From the Archives: Crowd watches landing of space shuttle Columbia

Columbia’s first landing on April 14, 1981, drew 225,000 fans to Edwards Air Force Base. The crowd size overwhelmed the base police and facilities.

For the next landing, Edwards was ready. In a Nov. 15, 1981, article, Los Angeles Times staff writer Al Martinez reported, “MPs on jeeps and three-wheelers guided the traffic to well-marked rows of parking places, a vast improvement over the jumbled chaos of last April.

“ ‘It took some people 10 hours to get out last time,” a master sergeant said, “I guarantee you it ain’t gonna be that way this time.’ ”

Columbia developed a fuel-cell problem soon after its Nov. 12, 1981, launch, leading NASA to cut its planned five-day flight in half. The original landing, scheduled for Monday, Nov. 16, was moved to Saturday. But the crowds still came.

In his classic prose, Al Martinez reported in the Nov. 15, 1981, Los Angeles Times:

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — It was as much a celebration of America as a commitment to space.

Flags snapped in a brisk 18-knot wind, brightening the public viewing lot with dazzling flashes of red, white and blue.

And when the Columbia came out of the sky like a chariot of the gods, hundreds of radios tuned to the shuttle flight’s progress played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Music filled the air like trumpets to the feature.

It was party time and pride time on the eastern fringe of the bleak, dry lake bed where a crowd estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 cheered the dusty landing of the world’s first reusable space craft.

They toasted the touchdown with blaring horns and upraised cans of beer.

A young woman confined for life to a wheelchair half-rose from it, shouting her lungs out, and a man who had escaped from Hungary a few years before said simply, “America…”

They had come throughout the night and into the often-overcast dawn in cars and campers, dune buggies and bicycles, motor scooters and huge semi-trucks and trailers.

They came from New York and Florida and Virginia and Alabama and Nebraska and Texas and Oregon.

They came as part of a well-planned itinerary or they came on the spur of the moment.

They came to introduce young people to the wonders of space flight, or they came — in one elderly couple’s case — to see what could be their last view of an awesome new age.

They came alone, in couples, in families or with friends.

And as radio stations ticked off the time of the landing — “eight minutes to touchdown…” — the thousands pressed against the fence that lined the lake bed.

Then they saw it.

Columbia was only a speck in a sky that had turned brilliantly blue about an hour before, but it was all anyone needed. Fingers pointed and faces turned skyward as the Columbia circled the earth.

The cheering never stopped.

“I’m so proud of America!” beamed 24-year-old Carin Eliasen from Norwalk. A victim of crippling spina bifida, she is confined to a wheelchair.

“I never thought I would see a ship land from space.” She savored the word space. “But I’m here! It’s such a wonderful day!”

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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