Remembering the Space Shuttle: Columbia – the road trip

Fifth in a series

by Evan Robinson

Thirty years ago last April, six of us set out from Lake Geneva, WI, in two cars. We had told our bosses that we were taking a few days off to see Columbia’s first launch. Lawrence, his wife Josie, and Jeff were in Lawrence and Josie’s car. Erol, Paul, and I were in mine.


I’ll say, right from the beginning, that many of the routine details of the trip are hazy now. I couldn’t consult photos, because they’re all in storage. I don’t remember the route we drove, although I suspect that we went from Lake Geneva through Indianapolis, Louisville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Gainesville, Orlando to somewhere near Cocoa, just inland from Cape Canaveral, following I-65 and I-75. It’s likely that some of the sharp memories of the trip are just as hazy as well. But everything here is as I remember it, with some support from Google.

The Plan

Columbia was scheduled to launch in the early morning of Friday, 10 April 1981. With nearly 1300 miles to drive (and without Google Maps or GPS to help us) we figured on leaving Wednesday evening after work and driving straight through, arriving in Florida Thursday night. Lawrence had contacted a D&D fan in the area of Cape Canaveral, who’d convinced his parents to let us crash at his place. In return, we agreed to run at least one game for the fanboy and his friends while we were there.

Once the launch was over on Friday, we thought we’d visit the beach during the afternoon and run the game in the evening. Then we’d cross Florida to visit Disney World on Saturday before starting back on Saturday night, thus missing only two days of work.

The Drive Down

Putting three 20-year-old boys into a car together for more than 20 straight hours of driving is guaranteed to generate bizarre behavior, even if the three aren’t all avid D&D players. We had our fair share. Someone in the car drew up a sign for the passenger side saying “we kill XXX for fun and profit,” where XXX was the common name for a specific religious minority in the US. I remember the sign, but not the context. Somewhere in Florida, one of my passengers was hanging out of the right side window asking a cute girl in the next lane “are you bisexual?” At 75 miles per hour. At night. Without alcohol to blame it on. In 1981.

We didn’t stop to sleep, just rotated drivers when necessary. Since this was before cell phones, we had to stay right with each other and use limited signals to indicate the need for a stop.

Crashing With a Fanboy

I don’t know exactly how Lawrence had made contact with our host fanboy. It almost has to have been by fan letter. I certainly don’t remember other details about him, like name, hometown, or pretty much anything else. I think he was maybe fifteen.

In any case, Lawrence had this contact, and got a phone number, and arrangements were made. We had a place to crash (six of us — his parents were clearly very tolerant). The “price” was very reasonable — run a game, or maybe two. Since that was essentially what we all did for a living, and in our free time for fun, it wouldn’t be much of a hardship.

The Scrub

Alarm clocks went off at four or five am. After way too little sleep, we piled into a van provided by our hosts (I’m not positive about that, but I don’t think we drove our two vehicles — it’s possible we squeezed the six of us into one car) and headed for the Cape.

Traffic was atrocious. It seemed that they had not anticipated the interest in Columbia’s launch. It wasn’t just bumper-to-bumper, it was (mostly) stop and (seldom) go. We had the radio on, and as launch time approached, we were happier and happier about holds.

Eventually we parked at a viewing area. It was plush, with vendors selling souvenirs, bleachers, trailer-offices, media, talking heads, and bunkers. It was clearly not where we belonged. Somehow in the mess of getting people into the Cape, we’d ended up at the VIP viewing area.

The view wasn’t great, actually. It seemed to be all over land, with brush and low trees between us and the launch site. But from the bleachers you could see pretty well. And there were lots of big cameras here, both TV and film.

We made the most of our good fortune. We ate the food, ogled the souvenirs (most of us barely made minimum wage), clambered around the bleachers, goggled at the celebrities (mostly news-type celebrities, it must be said), and generally made a nuisance of ourselves. At least we weren’t the only ones doing it. Or the only ones who didn’t belong there.

