A Special Day

In the fall of 1981 I had lived and worked in Bakersfield for only about three months when I experienced the terrific advantages of living in the Golden State. Mark, a fellow reservoir engineer, had received free tickets from a service company representative for a Los Angeles Kings hockey game on Saturday night, November 14th. He invited me and his friend John to go. (John was a geological engineer but Mark invited him anyway.) Mark also suggested we drive to California City for a round of golf in the afternoon before driving to L.A. for dinner before the game. It was a great plan, and before the end of the week would get even better.

In April of that same year NASA successfully completed the first space shuttle mission, with Columbia making a spectacular first-time wheeled landing on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base. This was a very big deal and an estimated crowd of 300,000 watched the historic event. Many people with RV’s set up camp days earlier to be in prime viewing location for the landing. After a perfect touchdown and a quick turnaround process which included a cross-country return to Florida mounted on the back of a reconfigured 747 aircraft, Columbia was scheduled for its second mission in October. Technical problems caused delays and the shuttle took off on Thursday, November 12, scheduled for five days in space.

A fuel cell failure caused the mission to be cut short, and the landing was rescheduled for early Saturday morning at Edwards after only two days in space. This landing would also be historic and popular, the first time a manned vehicle had been reused to enter space and return. Large crowds were again expected, particularly as the landing would occur on a Saturday.

Edwards AFB was about 85 miles from Bakersfield, and not far from California City where we planned to play golf that afternoon. Mark, John and I easily decided to add the shuttle landing to our plans, and we obtained a car pass from the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce for access to the public viewing site. The plan was to leave very early on Saturday, drive to Edwards and watch the landing, drive to California City for golf, then on to Los Angeles for dinner and the hockey game.

Mark had a company car and was allowed to use it for personal use up to 200 miles from the office, so he was the driver for the trip. After leaving very early Saturday morning we were well on our way to Edwards when we heard a radio news report that the shuttle would make an additional three orbits for some reason and the landing would be delayed until early afternoon. We caught a lucky break; just as we heard this announcement we came to the turnoff for California City so Mark made a snap decision, executed a quick one-lane slide-across and took the exit. We would play golf first then head to the shuttle landing.

It was still dark when we arrived at the golf course and we waited a short while until the clubhouse opened. The pro shop guy let us shift our tee time, and we would be the first group to play as soon as there was enough light. It was very cool to be standing on the No. 1 tee box taking practice swings and watching a beautiful desert sunrise light up the virgin golf course laid out nicely ahead of us.

A few hours later we had finished our round and enjoyed cold beers standing by the car. I had brought a multi-band radio to listen to the live news broadcast during the shuttle landing. I tuned it to the air force band and we heard jet pilots aloft reporting that the winds were favorable. Columbia was cleared to land after completing its current orbit. We threw our clubs in the trunk and headed to Edwards. We cut it pretty close and a massive crowd was already in place as we were directed to park at the far end of the large parking area.

The public viewing area was bounded by several miles of temporary fencing and the crowd stood behind it, fifteen to twenty people deep. Farther back were numerous large RV’s with folks sitting on the roofs in lawn chairs ready with binoculars and cameras. Armed security staff patrolled along the fence in jeeps to keep people from going over the fence. Vendors had set up stands selling drinks, t-shirts and other shuttle merchandise. I purchased a souvenir coffee mug, thinking it would be a cool memento to display on the bookcase in my office.

columbia-1981

We walked forward as far as we could, somewhat disappointed to be at the very end of the viewing area but excited to see the landing. We listened to the news on my radio. The live broadcast originated from the base facilities on the opposite side of the dry lake bed, where NASA was set up and hosting various VIPs.

It was getting close to the scheduled landing time when the radio broadcaster announced they had heard the twin sonic booms caused by the shuttle’s approach. Mark, John and I looked at each other, we hadn’t heard anything. Several seconds later we heard the twin booms and we realized just how large the lake bed was that separated us from the news crews on the other side.

