Eyewitness to History (2): Discovery Landing, STS-41D, September 5th, 1984

By Duncan Lunan

DL Kennedy Space Centre press pass, 30 July 1979

In summer 1979, I was back at Kennedy Space Centre.  For the tenth anniversary of the first Moon landing, in conjunction with the Glasgow Parks Dept. Astronomy Project, the spaceflight society ASTRA was organising the biggest spaceflight exhibition in the UK to date, ‘The High Frontier, A Decade of Space Research 1969-79’, at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow  (now the Centre for Contemporary Arts).  The Scottish Arts Council paid for me to make a whirlwind tour of US space centres, closing gaps in the exhibition’s coverage.  I was on 8 aircraft in 10 days, but I had left a long weekend clear to visit Jeri Bell at KSC, in case she could help, as she had done so much for us in 1975  (see last week’s Part 1).  My extraordinary luck of 1959 and 1975 was still holding.  On the plane down from Washington I put on a badge Jeri had given me, a General Electric one in Russian commemorating the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and as I was standing at the Baggage Reclaim in Orlando, a gentleman came up to me and said, “Do you mind if I ask where you got that badge?”  And when I told him, he replied, “I’m very glad to hear that.  My name’s Lee Scherer, I’m the Director of Kennedy Space Centre”. 

General Dynamics Apollo-Soyuz badge, ‘Touch and Go’ in cod Russian

That got me a VIP tour of KSC, including the Space Shuttle main runway, the Vehicle Processing Facility, the interior and roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building, the launch tower with the elevator which the astronauts rode on the way to the Moon, and the prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise in the Vehicle Assembly Building.  A few days later, visiting the Rockwell International plant at Palmdale in California, I was taken through the third Shuttle Discovery, laid out for assembly like a gigantic Airfix kit, or, given the precision of manufacture, like the components of a huge Swiss watch.

When asked  (rarely)  to talk about UFOs, I’ve sometimes worn a T-shirt commemorating the maiden flight of the Discovery in July 1984.  I bought it at ‘The View from Earth, 1984’ conference in Big Bear Lake, California, where I was keynote speaker.  I also spoke at the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, and afterwards went with a party of friends out to Edwards Air Force Base  (the NASA Dryden Centre)  to see the Discovery touchdown after a maiden flight which included launching three satellites and the deployment of the Extended Solar Panel, an early rehearsal for building the International Space Station.  

As Sir David Frost would say, “The clues are there”.  The Worldcon was in August, over ‘Labor Day Weekend’ in the USA, and the Shuttle couldn’t to stay up for six weeks at a time.  In July, when the Discovery’s Main Engines lit, the computers registered a malfunction and shut them down again.  It was a major topic with the astronaut speakers at ‘The View from Earth’, and Deke Slayton refused to regard it as a failure, pointing out that the system had to ensure 90% thrust on the Main Engines before the solid boosters fired.  “The reason for that is that when those solids fire, they’re going to burn for two minutes – you’re going to go somewhere.”  The T-shirt demonstrated that you can’t believe all you see, and certainly not all you read.  But this is what I did see – not in July 1984, but in September.

DL with Discovery T-shirts, View from Earth 1984, Big Bear Lake 1984

Most eye-witness accounts of Shuttle landings begin with the overnight goodwill – the campers, the trailers, the parties round the fires.  There are even songs written about it.  Now I know why, because having missed that, our party missed a lot more besides.  The landing was scheduled for 6.41 a.m..  We left Hollywood at 3.15 a.m. and reached the freeway exit for Edwards Air Force Base at about five.  The exit was signposted;  but there were no more signs after that, because souvenir hunters had taken them all.  We could see the lights of the base and there was a traffic stream to follow, but our driver wasn’t confident, and stopped for petrol and directions.  We had only 15 miles to go, but the road was closed an hour before the landing, because it crossed the Instrument Landing System which had to be calibrated without interference from moving vehicles.  We were one of the first cars stopped, ten miles from the viewing area.

Maiden flight STS-41D of Space Shuttle Discovery, September 1984

A small crowd of disappointed people gathered at the barrier, but all were agreed nothing could be done.  “We could walk it,” I suggested.  “We’ve got an hour, we can get at least half-way there.”   The landscape was flat  (Edwards is built on a complex of dry lake beds – you’ve seen it in The Right Stuff)  and there was nothing to obstruct the view but the occasional Joshua Tree, so the further we went, the more likely we were to see the approach if not the landing.  This being California, where places like Big Bear Lake had no pavements – sorry, sidewalks – and pedestrians were hooted and shouted at  (“Get a job!”), most people looked at me as if I had two heads, but an elderly gentleman from New Zealand in our party backed me up.  The guard said there was no problem, so with looks of amazement the crowd followed us.  It was just starting to get light, so seeing was no problem, and temperatures were still low;  but even so, everyone apart from two couples dropped out in the first hundred yards, and after the second hundred we were on our own.

Keen as he was, the old chap couldn’t make much speed, and several times he urged us to go on without him, but I didn’t think that was a good idea in the desert.  When we had gone about a mile and a half, with about quarter of an hour to go, I noticed some low hills on our left with a side road leading to them, and I suggested we go over there to try to see the runway.

Rocket sled tracks at Edwards Air Force Base, DL 1984

We found ourselves at the head of an old rocket sled test site, with rusted rails stretching away towards the main field.  It could have been used for the historic high acceleration experiments of the 1950s, or for escape system tests – there were no signs to tell us.  But the mounds turned out to be soil piled over the disused fuel storage, and from there we could indeed see the main runway and had a good view of the desert sunrise.  Only minutes later, on time to within seconds, there came the double boom of the Shuttle’s supersonic approach.  In just another minute it was lined up for the touchdown and although some of the others saw it in the air, by the time I spotted it the Discovery was already on the ground, picked out by a great plume of dust behind it as it rolled to a halt.

We were still six or seven miles away as the crow flies, and had actually seen very little;  even so, our elderly friend was quite overcome at having seen what we did with his own eyes.  When we got back to the car the road was open and we drove up to within a mile of where the Orbiter had come to rest.  At that stage there wasn’t much to see because the ground crew were still ‘safing’ the vehicle, taking out the remaining propellants, and some young men who tried to cross the sand were immediately chased back into the roadside scrub by a US Army helicopter.

STS-41-d mission patch with Extended Solar Panel

We couldn’t wait for the astronauts to emerge, which would take an hour or more, but for all that, it was worth the trip.   Had there been a next time, I would have liked to see Edwards AFB properly, and be much closer for the landing.   Next time, I resolved, I will be there the previous night!   But the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011, so it’s not going to happen, now.

(To be continued): Challenger: Liftoff, STS-41G, October 5th , 1984.

Click on this link for Part 1: Eyewitness to History (1): Apollo through Binoculars

Also check out: The Sky Above You – August 2022

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