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bookends in time

2003-02-01 - 3:00 p.m.

This is a guest entry by Roger Williams. All photographs copyright 1981 by Roger. All text copyright 2003 by Roger.

I was almost there at the beginning, and I was almost there at the end. By the most amazing coincidences I was near to the shuttle orbiter Columbia both in triumph and tragedy.

I am looking at a picture
science fair photo 1981
of a group photo of ten high school kids, a couple of guides, and two official looking men. The caption says:

The 1981 Air Force Science Fair Winners
The Pentagon, June 15, 1981
I am the fourth person from the right, the especially thin and geeky kid wearing the red jacket. I was 17 years old and planning to start college soon.

Each of us had won the Air Force's award in one of the ten major categories at the International Science and Engineering Fair. I was Physics. I hadn't won the fair's official First Award, but the Air Force judges must have thought my project on computer soft errors a bit more interesting than the two that beat me in general competition, one on the acoustics of violins and one on some X-ray crystallography thing I didn't understand.

After the photo-op with Air Force Secretary Verne Orr, the ten of us were shuttled around to see anything the Air Force might have to tempt a talented geek to join. We saw a hydrogen flouride laser puch holes in titanium sheet. We saw then state-of-the-art flight simulators that worked by guiding a TV camera across moulded rubber landscape. We walked around on top of the EMP Trestle, the world's largest wooden structure. We toured a model airplane shop to make any RC hobbyist drool, tooled up to make the targets for experimental laser weapon systems.

And toward the end we toured Cape Canaveral. Our hosts weren't sure we would be able to do it until the day before, but finally we were ushered past guards toting full-auto assault rifles into a vast, spotless work area. And there it was, the orbiter Columbia, two months back from its first mission in space. We were allowed to walk around under it and watch the workmen test the then-infamous tiles on its vast and rooflike bottom.

tiles, overheard, Columbia

Here's a picture taken with a crappy instamatic camera.
an assembly on the ground

An assembly on the ground -- worker applying tile

A workman applying a tile

I was astonished by its bulk; the thing that looks like a lawn dart astride a Pringles can on TV is 122 feet long and weighs 180,000 pounds. I could scarcely imagine this huge thing being heaved aloft, accelerated to 18,000 miles per hour, and then guided back to a controlled landing.

At the time the shuttle program was very controversial, and much of the controversy surrounded those tiles I was walking around under. Dotting the bottom of the orbiter were thousands of stickers identifying tiles that had either passed or failed testing. Tiles were missing. Workmen were testing and re-applying tiles right in front of us. Assemblies that normally surround the engines had been unmounted and were being worked on at ground level, on stands.

Lots of people had seen the space shuttle, but the shuttle they had seen at fairs and exhibitions had been Enterprise, the test vehicle that never flew in space. This was Columbia, the first of its kind to fly as intended, to heave itself into Earth orbit and return more or less intact. It was a period when an embattled NASA would finally begin to redeem itself, a magic time to be in a magic place.

Twenty-two years passed. I would go to college, lose my scholarship by a hundredth of a grade point, ironically find work in a field where the weight and bulk of things is a central consideration.

Last Monday I drove to Houston, then Tuesday to the strange town of Nacogdoches, TX. I was there to install a computerized batching system in a plant that manufactures gaskets. When I took the job I thought gaskets like the O-rings in a faucet, but when I got there I found it was more like gaskets in oil well heads. I thought specifically of the similarly scaled gasket that had failed the shuttle orbiter Challenger in 1986. It was an enormous, noisy facility where anything not well protected would end up buried in carbon black and iron oxide, conductive dusts used as pigment in the batches I was controlling.

I drove back to Lake Charles Thursday, then home on Friday. I answered an e-mail from my customer about a serious problem which I'll probably have to call about on Monday.

On Saturday morning CNN reports that debris from the destroyed Columbia is raining down on Nacogdoches, TX. Later a debris trail stretching from Dallas to Alexandria, LA will emerge, but for the moment I am breathless, aghast. Later Palestine, TX will be added to the list; this is the only other town I have ever visited in the area, home to a prison which works a hog farm which uses a system I designed to label boxes of pork.

Bookends in time, separated by 22 years; I was there just after its triumphant first mission and just before its tragic final disintegration. Over the years I have sometimes thought of the Harlan Ellison story The Cheese Stands Alone, about a man who reads his own Fate only to find that the pinnacle moment of his life was a home run he hit in a Little League baseball game at the age of nine. I have often wondered if the science fair would mark a similar pinnacle for me.

By far the greatest highlight of one of the greatest highlights of my life was walking around under Columbia, experiencing her vastness and the meticulous care with which she was attended, the astonishing security with which she was guarded.

And now she is gone, along with her seven astronauts. I always suspected I might outlive her, but never that she would die like this.

And never that she would die so close to me.

God Speed, Columbia and your crew. You may be gone but this friend will remember you always.

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