Someone yelled and pointed and we spotted the shuttle, a white speck high in the blue sky. It dropped very fast and circled, and we discovered we had caught a second lucky break that day. Due to wind speed and direction NASA switched the landing to an alternate runway. This caused the shuttle to make its approach very close to where we were standing. It was an incredible sight as it flew right in front of us at a high speed, maybe a hundred feet or so in the air. We had a perfect and thrilling view and then it was past. By the time Columbia touched down and rolled to a stop it was far out of sight.

We bolted for the car. Since we were last in we were also first out and hit the road ahead of the crowd, most of which would also be heading to the Los Angeles area. We made it to the city in time for a great Mexican dinner before parking at the Fabulous Forum for the Kings game.

Another lucky break: the free tickets were for excellent seats a few rows behind the glass close to the rink, in a section where the Forum staff took your food and drink orders and then delivered them right to your seats. We had a great time even though the Kings lost to Winnipeg 2-3. Two and a half hours later we were back in Bakersfield, the end of a fantastic day.

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, and growing up during the Apollo missions I became a big fan of America’s space program. I remember exactly where I was when my family watched the first men land and walk on the moon. One of the reasons I chose engineering as a profession was an admiration for NASA and the engineers and scientists who made space exploration happen. The space shuttle was a massively complex machine with more than a million components that not only had to work, they had to work together in dozens of systems. I consider the space program to be emblematic of “true engineering” and seeing the space shuttle land at Edwards will always be one of my favorite life experiences.

Footnote: In writing this essay I discovered that my memories were partly wrong. Many times over the years I have thought about this special day and always remembered that we attended a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game that night, and I had a fuzzy memory that the opponent was the Houston Rockets. I decided to confirm that it was Houston and used Google to check the Lakers schedule in 1981. This was very easy to do, and I was able to confirm that the Lakers did play a game on November 14, 1981, but they were not at home, they were at Phoenix playing against the Suns. Huh.

Clearly I had made a mistake, and decided it must have been a Los Angeles Clippers game instead (perhaps against Houston?). I Googled the Clippers schedule for 1981. Yep, the Clippers had a home game that day against Indiana. The SAN DIEGO Clippers. The Clippers did not move to Los Angeles until 1984. Huh.

I did some more thinking, some more Googling, and finally realized that we attended a Kings hockey game that night, not an NBA game. Once I had that straight I remembered that it was my first time to attend a professional hockey game, and that we had great seats with the food and drink service. I had mixed up memories of later trips to L.A. to attend Lakers and Clippers games with the space shuttle landing trip.

Google also helped me “remember” that the Kings lost that night to the Winnipeg Jets 2-3. I had not remembered the outcome of the game but was not surprised to learn that the Kings had lost; they were mostly terrible during the years before Wayne Gretzky joined the team. Edmonton traded Gretzky to LA in 1988 (thanks again Google!) Just like the moon landing I remember exactly where I was when I heard this stunning news.  I was having lunch with my friend Buddy in a Pizza Hut in Taft, California and saw it on television.

It is interesting to think about the contrast in culture and technology from that day in November 1981 to this day in January 2017 as I write this post. We were listening to an FM radio station on the car stereo during the drive to Edwards, which interrupted with a “special news announcement” that the shuttle landing would be delayed a few hours. This was radio-worthy news in 1981, but certainly would not be a special bulletin today, except perhaps for specific Internet sites dedicated to space exploration and enthusiasts. By the end of the space shuttle program most people probably weren’t even aware when America had men and women in space.

At Edwards I used a multi-band portable transistor radio (a Christmas present several years earlier, thanks Dad!) to listen to the air force communications and the live radio news broadcast during the landing, holding it up high so my friends could hear it too. There were no smart phones delivering an Internet broadcast to your ear buds in 1981.

From transistor radios and space shuttles then to the Internet and Google today, I am very thankful for engineers and the technology they provide.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)