One Track Mind: Rush, "Countdown" (1982)

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by Tom Johnson

Growing up, I plastered my room with pictures of the space shuttle. Glorious photos of the shuttle leaping forth from its pad in a blaze of orange flame, landing on the desert runway accompanied by its T-38 chase planes, mounted atop the customized 747 carrier aircraft, or just pictures cut from the local newspaper and various magazines – they were everywhere. I had shelves filled with space toys, most of them related in some way to the space shuttle and, later, I built increasingly difficult and realistic models. To say I had an obsession was putting it mildly, but at least it was an educational, healthy obsession.

My dream, all those years, was to see a launch in person, to feel the enormous rumble of the solid rocket boosters and the incredible light from the burning exhaust. I had no doubt it would someday come true.

All those years, even until recently, it seemed unimaginable that it could end. The space shuttle, after all, was our nation’s space truck, ferrying heavy loads and workers into low orbit to do difficult jobs, or heaving aloft equipment to observe the Earth and space in ways we couldn’t from the surface. Everything the program did was amazing and beautiful to me, and I never bored of it.

How something like this could become mundane and everyday to most people is beyond me. We take something that has millions of fragile, hand-made parts, throw it a couple hundred miles up into space with extreme, violent force, then drop it back to Earth through thousands of degrees of heat. And then, just months later, we send the same ship back up again to do the same thing. Mundane? Everyday? I have a hard time agreeing with that.

I was home a lot when I was a kid for launches and landings, either by providence or, um, well, being “sick.” My parents were understanding. And in those early days, we got a lot of coverage – not just the “2 minutes before and 1 minute after” (with a lot of talking) like it is now, but often full time event coverage, you know, like a celebrity trial might get today. Space walks were actually something to see and the news channels kept the live footage going, but eventually the networks decided they couldn’t break away from their all-important soaps and game shows. CNN, at least, devoted a considerable amount of time covering shuttle activities back in those days. I spent many afternoons glued to the TV watching fluffy white figures float and bounce about in the open expanse of the shuttle’s payload bay, doing things I barely understood, but things that were fascinating and amazing nonetheless.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We delve into some Rush favorites, including tracks from ‘2112,’ ‘Hemispheres, ‘Roll the Bones’ and “Presto.’]

I was home from school, truly, for-reals sick, for that fateful January morning when Challenger dared, and lost to, the too-cold Florida weather. My throat hoarse from the flu, I leapt up from the couch the moment she got her final “Go at throttle up” call, bellowing out “It exploded! It exploded!” until my parents ran in the room and begged me to explain what they were seeing. I stared glass-eyed at the news footage for days afterward, hoping against the inevitable. I spent the remaining months of the school year torturing my class’s current events time with updates it was clear they didn’t want to hear. It was how I dealt with it, and it’s how I deal with anything shocking – by finding out as much as I can.

The sheen of space flight truly wore off for most people after that, if it hadn’t before that. Somehow, most had envisioned that everything was safe and perfect and nothing could go wrong. And when something did, well, that was that – they washed their hands entirely of it, and it pretty much entirely fell off their radar after those first couple of flights back (wouldn’t want to miss another possible disaster, now would we?) What for most people became something they didn’t care about, the shuttle became a source of major focus for me – the disaster only illustrated to me how much more amazing was everything that went together to make the shuttle work, from the mechanical bits to the people behind it. What started as something amazing to watch became something amazing to know.

It was an early Saturday morning, the first day of February, 2003, that I turned on the TV hoping, probably in vain, to see some live footage of shuttle Columbia‘s landing. I was up just early enough that I should be just in time for most channels to begin carrying it – if they were going to. Within minutes of finding a channel that seemed to be talking about it, something went wrong, and things I’d never seen were happening in Mission Control – calls to lock all the doors, repeated calls to Columbia that went unanswered, and a lot of concerned looking faces. It was soon clear, though they weren’t outright saying it, Columbia and her crew were gone. This would be the beginning of the end, and I had a sinking feeling even then.

And here we are, thirty years after that first flight of Columbia and eight years after her terrible final day, having just watched Atlantis take to the sky for the last time, starting the flight that draws to a close both its career and the shuttle program. She’ll land at Kennedy Space Center in 12 days, her final home, while sister ships Discovery and Endeavour head to the Smithsonian Institute and California Science Center, respectively. We’ll all soon be able to see these huge, amazing workhorses up close. I have a date with each of them, as soon as possible.

My dream of seeing a launch in person never came true – cut short by the end of this program before I could imagine it being possible. Instead, I watched Atlantis on my computer on a high-definition video feed beamed directly from NASA itself. I am saddened by the end – and we are now truly at the end of the end – for entirely selfish reasons, but, at the same time, it’s hard not to remain amazed and hopeful. After all, what required me to be home “sick” ages ago to witness is now just available to me here, on this computer, or my iPhone, or any number of other devices. The future brings amazing things.

There will be a quiet few years while NASA struggles to make the leap to the next platform, but I can assure you, I will be there, in person, with my wife and kids, for that one. And it will be amazing.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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