The End of Innocence

The shuttle landing just 10 days before the Challenger accident seemed like it was from another era.

Hoot Gibson (far right) and the crew of STS-61C onboard Columbia, January 1986.

Space shuttle mission STS-61C, in mid-January 1986, was the last flight before the Challenger accident, which would shock the nation less than two weeks later and change the course of the shuttle program. On STS-61C, though, the mood was all upbeat. Here’s how veteran space shuttle commander Hoot Gibson recalled it in our 2002 book Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years:

It was January 18, 1986, and we were having a difficult time getting back to Earth. Two days in a row, bad weather at the Florida landing site had forced us to wave off for another day. After the second try, I wrote a song that Pilot Charlie Bolden and I sang to Mission Control the last thing before turning in for the night. It was to the tune of “Who Knows Where or When?” and we sang in two-part harmony (listen to the recording here):

    It seems that we have talked like this before, the Deorbit Burn that we copied then, but we can’t remember where or when
    The clothes we’re wearing are the clothes we’ve worn, the food that we’re eating’s getting hard to find, since we can’t remember where or when
    Some things that happened for the first time, Seem to be happening again!
    And so it seems we will Deorbit Burn, return to Earth, and land somewhere, But who knows where or when?

Mission Control loved the song. They had made their own joke, drafting a “Wanted” poster of my entire seven-man crew that said, “WANTED. IF FOUND, RETURN TO EARTH!”

In the early morning hours of January 18, we again woke early and went through the long, laborious process of configuring the shuttle for reentry. Once again we were all in our suits and helmets, hoping to land in Florida. But the weather still wouldn’t cooperate. So they told us to go around one more time and land at our backup site at Edwards Air Force Base in California. We made the required changes to move the landing site, and with about 45 minutes remaining until the engine burn, suddenly found ourselves with nothing to do but wait. And that last orbit turned out to be one of my most memorable from the five spaceflights that I flew.

We crossed the coastline of Baja California south of San Diego, and saw all the lights of the city shining like so many stars. I had served there at Miramar Naval Air Station, and was able to make out the lights of the airfield from 160 nautical miles up. Next we watched as Phoenix and Tucson rapidly came into view, followed very quickly by El Paso. All of us had trained extensively there, flying the Shuttle Training Aircraft. We watched in silent awe as our tour of the southern USA crossed over San Antonio and Houston. We saw the Mississippi River Delta and New Orleans shining in the early morning darkness. Pensacola, Florida, where Charlie Bolden and I had trained as fledgling Naval aviators, swept gracefully by. As we finished our pathway toward the Atlantic Ocean, barely visible under the clouds was the Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach, our intended landing site. It was the only part of the United States that had any bad weather to spoil our view.

In many ways, that mission ended the golden age of the early space shuttle program. The launch of Challenger was only 10 days after that, and none of us will ever forget the heartbreak associated with the loss of our friends and compatriots on mission 51-L. That last orbit of 61-C will forever live in my memory as a moment of beauty and silence that marked the end of innocence.

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