I am looking at a
picture of a group photo of ten high school
kids, a couple of guides, and two official looking men. The
The 1981 Air Force Science Fair Winners
I am the fourth person from the right, the especially thin
and geeky kid wearing the red jacket. I was 17 years old
and planning to start college soon.
The Pentagon, June 15, 1981
Each of us had won the Air Force's award in one of the ten
major categories at the International Science and Engineering
Fair. I was Physics. I hadn't won the fair's official
First Award, but the Air Force judges must have thought
my project on computer soft errors a bit more interesting
than the two that beat me in general competition, one on
the acoustics of violins and one on some X-ray crystallography
thing I didn't understand.
After the photo-op with Air Force Secretary Verne Orr, the
ten of us were shuttled around to see anything the Air Force
might have to tempt a talented geek to join. We saw a hydrogen
flouride laser puch holes in titanium sheet. We saw then
state-of-the-art flight simulators that worked by guiding
a TV camera across moulded rubber landscape. We walked around
on top of the EMP Trestle, the world's largest wooden structure.
We toured a model airplane shop to make any RC hobbyist drool,
tooled up to make the targets for experimental laser weapon
And toward the end we toured Cape Canaveral. Our hosts weren't sure
we would be able to do it until the day before, but finally
we were ushered past guards toting full-auto assault rifles
into a vast, spotless work area. And there it was, the
orbiter Columbia, two months back from its first mission in
space. We were allowed to walk around under it and watch
the workmen test the then-infamous tiles on its vast and
Here's a picture taken with a crappy instamatic camera.
An assembly on the ground --
A workman applying a tile
I was astonished by its bulk; the thing that looks like a lawn
dart astride a Pringles can on TV is 122 feet long and weighs
180,000 pounds. I could scarcely imagine this huge thing
being heaved aloft, accelerated to 18,000 miles per hour, and
then guided back to a controlled landing.
At the time the shuttle program was very controversial, and
much of the controversy surrounded those tiles I was walking
around under. Dotting the bottom of the orbiter were
thousands of stickers identifying tiles that had either passed
or failed testing. Tiles were missing. Workmen were testing
and re-applying tiles right in front of us. Assemblies that
normally surround the engines had been unmounted and were
being worked on at ground level, on stands.
Lots of people had seen the space shuttle, but the shuttle they
had seen at fairs and exhibitions had been Enterprise,
the test vehicle that never flew in space. This was Columbia,
the first of its kind to fly as intended, to heave itself into
Earth orbit and return more or less intact. It was a period
when an embattled NASA would finally begin to redeem itself,
a magic time to be in a magic place.
Twenty-two years passed. I would go to college, lose my
scholarship by a hundredth of a grade point, ironically find
work in a field where the weight and bulk of things is a central
Last Monday I drove to Houston, then Tuesday to the strange town
of Nacogdoches, TX. I was there to install a computerized batching
system in a plant that manufactures gaskets. When I took the job
I thought gaskets like the O-rings in a faucet, but when I got there
I found it was more like gaskets in oil well heads. I thought
specifically of the similarly scaled gasket that had failed the
shuttle orbiter Challenger in 1986. It was an enormous,
noisy facility where anything not well protected would end up buried
in carbon black and iron oxide, conductive dusts used as pigment in
the batches I was controlling.
I drove back to Lake Charles Thursday, then home on Friday. I
answered an e-mail from my customer about a serious problem which
I'll probably have to call about on Monday.
On Saturday morning CNN reports that debris from the destroyed
Columbia is raining down on Nacogdoches, TX. Later a debris
trail stretching from Dallas to Alexandria, LA will emerge, but for
the moment I am breathless, aghast.
Later Palestine, TX will be added to the list; this is the only
other town I have ever visited in the area, home to a prison which
works a hog farm which uses a system I designed to label boxes of pork.
Bookends in time, separated by 22 years; I was there just after its
triumphant first mission and just before its tragic final disintegration.
Over the years I have sometimes thought of the Harlan Ellison story
The Cheese Stands Alone, about a man who reads his own Fate only
to find that the pinnacle moment of his life was a home run he hit in
a Little League baseball game at the age of nine. I have often wondered
if the science fair would mark a similar pinnacle for me.
By far the greatest highlight of one of the greatest highlights of my life was
walking around under Columbia, experiencing her vastness and the
meticulous care with which she was attended, the astonishing security
with which she was guarded.
And now she is gone, along with her seven astronauts. I always suspected
I might outlive her, but never that she would die like this.
And never that she would die so close to me.
God Speed, Columbia and your crew. You may be gone but this friend
will remember you always.