Friday’s launch was scrubbed due to computer malfunction. Fortunately, the APs managing traffic had learned something since the morning, and we were all off the Cape within an hour or so.

The Atlantic Ocean

Since we had the rest of the day to ourselves, we thought we’d go and show Jeff what an ocean looked like. Even though the Great Lakes are wide enough to have no visible farther shore, they don’t look like an ocean.

The beach was covered, absolutely covered, in jellyfish. Which were immediately dubbed “Man o’ War Jellyfish” (whether they were actually capable of stinging was never tested). We walked along the beach covering them with sand and smashing them with large flat rocks.

Since we obviously couldn’t swim in Man o’ War infested ocean waters, we used our host’s pool. There is a picture somewhere of several of us, pasty white from the Wisconsin winter, standing by the pool with our arms outstretched, our eyes closed, turning to get the most possible sunlight.

The Mouse

Because NASA could not cycle Columbia in less than about 48 hours, we had to decide what to do. We had always planned to go to Disney World on Saturday. If we left as planned, we’d driven 1300 miles and back again for no particular reason except to visit Disney World. If we stayed another 18 hours, we’d be driving home for 20 plus hours and going straight into work on Monday morning.

Four of us were 21 or under, so of course we decided to stay and see the launch if it happened Sunday morning! It seemed unlikely that they’d fire us all, since we represented about 1/2 of the design group, 1/3 of the development group, and 1/4 of the artists. And they weren’t paying us that well anyway.

Saturday morning we up and drove across Florida to Disney World. We did all the things that you’d expect us to. And by the end of the day, we were so exhausted that we all crashed out on the railroad that circles the park, singing Kliban. You know, the cat guy? We were finding out how many stylistic variations we could do of:

Love them little mousies
Mousies what I love to eat
Bite they little heads off
Nibble on they tiny feet.

I recall that we did pop and country versions, but the one I liked best was the Gregorian chant. Surprisingly, security did not even comment, much less remove us from the park as undesirables.

The Launch

As it happened, Columbia had been rescheduled for launch on the morning of 12 April 1981, exactly 20 years after Yuri Gagarin flew in Vostok 1. Without having Wikipedia handy, we were of course unaware of the timing. 🙂

Unlike Friday morning driving to the Cape, Sunday morning went very smoothly. As a result, we were not in the VIP area, 😦 Instead, we were on the first of a series of causeways across ponds and wetlands. Because we had planned to take as long to get onto the Cape as it had taken Friday, we were early, and roughly in the middle of the first causeway. Several other causeways behind us gradually filled with other visitors. Every causeway had its own set of speakers, which resulted in a maddening echo effect being applied to every word Mission Control said. “Holding” became “HOLDING … Holding … holding … hldng” as we got the word from successive sets of speakers behind us.

Since we’d left a couple of extra hours early, we got there before dawn. Even though we were used to Wisconsin winter weather, it was cold sitting for hours just a few inches above the water. Sunrise was at about six. The launch was scheduled for seven.

As it got close to seven, you could feel the tension rise. I don’t know how many people there were, but we had hundreds of vehicles on our causeway alone (we’d brought both our cars because we were leaving immediately after the launch). Since few if any of the vehicles were single drivers, we must have had thousands of people on the causeways. Cameras were set up. They ranged from high-end systems with lenses that looked feet long down to Jeff’s Instamatic. Which he was holding up to a pair of binoculars.

The boom box we’d been using for a radio had a cassette recorder in it. We plopped a blank tape in it and started recording as the final seconds ticked away, each number coming from the rows of speakers over and over and over again.

Crowd noise rose as the countdown dropped. Individual words disappeared and were replaced with squeals and screams and shouts. At “ignition” there was a greater shout — a single word cast across the water: “Yeah!” I think, in our secret hearts, we’d all been sure that this was going to be Friday all over again. Now it was really going to happen.

