Twenty-five years ago I was working my first job after college at ITT Telecom in Raleigh, NC. I was in the test department, and we were testing a massive telephone switch (Signalling System 7, or SS7). It was crunch time, so management decided that we needed to test at all our facilities. They fanned our department out up and down the East Coast to make use of all our SS7 labs. I ended up going to Cape Canaveral with one of my co-workers. We were working back-to-back, 12 hour shifts. He had the 8:00am – 8:00pm shift, and I had the opposite.
As it happened, they had a shuttle launch scheduled on one of those days. I had witnessed three other launches previously, and I can tell you that they are indeed something to experience.
The first launch I saw was when my brothers and I went down to Daytona Beach for some R&R. My older brother was station at Robins AFB in southern Georgia, and my younger brother and I were still in college (but it was summer break). We stopped in to see a shuttle launch. I guess we were some eight miles from the launch pad, across the bay. When they lit it up, we could easily see it as it slowly lifted from the ground and then disappeared into the clouds. Then we saw ripples coming across the bay towards us. When the ripples reached us, so did the sound. It was pretty loud! I estimate that it took about 40 seconds for the sound to reach us, and at roughly five seconds per mile.
I had seen two other launches after that during my time at the Cape courtesy of ITT, but I was ready to watch another. I had just come off one of those dreadful 12-hour shifts, and the launch was scheduled for something like 9:00am (if memory serves). I stayed up, but they delayed the launch. Then they delayed it again. I gave up at 10:00am, drove to the hotel, and went to bed.
I woke up around 3:00pm, loaded up my toothbrush, and flipped on the TV “to see how the launch went.” My first thought was “Cool, I don’t have to wait for the story.” So there I was standing in a hotel room brushing my teeth less than 10 miles from Cape Canaveral when I learned that the Challenger had exploded. I slept right through it.
As was my habit, I went to a nearby IHOP. That was the only place I knew of where I could get breakfast in the middle of the afternoon. The mood there was pretty black. I expect it was all over the country, but I wasn’t all over the country that day – I was at the Cape. I thought a lot about it too, and concluded that these people had more of a right to be glum than any other community – this disaster threatened to cost them their livelihood. Their economy was built around NASA. I never felt more like an outsider than I did on that day. I was grieving too, but I was not able to share their grief.
I later learned that the Cape Canaveral community did not have exclusive rights to gloom. The place I work now – Concord, NH – also had special dibs on that right, for Christa McAuliffe was one of their own. The astronaut-teacher taught at Concord High School. I wasn’t part of this community in 1986, so once again, I find myself grieving alone in the midst of a grieving people.
Rewinding to 1986 again for an ironic twist, ITT shut down my division less than a month after the Challenger Accident, but NASA went on. I was again sleeping in the hotel at the Cape when my cohort from Raleigh woke me with a phone call – all our friends in NC had just gotten pink slips, and we were likely getting them too. No one at the Cape knew if the two of us had jobs or not, but it was pretty safe to assume we did not. We got a call from the boss later on confirming the bad news. They did fly us home again (which I actually worried about), and we did get a generous severance package (which I was not expecting). I hung around Raleigh thinking I’d get another job there, but that was a pretty stupid thought – ITT had just dumped 500 engineers on the job market there, and most of them had way more experience than I did. I moved back to Kentucky, and Va and I got married before I found another job (the napkins had already been ordered, with the date printed on them!) We spent the first month of our marriage there before relocating to Falls Church, VA where I had accepted a new engineering job at E-Systems (later bought by Raytheon).