I had been in the Navy for less than a year, and had just completed my apprenticeship school (for radar technicians) in Virginia Beach, VA. In an odd coincidence I had graduated boot camp on my younger brother and sister's 13th birthday (they were twins), and had graduated (at the top of my class) from "A" school on my mother's 51st. I spent two weeks with my family in Texas before reporting to my first assignment, the Navy's Pinecastle Electronic Warfare Center, in beautiful Astor, Florida. This base was also a bombing range with frequent visits from pilots of all branches of the military. We were located about 90 miles south of Jacksonville, halfway between Ocala and Daytona Beach. Not very close to the Kennedy Space Center, but I thought I might be able to get lucky and catch a launch on one of my days off (if I ever got one).
It was a cold morning and I had been assigned to KP (kitchen patrol, for those who have never served in the military) duty. We had just completed clean-up from breakfast and done lunch prep. Since lunch service didn't require our direct assistance, I had a few minutes grace before dishes needing to be washed would have started piling up, so I told the cook that I was going to step out for a smoke. I walked out into the empty common room where a big-screen TV was playing some soap opera or other, and just as I lit up a cigarette, it broke into live coverage of an imminent Shuttle launch. I sat there for a moment or two until I realized that I was sitting only about 80-100 miles away from the launch site (I was kinda vague about the exact distance, because I hadn't had time to figure it out exactly). I quickly walked to the front of the building, which faced to the south. I tried to determine which direction the launch site was from where I was standing, and tried to estimate where I would see the column of smoke rise above the treeline (we were in the middle of a fairly large forested area). I watched intently, and thought about how lucky those seven people were who got to go into space for a living.
I saw the first hint, then a rapidly climbing dot of light and I started grinning like a pirate at something (in the words of Spider Robinson) "the size and weight of a small apartment building that was being thrown so high and far that it wasn't going to come down until it was damned good and ready." I made a promise to myself on the spot that if I ever had a chance to see one up close I would pay anything, promise anything, do anything - whatever it took to get there.
That was how I felt on that cold, cold morning in central Florida. On January 28, 1986. At 11:38 am. Watching Space Shuttle Challenger lift above the treeline.
Then the unexpected. A sudden cotton ball of smoke and fire and the terrible forked smoke trails of the suddenly freed solid rocket boosters. I didn't know what I was seeing, but I did know that it was different from the other launches I had seen on TV. I stood transfixed for a few seconds trying to puzzle it out, then decided that I needed to know more than I could from 80 miles away, so I went back inside to the (suddenly filled) common room. The room that had been totally empty when I had left it not three minutes before. Men and women were quietly sobbing, and I heard the choked voice of the commentators say, "It appears that there has been a major malfunction aboard Challenger."
I pointed over my shoulder and stammered, "I saw it. Out front. It's out there right now..." and two people sprinted for the front of the building, followed by a few others. I couldn't even share in the mourning, because I had dishes to wash.
I never did get to go see a launch in person, because I had transferred away from that base to a frigate stationed in Mayport before NASA risked another launch. In another odd coincidence, my ship was assigned to patrol duty off the coast in case of another disaster for the launch, and I was sitting at the SPS-40 air search radar, watching the little green line rotate around the display, hearing the NASA guard circuit over my headphones, whispering the countdown along with the robot-like voice, and praying so hard to prevent another disaster I could almost have etched those unspoken words into the aluminum bulkhead with sheer willpower.
An amusing bit of data has stuck with me all those years. I tracked that Shuttle on my radar scope, and when I lost her at about 100,000 feet, her ground track was moving toward us at almost Mach 5. That's about a mile every second, and still accelerating.
Despite the losses of both Challenger and Columbia, if NASA were to come knocking on my door tomorrow (that's a hint, in case anyone from there is reading this), I would sign up for the next flight almost before they had finished asking. Most of my friends would look at me like I'm crazy, but there are a few of the closest who would offer to fight me for the chance.
I still think I'd win... ;-)
God bless those brave souls, and their families.