One of the rare treats this former SSBN boomer sailor experienced was to watch a Space Shuttle launch from the pier at PCAN (Port Canaveral). In 1985-86 the USS Alabama SSBN 731 had just finished our post construction and shipyard evolutions. We had done all our workups, shakedowns, DASOs and were ready to go on patrol. During one of our last AUTEC visits we did a port call at PCAN, one of the few places where an 16,764 surface tons 38’ draft Trident submarine can go.
What I got to witness was, what I seem to recall, the last Shuttle launch before the Challenger disaster. STS-61C Shuttle launch #24 occurred at 6:55 am on January 12, 1986. Our Commanding Officer had us all go topside to the pier for our morning muster. After the division heads and COB had reported to the CO that all was present and accounted for (liberty in Cocoa Beach can be a little distracting) the crew waited silently.
Shuttle Launch (Source: NASA)
The calm of that cool January morning changed dramatically when the dim light of dawn became much brighter and the morning quiet was interrupted with the characteristic low frequency rumble of the Shuttle Columbia's engines and boosters lighting off. What an awesome event to experience, you could feel the sound in our bones. But within minutes all was back to normal, the only evidence being a slowly dissipating contrail path of the Shuttle’s trajectory. The Columbia had a successful 6 day mission landing at Edwards Air Force base on January 18 1986.
STS61C Launch (Source: NASA)
About a month later, with the experience of watching a Space Shuttle launch fresh in my mind , I was on the Alabama doing a submerged transit through the Straits of Florida. We were on our way to the west coast and the Bangor Submarine Base WA via a goodwill PR visit to our namesake state and the City of Mobile when we got the news. I had just hit the rack when the CO comes on the 1MC with the news of the Challenger’s explosion. The obligatory moment of silence somehow didn’t seem adequate. Years later the Shuttle Columbia, that I watched liftoff in 1986, was also lost on its 2003 STS-107 mission deorbit.
I may be projecting here but I think submariners feel a distant kinship to astronauts. We both operate some of the most complex machines built by mankind. We work in inhospitable environments where a mistake can cost you and your shipmates their lives. In a recent generation both have lost some of their finest Challenger and Columbia; Thresher and Scorpion.
Throughout these tragedies, our country has risen to the greater challenge. We have found men and women willing to take the risks in the vacuum of space or the pressure of the deep ocean.
Apollo 11 Launch 1969 (Source: NASA)
Today 7/13/05 NASA is ready for the challenge again and return to flight. I would love to be at PCAN again to watch this next Shuttle launch. In any case I'll be watching on TV and wishing the crew of the Shuttle Discovery and mission STS-114 gods speed and a successful mission.