Smoke spilled from the solid rocket boosters. Shutters began snapping frantically. The crowd noise continued to rise. As the count hit zero and began to climb, we could see the shockwave from the shuttle engines moving across the water at us. It was a wave front of distortion charging through the shallow water, and as it lapped at our causeway, it carried the booster noise.

Crowd noise, which had been loud enough to make me think about covering my ears, just vanished in a vast thrumming. You could see that other people’s mouths were open, but whatever noise we were making was inconsequential when compared with the voice of Columbia.

And she rose. She rose from that flat piece of lowland across the water, trailing booster smoke and riding flame. She made, for the first time, that distinctive roll that bent toward the east, to protect us in case of disaster. The sun caught her, and the crowd noise came back. It was as if everybody’s favorite team has just won the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Stanley Cup, all at once, and then Peace Had Been Declared.

And she raced toward orbit.

Before I knew it, she was gone. Her voice, which had been so commanding at launch, was replaced with hundreds of hoarse human voices, and the mechanical voice of Mission Control, reporting facts that fell upon our no-longer deaf ears again and again.

My camera was out of film. I had no real recollection of images I’d tried to take. Those prints and negatives are probably somewhere in storage, among the ten or twelve bankers boxes I have of family photos.

Driving Back

We left the Cape right after launch and started back to Wisconsin. The recording went right into the car’s tape player, and we discovered the meaning of “clipping.” We could hear people shouting and screaming until the roar of Columbia’s engines hit. The recording became a brown noise hum. It wasn’t even particularly loud (the recorder probably had some sort of automatic volume control, or we overloaded the dynamic range of the device). After a while, the human voices just faded back in.

It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the actual event had been.

When we crossed I-10 near Lake City, our car had a serious discussion: should we turn left and try to watch the landing? We decided that it would almost certainly cost us our jobs, and we’d still have to drive back to Wisconsin to get our stuff, and we might not even make it in time, since Columbia was going to land in two days.

Unlike the trip down, where we’d almost always had one driver, one awake, and one sleeping, the trip back was almost always one driver and two sleeping. Whenever a driver couldn’t go any further, we’d stop for food. That seemed like it turned out to be every two or three hours, and we were punchy. We actually got asked to leave a restaurant when Erol carefully ate his burger into the shape of a pyramid and left it on his plate. They accidentally locked us in the airlock before letting us out.

I think we got back to Lake Geneva about 10am Monday morning, and went right to work, where we did fuck-all that day.

Twenty-One Years Later

I saw Columbia fly one other time. She was refitted by NASA for the last time between July 1999 and March 2002. She launched 1 March 2002 (the third anniversary of my mother’s death). Sara and I had made a trip to Florida for other reasons and took the morning off to drive to Cocoa and watch from a parking lot.

We were a lot farther away. I’m not even sure they allowed people onto the Cape for launches after 9/11. We couldn’t see Columbia very well on the ground. The crowd was a lot smaller, and there was no SRB noise. But she jumped off the pad and made that roll to the east, and the sun caught her, and the crowd cheered her.

And she raced toward orbit.

It was her penultimate flight.


Evan Robinson spent twenty years in Silicon Valley as a programmer, technical director, engineering manager, and consultant.  After seven years in Soviet Canuckistan he returned to the US in 2010 and now programs exclusively for Amazon.com.  He holds a MBA in Management of Technology and has studied Kenpo in two countries. He lives in downtown Seattle with his lovely and intelligent wife, one dog, and many computers.  Most of his other things live in storage in an undisclosed location.

2 replies »

  1. That brought tears to my eyes, Evan. I feel split right down the middle: half the 50-year old man who remembers that adventure as ‘the past’ and half the kid barely out of my teens who is still there, stuck in a wonderful, short time loop.  Like you I think, I can’t compose a coherent linear narrative for those days — just images of places, faces and the body memory of pervasive exhaustion.  I don’t think I have smiled and laughed so much ever since.

  2. Mary and I didn’t make the trip but we heard a lot about it afterward, and this reminiscence brought 1981 back to life for me for a lovely moment. Thanks for the road trip to the other side of memory, Evan.