FLASHBACKS ON THE SPACE SHUTTLE

The lake was on fire.

Flame rose into the tropical sky, crackling and snapping, radiating waves of heat, throwing an unearthly glow on the weird towers and sculptures above it.Half a mile away, I stood in the darkness and waited.

Slowly, so slowly, like the giant door of a Gothic mansion, the huge structure swung open. Spotlights knifed through the night sky.

The space shuttle sat poised for launch. The wind faintly carried the sounds of creaks and groans from its tanks of ultracold gases. Computers were venting off liquid hydrogen as it evaporated, piping it underground to the bottom of the lake, where it bubbled to the surface to be burned off.

The ship sat quietly among the lagoons, like one of the exotic tropical birds that inhabit the wildlife refuge that surrounds Kennedy Space Center. It's vivid black and white markings were as striking as their brilliant pinks and blues.

I had arrived in Orlando the night before, aboard a planeload of people

from the West Coast mostly on their way to the shuttle launch. Many of them were from the West Coast's new spaceport at Vandenberg, sent east to study the shuttle launch, preparing for their own first manned spaceflight. Delayed by thunderstorms in Atlanta, we reached Orlando after nightfall and began the drive through humid swamplands to the coast.

The next morning, I cleared the guard gates and headed in toward the mammoth Vertical Assembly Building. You turn the full-sized Saturn V moon rocket lying on its side, park then walk to the NASA dome.

Somehow, it seemed too quiet.

Living on the West Coast, covering space flight becomes the 24-hour image of NASA television during missions. But between flights, the space program is the flesh-and-blood people - the astronauts you come to know. It's those rambunctious, energetic, bright and usually just plain friendly people that the space program's about - not the machines.

But this was preflight, and the crew was in medical quarantine.

Right. Sure they were.

Granted, no one wants an astronaut getting sick in orbit, but the incubation period for hundreds of common disorders were longer than the quarantine. Besides, I had tracked where astronauts had been before other flights and knew they were nearly as exposed as anyone.

I had also been told there were two other reasons for the quarantine. One was to keep worried technicians, who couldn't sleep at night thinking the astronauts could make one last check, from deluging them with calls.

The other reason: to keep them away from the press.

I put in for a phone interview with the crew the morning I arrived at the space center. By the end of the day, NASA summarily denied the request.

I joined photographers heading for the pad to get the last close-up look at the shuttle before the launch.

When I got back, I started trying some of the phone numbers I'd collected before I arrived. I got lucky. Everyone scheduled to fly was feeling up, confident that the launch would go well. They were pleased with the ship, were psyched up for liftoff, but they were worried about the job ahead of them: retrieving a pair of disabled satellites. They'd get the first one - they were confident of that. But would there be enough fuel to get the second one? If it took too much fuel to approach the first one, getting to the second one would be difficult - maybe impossible. Some feared NASA had conditioned people to expect too much. One astronaut griped that the newspaper in his parents' hometown had massively messed up the name of his wife and his family background. Would I speak to that paper's reporter in the dome, and see if they could get it straightened out for the next edition? I said I would.

But there was no launch the next day. The weather looked OK before when they boarded the shuttle before dawn, but Air Force weather officers began reporting high winds blowing in contradictory directions at slightly different altitudes.

Such powerful wind shear might bend the shuttle's wings as it rose toward space.

To reach the crippled satellites, the timing of the launch had to be just right. Either the shuttle launched through a relatively small time

window, or the rescue was off.

High above, the winds continued to blow.

The launch was scrubbed.

We trudged in for the televised briefing. Most of the questions were about the weather. I asked whether the astronauts had enough fuel to reach both the satellites.

NASA was startled. Yes, the engineers thought so. But one of the managers said, well, for the second one, maybe the chances are 50-50.

Later, back in the press dome, an angry Gannett reporter asked me what the hell I thought I was doing, raising the possibility of disasters.

I told him that if the crew was a little worried about it, it seemed worth asking about.

The crew? he hooted. I've been coming here for years - they don't let you talk to the crew.

I shrugged.

The reporter from the Los Angeles Times was willing to reserve judgment. He thought it unlikely the flight would be flawless. His home just above Los Angeles Harbor had rocked when the oil tanker Sansinena exploded a few years back. Plus, he'd covered the Santa Barbara oil blowout, and was a little skeptical about all-powerful technology.

I wondered how many of reporters had become true believers. How could they get the real story of what was going on in the space program if they couldn't talk to the principal players? Relying on handouts does bad things to journalism.

We came back the launch site the next morning to try again. The pre-dawn drizzle didn't seem promising. By launch time, though, the weather was clear and bright. We headed out of the dome for the edge of the lagoon and its clear view across to the pad. The ship rose on the familiar ball of hydrogen flame, climbing through cloud layer after cloud layer, and finally vanishing from view. Only the sharpest eyes had spotted fire high on the shuttle, where there should be none.

It was the hydrogen venting system, the same one that fed that burning lake. Somehow, the system had not purged, and hydrogen left in the lines had mixed with air and ignited. But it had quickly burned itself out.

After the launch, a writer I knew who had gone to work for Hughes brought over the scientists who were going to fly in the shuttle, where they planned to run fuel tank slosh experiments aimed at making it possible to use a lighter, liquid-fuel rocket on Hughes satellites.

By afternoon, most of us had boarded planes for Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake City, a community next to the Port of Houston. After launch, control shifts to there.

Within a couple of days, the shuttle had caught up with the first satellite. Trouble developed when they tried to put a frame on so the shuttle's mechanical arm could move it into the cargo bay.

Hughes had forgotten about electronics gear sticking up in the way. The frame wouldn't fit. But the astronauts were able to manhandle it into place.

With precision flying, they got to the second satellite and successfully recovered it with fuel to spare.

The flight was a total success. Maybe I'd been wrong to fret about that fire, or to bring up the worry about fuel.

By the end of the mission, several of the papers had written up comments

from a top scientist who suggested that the shuttle program had turned the corner and was now reliable, so routine it might be hard to get funding. Failures like the ones that left the satellites in low orbits were so rare that we might never see another rescue or repair in our lifetime, he said.

He turned out to be wrong about the satellites. And wrong about the shuttle.

And that's what flashed through my mind one morning early last year in San Francisco, as the woman at NASA read me the list of crewmen and included Greg Jarvis of Hermosa Beach, Calif., one of the cheerful Hughes scientists I'd interviewed.

The story I was writing that morning had started when a shaken editor had said, The shuttle exploded and everybody's dead.

John Davies is the West Coast editor for The Journal of Commerce.

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