NewsStreet Scribe

I Watched the First Space Shuttle Flight 40 Years Ago

Columbia takes off during the first space shuttle launch on Apr. 12, 1981. Credit: NASA

It has been 40 years since I saw the first space shuttle thunder into the blue Cape Canaveral sky on Apr. 12, 1981. I covered the spaceship’s premier launch as a columnist for the Athens Observer newspaper. The first flight of the mighty machine was a must-see, so I flew down to Florida to view the launch of Columbia and write my impressions of the historic event. 

I have been a long-time space buff ever since my childhood days watching “Flash Gordon” and “Captain Video” on early 1950s black-and-white television and reading the science fiction tales of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clark. I was captivated by Walt Disney’s 1955 television series about space travel narrated by Wernher von Braun, the World War II Nazi rocket scientist who was brought to America after the war to lead the postwar U.S. space program. I was amazed at the age of 10 in 1957 when Russia’s Sputnik became the first satellite to orbit Earth, and I have for decades followed the space programs of both the Soviets and the Americans that culminated in footsteps on the moon and space stations orbiting Earth. As an Athens writer, I have covered such events as protest marches, political conventions and presidential inaugurations for many years, but being on the scene for the first space shuttle launch was an event that is indelibly etched into my mind.

As the day of the spaceship’s launch neared, towns like Titusville and Cocoa Beach near the launch site bustled with excitement. The ambiance of the area that calls itself the Space Coast was like a high-tech version of Dodge City during a cattle drive. Flags festooned town roads, and businesses posted signs and banners voicing messages like “Good luck, astronauts” and “Hail Columbia.” Newspapers published special editions to commemorate the upcoming launch. The Orlando Sentinel Star’s special edition featured a large color photo of the shuttle on the launch pad and a huge headline blaring “Space Odyssey: 1981.” Hotels, motels, bars and restaurants on the Space Coast were packed with tourists and reporters, and local people were thrilled that the area would be back in the space business after a long lull in manned launches since the Apollo and Skylab programs ended in the mid-1970s. Titusville resident R.H. Scobie beamed with pride over the space shuttle as he said to me, “It’s like Buck Rogers! Who would ever think we’d have it? It’s beautiful, partner. It’s beautiful.”

Columbia indeed was beautiful as it stood on the far horizon in the predawn hours before launch, bathed in spotlights and clutched in the steel embrace of its service tower. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world were camped out in viewing areas along the Indian River, at Jetty Park, and in the nearby towns of Cocoa Beach and Titusville, all waiting with Zen-like patience for the countdown to come to its dramatic denouement. Car stereos blared Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” A computer glitch had caused the cancelation of the launch two days before, but the crowd was confident on the morning of Apr. 12, 1981, as astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen boarded their spacecraft.  

When the countdown dropped to zero, the crowd was on its feet. An instant orange glow erupted from the faraway launch site, and Columbia fairly vaulted into the early morning sky, trailing billowing smoke and flames hundreds of feet in length as it roared its way into orbit. All around me people shouted, cried, screamed and prayed as the spaceship disappeared from view in just two heart-stopping minutes. Along with many others, I wiped tears from my eyes after the launch. We had seen the future, and it worked. 

It was exactly 20 years to the day after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel in space on Apr. 12, 1961. Later, I would cover other space shuttle launches, including the first night flight in 1983 and legendary astronaut John Glenn’s return to space aboard a shuttle in 1998, but the first space shuttle flight 40 years ago was history that I will always remember seeing.