Essays and Stuff

A fire in the sky, 20 years later

The original version of this essay was published Feb. 1, 2013, in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Twenty years ago on a Saturday morning in Waco I got up early (early for someone who works evenings, anyway) and drove out to Midway Park, the easiest spot around to get an unobstructed view of the sky.

I knew this would be my last chance to see a space shuttle passing over Waco during re-entry. What I got wrong was why Columbia’s return would be the last time.

Before there was an International Space Station to serve as a platform for experiments, one of the space shuttle’s frequent missions was providing a sort of temporary space research station. The orbit the shuttle flew on these missions often brought it over Waco en route to its landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Night re-entries were particularly spectacular — a brilliant point of fire at the head of a lengthening trail of cloud. I watched one from the Tribune-Herald roof; yet another in the parking lot of Poppa Rollo’s Pizza in the company of a police officer who brought a large pair of binoculars to watch the show.

But Columbia’s much-delayed STS-107 mission with its crew of seven astronauts was the last scheduled flight not bound for the ISS or for Hubble Space Telescope repair work — and thus the last whose re-entry course would take it over Central Texas. I knew I was watching history.

I thought it was only minor history.

One reason memory gets tricky is that in memory, unlike in the actual moment, you know what’s coming next. I remember noticing that there were two points of light instead of one, yet thinking little of it at the time (an optical effect, perhaps?). Catastrophe was not yet obvious as I watched it vanish into haze; yes, the contrail behind it took on a distinct corkscrew look that worried me, but that was probably the wind.

I raced home to watch the landing on TV, seeking — and expecting — reassurance. I started flipping channels, but with the scheduled landing 15 minutes away, no one was interrupting their broadcasts just yet. I remember someone was interviewing Janeane Garofalo about the war.

And then, finally, the view, but not the one I expected of a shuttle on final approach. Instead, there was a shot from Mission Control in Houston as radio calls to Columbia went unanswered. The caption indicated radar contact with the space shuttle had been lost.

I called my boss at the Trib to tell her what had happened and to volunteer my services for the copy desk that night. The rest of the day is mostly a blur.

At some point that afternoon I turned off the television and put on music instead — a space-themed folk album titled Minus Ten and Counting put out in 1983 in part to celebrate the then-new space shuttle.

As it turned out, I’d missed a moment during NBC’s coverage when Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin mentioned a song from that album called “Fire in the Sky” — but the words he quoted weren’t on it. The song’s author — an actual rocket scientist named Jordin Kare — added a verse three years after the album came out to acknowledge the first time we lost a shuttle and seven crew members: Though a nation watched her falling, yet a world could only cry / As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky.

The words had a renewed poignancy with another seven, another shuttle, lost; a tearful Aldrin, who had been sent a copy of the lyrics that morning, was unable to finish quoting them.

Unless we choose to stay grounded forever, there will be another tragedy; spaceflight is inherently risky. It could even be caused by something maddeningly preventable, the way the Challenger and Columbia disasters were. But the long-term survival of humanity means getting our eggs into other baskets as well as taking care of the one we already have.

Kare, echoing the Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, put it another way at the close of that song: For no cradle lasts forever, every bird must learn to fly / And we’re going to the stars, see our fire in the sky!

This is the bio am I doing this right? Probably not.

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