In 1984, when I saw the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger at her invitation, my NASA friend Jeri Bell at Kennedy Space Centre was no longer with Malfunctions Investigation as in 1975, or with Public Affairs as in 1979. She was now on a team upgrading the facilities on Easter Island for emergency landings if the Shuttle had to abort to it from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, which was then intended to be an alternate Shuttle facility for polar orbit launches. It would be used for spy satellites, but also for weather and Earth resources payloads.
“So Shuttle Down has made it?” I asked, not entirely innocently. The 1980 novel by Lee Correy visualised the Shuttle Atlantis making an emergency landing on Easter Island, which hadn’t been prepared for it, getting down by a miracle and causing a serious international incident. ‘Lee Correy’ was the pen-name of a rocket engineer, the late G. Harry Stine, who had worked on the V2s and other early programmes in the 1950s at White Sands. As well as science fiction he wrote several books on space research under his own name, including Earth Satellites (1957) and The Third Industrial Revolution (1975, updated 1979), and devoted his later years to developing amateur rocketry, for educational purposes and as a fundraiser for medical research. He had written the novel because he was seriously concerned about the lack of an emergency landing site in the Pacific in the event of a launch abort from Vandenburg. Allegedly the NASA Director’s response had been “What bastard wrote this?”, and Stine had been banned from all NASA sites in retaliation, before common sense prevailed.
When I next visited Jeri in the summer of 1986, on my recommendation she had circulated the book within NASA and it had acquired a kind of samizdat popularity, so much so that Ballantine/Del Rey had brought out a second edition. I don’t know whether Stine knew that I had a hand in that (we had exchanged letters in the early 80s, on interstellar travel, but we weren’t in touch again). The new facilities at Mataveri Aerodrome enabled tourist flights to Easter Island for the first time (‘Runway Completed at Easter Island’, Spaceport News, 10th April 1987). But in the wake of the Challenger loss, NASA reviewed all safety procedures, and the Vandenburg facility was never commissioned.
My 1986 US lecture tour was privately sponsored, and I made sure that my return flight was secure. I had an extra ticket giving me two months’ unlimited travel on Northwest Orient and affiliated airlines, and I made full use of it, speaking and attending events in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Stanford University, Michigan, San Diego, and Florida. At the Space Development Conference in Seattle I met astronaut John Creighton, copilot of Shuttle mission STS-51G in 1985, and later Commander of STS-36 (1990) and STS-48 (1991). He invited me to the Manned Spaceflight Centre, at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
I was met off the plane by my friend and fellow-writer Jim Oberg, then NASA’s principal expert on the Soviet space programme. He drove me first to the vehicle display park, switching off the lights “because the security people don’t like us doing this”. It was a crystal starry night, in the year of the closest opposition of Mars to the Earth until 2003, and as we walked along the side of one of the last two Saturn V’s, it was pointed straight at Mars, where it should have been going that year, shining over its nose. When we came level with the J-2 engines of the second stage, Jim picked up a stone and threw it at one of them: it rang like a bell and there was a great chorus of hooting, after which a huge owl came out and flew over our heads across the Milky Way. “They’re nesting in the engines,” said Jim. “They have a right to it. They know how to make use of it, which is more than we did.”
Next day I visited the Lunar & Planetary Receiving Center and the Skylab Training Building, and spoke at a lunchtime meeting of the MSC astronomy club about Strathclyde University’s flexible mirror research, directed by Dr. Peter Waddell. The late John Braithwaite was a consultant on the project and had treated me to two remarkable demonstrations of it – with the result that I had to skip part of the afternoon’s tour to brief an officer of the US Air Force Space Command. I had to miss the flotation tanks in which the astronauts train underwater for Extravehicular Activity. However, Jim Oberg took me through the full-size Shuttle training mockup on a simulated mission, and though they didn’t turn it on for us, my grin was a fixture in all the photographs.
At Rockwell International in 1979, I sat in the Space Shuttle cockpit trainer, and was impressed with how purposeful the layout was – as I put it on Radio Clyde when I got back, it really wanted you to switch it on and take it somewhere. Because it was backless, I didn’t realise until I climbed into the full mockup that the Orbiter had no floors. It was stacked vertically for launch, and no floor was needed in zero-g, so the mid-deck was lined with lockers and the cockpit had no floor at all, just a bar on the ceiling from which to swing yourself into the pilot seats. Jim insisted that I take the left-hand seat, the Mission Commander’s, while he took first the copilot’s seat and then manned the Engineering panel, looking rearward over the Cargo Bay.
The other thing I hadn’t previously realised was just how big the Shuttle Cargo Bay was. In the photos of my EVA in my suit (my denim suit), I look diminutive although I’m actually just under six foot. But when we saw astronauts doing that in real spacesuits, they were twice life-size and the comparison brings that out. The Cargo Bay had to hold the Hubble Space Telescope for launch, and the photo of Jim Oberg with the mockup of it shows just how big that really is.
Of course, the whole 1986 experience was overshadowed by the disaster six months before. At the Space Development Conference, I was asked to give an extra talk describing how the news broke in the UK. At the ‘Westercon’ convention in San Diego, I met the head of one of Rocketdyne’s Main Engine teams, who’d had a complete nervous breakdown in January and hadn’t been home or off the bottle since, even though ‘his’ engine hadn’t caused the ‘major malfunction’. Jeri Bell had a lot to tell me in confidence, which made me more than ever glad that I hadn’t been at the Cape or any other NASA facility on the day itself. Among things Jim Oberg showed me at Houston were the mockups for the Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle, on which I’d been briefed at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in 1984, and the Shuttle variant of the liquid-fuelled Centaur booster, which I’d seen under development at the Atlas-Convair plant near San Diego the same year – both now thought too dangerous to launch, and cancelled for good. My host John Creighton was now astronaut representative to the Shuttle Program Manager, taking a major part in decisions on making the vehicle safer: he saw the interruption to flights as an opportunity to fix many things there hadn’t previously been time for, such as problems with the undercarriage. But there was another serious design flaw which hadn’t been detected, and there was another black day to come in 2003 when the Columbia fell out of the sky.