August 31, 2005

I always try to remember how I felt when I got to meet or see in concert, one of my favorite players. I'm a fan of music, but since it's such a part of my everyday life, I'm a more typical fan of aviation and all things aerospace. That is, it is really unusual and special to be able to get close to aerospace in any way. After this latest experience, I think I know even better what it is like to be a fan of something that you really love. The kind of fan that gets excited for the success of their team, that is speechless when something bad happens to a player. The kind of fan that would stay up all night just to witness an important milestone in the team's history.

JP was married to the brilliant astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, who died in the disaster of STS107, along with the rest of that crew. Through a common thread of music, we got to be friends, and able to meet the other families of that shuttle mission after the accident. JP is not a normal guy. He has a huge heart, amazing brain, an encyclopedic knowledge of aviation, is an active pilot, former flight instructor, travels the World promoting the positives of the space program and helping others through a foundation he set up. So, during this last shuttle launch, which I missed because of work, of course, he informed me that the invitation that he arranged for me to witness the launch also included an opportunity to sit at the landing site at Kennedy Space Center with the families.

I missed the landing time because I wasn't home yet, but when I stepped out of the Orlando airport near 11pm and heard my wife inform me via cell phone that the shuttle landing was rescheduled for 6 hours from now..........There was a moment of deliberation. I could make it home driving, take a shower and turn right around and possibly make it to the rendezvous point for the family/vip bus. Or, more logically, I could just go there and wait at the designated parking lot, practice guitar or something, and try not to go to sleep! I told her I was going for it and would see her during the next day as one tired musician.

The meeting place was unusual, and nobody was around, of course. I was 3 hours early, at least. Some overseas flights seem really long, but waiting in a car can seem even longer when you're fighting to stay awake. Exhaustion from activities, time changes, and a short sleep the night before had me working to stay focused. I watched the progress of a fairly small thunderstorm track to the northwest, away from the landing site.

I turned on my computer to recheck the e mail with the details of the rendezvous. Each time I looked down, I expected government troops to be knocking on the window of the car when I looked up again. Somewhere, on some security camera, somebody must be watching me, even though I wasn't officially in NASA territory yet. Playing my guitar was a nice diversion, but uncomfortable due to the seat arrangement in the car. So, I turned on the air conditioning, then got in the back seat with the guitar. Much more comfortable, but I wondered what a security guard would make of a guy in the back seat of a car by himself at 3am. holding a guitar.....and insisting he was going to see the astronauts land.

I watched some thin, high clouds, and thought there might have been some distant lighting flashes to the south, but I wasn't sure. Slowly, the digital clock in the car showed that I might have missed the boat, and they were actually meeting somewhere else and had gone. You see, I was out of touch and didn't know what the updated plans were in case of a 24 hour delay, I was only assuming that the same arrangements would be repeated. My heart sank as it seemed more and more like I had taken a chance and lost. But, I am such a fan that it never occurred to me to wish I hadn't tried to go for it. I went to the driver's seat, put the car in gear and slowly motored around the whole parking area for any sign of life. Wait a second, there was a car pulling in. I didn't recognize the driver because I was far away, but it was time to go back and wait for more clues. 2 more cars later, I was sure that it was on. I walked up to a nice black man who was gathering up some coolers and introduced myself. Without an I.D., in the middle of the night, probably on private property, I was greeted warmly and invited to wait for the bus. JP arrived, and the next thing you know, I'm on the bus with family and friends, and even sporting an official I.D. badge. For a fan like me, the equivalent of getting a laminated backstage pass.

A friendly astronaut gave us the news that the first chance to get ready for reentry had been waved off. Meanwhile, we were all driving toward a special area that NASA had set aside for it's families to hang out until driving to the actual airstrip where the landing was planned to take place. He said that there would be another opportunity to make the landing sequence in Florida, and, as I had seen, the weather seemed to be moving away from the area. It turns out that there is a very conservative distance required because once the reentry is initiated, the shuttle is committed to land there, and weather can change a lot from the point of no return to actually landing.

We arrived at the facility and had some coffee, water, and waited for the news. Everywhere you went, there was the official soundtrack, which was Mission Control, with the Shuttle Commander answering. Eventually, on one of the calls, which were a little hard to make out through the outdoor speakers, I thought I heard them giving an expected landing time of an hour and a half later, at Edwards. My sleep deprived brain understood that Edwards was not here, and everyone was going to be disappointed. Seconds later, a NASA official stood on a platform with a microphone and gave the unwelcome news that some small areas of showers were too close to the clear area and the landing was on for Edwards Air Force Base. These families and friends of the present and last ill fated mission had been through this very same scenario the night before, and were visibly upset, but no negative words were spoken. They all resigned themselves that it would be viewed on a large screen area, here, together. No other plans or alternatives were uttered, they would stay together and see it happen.

A fan sometimes asks a lot of questions. I left no doubt in my hosts' minds that I was a fan. I learned a lot about the reentry process, sequence, reasons for changing angles, precision of reentry burns, saw some vintage space suits, heard some off the record stories...........I was loving this, it turned out. About ten minutes before the first reentry burn, the atmosphere changed. People started to sit down, and position themselves more carefully around the big screen. Conversations continued, but were all related to what was happening at this moment.

Then something awe-striking slowly unfolded. As the shuttle began the deceleration process and the friction of the atmosphere made this the 2nd most critical moment of the mission, there was silence. The voices on the radio were there, but in this darkened room, nobody spoke. Pindrop silence.

It stayed that way until the shuttle rolled out with the nose wheel finally touching down. For a fan to be in that room with some of the family members going through the first successful landing of the shuttle since the tragedy, and seeing a NASA tile specialist staring wordlessly for 30 minutes along with some of the families of the astronauts that were up there was amazing. It was a reverent, amazing, spectacularly moving moment.

Afterward, we went out to the actual landing site, and JP and some of the others met the media for some short interviews. They were all there with satellite feeds on their trucks, waiting for the landing that eventually got moved to California. After the interviews, JP gave me some more insight on what it was like when he was at this very same spot, heard them lose contact, then didn't hear the sonic boom that would herald the imminent arrival of the STS 107. He knew that Kalpana would be watching the instrumentation as a flight engineer, and would have likely been the first to know of the extent of the problem.

I don't take pictures, or keep a scrapbook. This may be one of the only records I keep of my life other than through music. For sure, I will remember this day. 2005