T-minus Too Many Years

Jan. 8, 1999

T-minus too many years

By Ralph Hood

January / February 1999

Ralph Hood is a Certified Speaking Professional who has addressed aviation groups throughout North America. A pilot since 1969, he's insured and sold airplanes at retail and distributor levels and taught aviation management for Southern Illinois University. He currently serves as National CFI Marketing Mentor for AOPA's Project Pilot Instructor Program. I

finally did it! After all these years, I finally saw a Space Shuttle launch.

I live in Huntsville, AL, where we all feel like part of the space program. Wernher von Braun's German rocket team did their work here. Much of the designing and building of space vehicles was and is done here—-including Unity, the USA part of the space station currently joined with the Russian part. We don't get as much attention here as do the Kennedy Space Center, Houston, and Edwards AFB, but we know in our hearts that building and designing is more important than launching and retrieving, even if Walter Cronkite never understood it.

So, how come I never got to attend a shuttle launching? Well, I got invited several times but, shucks, it meant traveling a long way to see a launch that might not take place. I never felt I could afford the time and money.

Ah, but the December 4 launch was different. I was already in Orlando, a mere hop, skip, and jump from The Cape (that's what we insiders call it), when Bob, Kim, and Jenny Showalter of Showalter Flying Service invited me to watch the launch from the VIP viewing area. (They had invitations through some big shot group Kim belongs to.)

Such a deal. It started when Jenny—blonde, 24 years old, and cute as a bug's ear—-picked me up at my motel in her sporty little red car at midnight (the launch was at 3:30 a.m.). It has been awhile since a good-looking young blonde picked me up at a motel at midnight, and I made the most of it. It took me 15 minutes to get into that car, while I held the door open (and interior light on) so the lobby crowd could see Jenny clearly. She, in the meantime, was trying to get me in fast, in case anyone she knew was watching.

Jenny drove me to the staging area for our NASA bus, where I planned to spend another 15 minutes getting out of her car. Unfortunately, Jenny had gotten smart by then. She was out of that car and 15 feet away in five seconds, trying to pretend she didn't know me.

The bus — complete with driver and guide — drove us to The Cape, where we watched from the same viewing area as Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

It was awesome — like the first lap at Indy, Christmas morning, and your first kiss all tied up together. It had everything—-lights, action, noise, history, pride, and one tremendous blast.

We had a huge countdown clock, could hear mission control, and could watch the preliminaries on a gigantic TV screen. The tension built horrifically, almost to the screaming point, and then was released in that beautiful, gorgeous burst and thrust of light, speed, acceleration, crackling noise, and gut-pounding vibration. Exper-ience that without feeling a wave of national pride and euphoria, and you're dead, that's all there is to it.

After it was all over, Jenny drove me back to the motel, arriving about 6:00 a.m. I was so sleepy and tired that I forgot to dawdle getting out of the car.