When the space shuttle Atlantis landed in July it marked the end of an era in space flight. As a kid I followed the space program with deep fascination and this milestone was sad. This last mission of the shuttle program also reminded me of two stories that connected me loosely to the space program.
Years ago a rocket was being prepared for an important launch. But one of the engineers at the company that made this rocket was concerned that critical parts might fail in cold weather. He brought up the issue to managers but his warning was dismissed because he had no hard data to back up his concern.
The government had delayed launch of this particular rocket several times and was being embarrassed in the press. It was under pressure to have a successful launch. Unfortunately on the next scheduled launch date the temperature was below freezing. In a pre-launch conference call, when it came time to object, the engineer who had voiced the concern remained silent. The launch went ahead as scheduled. Unfortunately the engineer was correct and a critical seal failed 73 seconds into flight.
That rocket was one of the boosters attached to the Space Shuttle Challenger. That failure on a cold January day in 1986, killed the crew of seven, including Christa McAuliffe who had been scheduled to be the first teacher in space, and the Shuttle Commander, Francis R. “Dick” Scobee. Dick Scobee was a native of my hometown, Auburn Washington. He graduated from Auburn High School with my mother in 1957. A local guy who made good and died a hero.
Four years after that disaster I was the Airfield Manager at Sembach Air Base, a small American Air Force Base in the heart of Germany. An F-16 fighter squadron at nearby Ramstein Air Base was scheduled for night flying. However, the approach lighting system, or ALS, at Ramstein was not working correctly. The ALS consists of a series of light bars that flash in succession, leading pilots into the runway. Normally the last light bar is just short of the runway. In this case the last half of the ALS wasn’t working. That meant that when the pilots reached the last working light bar they still had to clear a number of unlit light bars in the dark before reaching the end of the runway. Over the warnings of the Ramstein Airfield Manager, night flights were ordered despite the hazard.
The first pilot cleared the last light bar—barely—and landed safely. But his wing man, a young Lieutenant, just clipped the last bar—and crashed on the end of the runway. Another victim of warnings ignored.
But unlike the crew of the Challenger, this pilot walked away from his crash landing. Walked away to fly another day.
An interesting thing about the pilot of that F-16; the young Air Force Lieutenant who survived the crash at Ramstein Air Base. His name was Scobee—Richard W. Scobee—the son of the Challenger commander.
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Lieutenant Scobee is now Brigadier General Scobee, Deputy Director of Operations at NORAD.