. The TV in the mobile Space Shuttle flight following station
seemed to pick up the local ABC station the best, so we were glued
to Jules Bergman and Gene Cernan. The issues started with a fuel
cell problem and then a problem with the back-up computer. The guys
on the TV knew about as much about the problems as we did, but
Bergman kept down-talking the prospect of a launch today. As count
recycles and holds folded up on one another, Bergman kept talking
about NASA officials saying things such as their
"…expectation of having to go through multiple launch
attempts over several days." Finally Jennings just growled that he
was about ready to swim across the river and strangle Bergman.
Of course, Jules Bergman was correct in one sense- we were not
going to see the Space Shuttle fly today. Finally, after what
seemed like an entire day of holds and recycles, the word came
across the loop that they were going to once again recycle to T-20
and go out and remove the crew. Some two and one half hours after
the scheduled launch time, the effort came to a halt. Shortly after
that came the official scrub announcement- frankly, it was almost a
relief. We'd all been awake for more than 24 hours and other than a
bag of doughnuts that I'd retrieved from Mister Doughnut, none of
us had eaten.
Everyone up and down the riverbank agreed to meet in the same
place Saturday night for Sunday morning's attempt at a launch. The
next day at work I went into the personnel manager's office and
told her that although I was scheduled to work on Sunday, I would
be at the shuttle launch and if it was late, I'd be late too.
Unexpectedly, she simply smiled sweetly and said, "No problem, I
understand- have fun." It's funny how folks who live in central
Florida have a different view of spaceflight than other people
around the country. Of course, most of the country had watched the
whole scrub live on TV and from the White House to my parent's
house every American seemed to suffer through the recycles with us.
Most of them, however, were much closer to a restroom than those of
us on the riverbank.
Tomorrow, Liftoff of STS-1.