History of Stone Hill and Members

Space Shuttle Columbia Launch, April 12, 1981
"Why no traffic jams will every scare me again".

As told by Mark Jones
In early 1981, all members of the club were aware of the upcoming launch of the Shuttle Columbia. What did get our attention was that two members, thorough the help of Congressmen Lawton Chilles, were able to obtain passes for the launch. These passes would each enable one vehicle access to the Kennedy Space Center viewing area.

This member, Ann Morris, let us know she had these and wondered if someone had a larger vehicle than hers that a bunch of us could go in. Asking around, Adrain Barton's sisters had a large van that could hold a bunch. A total of 13 people gathered at about 11pm on April 9th for the trip over in two cars. I recall they consisted of Adrain Barton, his sisters Sharon & Ursala, Ann & Kendall Morris, Debbie Hicks, Becky Barnett Fancher, Mike Geraghty, Mark Bostic, John Setlow, Ruth & Glen Oswald and myself, Mark Jones.

Traveling up I-4, we headed east on the Bee-line Expressway in the middle of the night. The Launch was scheduled for about 9am, so we figured we had plenty of time. Well we weren't expecting that half the state was going too, but that was what we found. At about 25 miles out from KSC, we hit stop-and-go traffic. For hours we moved along at a snails' pace, edging closer to the coast, worrying that we wouldn't make it in time.

I remember that as we were about 2 miles from the coast, a bright light glowed on the horizon. When we were finally close enough, we found that it was the launch pad, bathed in blinding spotlights. The long hours of driving were forgotten in the thrill of the first sight of our new spaceship.

At the coast, cars were separated to head north or south on US1 if they didn't have a pass. Those lucky enough to have them were allowed across the causeway across the Indian River. Traffic eased up a little then, but it was still packed. Normally, (as we found out later) spectators were packed onto a viewing causeway that is a mere 7 miles from the launch pad. This is south of the pad, midway between KSC Visitors Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

However, they had given out a lot more passes than they were ready to handle. Later, cars were herded over to the road that runs by the Vehicle Assembly Building. We parked about a half-mile from it with a neat view of the launch pad a scant 4 miles away. Even the VIP stands were 3 miles out. So as we climbed out of our van at about 7am on April 10th, we were immeasurably excited about the launch.

Now, if you know your history, or you were just paying attention to the heading at the top of the page, you'll note that April 10th was NOT the launch of the Columbia. So as time ticked by, prolonged by planned and unplanned holds in the count, we were more and more nervous. Finally, with the clock down to one minute, the crowed was poised for blastoff. Loudspeakers projected the voice of shuttle control as well as control/astronaut conversation. Then, at 31 seconds and counting, the computers initiated a hold situation. Some piece of equipment was out of spec, and the programming called for a halt. A vast "aaawww" went up from the crowd. After a few minutes, the loudspeakers explained that an abort at that late in the countdown could not be restarted. The shuttle would have to go into turn-around and be prepped for another attempt on the 12th.

We piled back into the van & car and began the long trip back to Tampa. Traffic was just as bad going out and we had slow going all the way back across the Bee Line. We made our plans for the next attempt and who could rejoin us and who could not. After the wearying night, the crowded van was full of sleepers for much of the trip.


On the night of the 11th, we met again. This time, the people present were Adrain Barton, his sisters Sharon & Ursala, Ann & Kendall Morris, Debbie Hicks, Becky Barnett Fancher, Ken Hillyard, Mike Geraghty, Mark Bostic, John Setlow, and myself, Mark Jones.

Following the same plan and route, we left Tampa and headed out. Traffic was just a little bit lighter than the last time, meaning it was only 10 miles out we hit stop & go. The trip was very similar to the first, which is to say a blur of tail lights and boredom in my memory. They also parked us again along the road to the VAB, but this time we were only about 100 yards away from it. The sight was truly awe inspiring!

Kendall Morris had borrowed a video camera (think huge, with a separate VCR unit for recording) and set this up on top of the van. His view was great and we still have that tape. Various people had cameras and binoculars to get a better view.

Again the loudspeakers announced the technical details of the unfolding drama. Planned holds were scheduled, and this time we knew to expect them. Once more the countdown dropped below one minute. At the 30 second mark, a cheer went up as the crucial shutdown point of the last attempt was passed. Then it was 765匨ain Engine Start321 LIFTOFF.

At T-4 seconds, the main engines lit up. A bright light glowed at the base of the pad. At zero, the Solid Rocket Boosters ignited. I found myself yelling along with 20,000 other people in a joyous scream. From there, the flame diversion pits channeled the fire and smoke towards us, obscuring the pad for about 3 seconds. Then from above the smoke rose Columbia. In profile to us as it climbed on a pillar of flame. Within a moment, the roll maneuver was initiated and we saw the shuttle from "above". It climbed higher, gaining speed at an incredible rate. At about T+10 the first sound wave reached us, drowning out the roar of the crowd. There was a tremendous rumble of the sound-delayed main engine, followed moments later by the SRB ignition. It doubled in intensity. I could feel the clothes on my body being waved like they were in a stiff breeze. I could feel the bass reverberation in my chest as that noise of the engine lifted Young and Crippen into space.

The shuttle climbed higher, leaving a pillar of cloud in it's wake. We continued to cheer as the glowing spec rose higher into the atmosphere. Not until it had completely faded did we begin to pack up our troop. Radios in vehicles around us kept up the coverage, reporting that all was well as the Columbia obtained orbit. Again we joined the throng heading off the base, but this time we were giddy. America had returned to space, and we were there to see it happen. It was a moment of my life that still brings chills to my spine whenever I think about it. If not for the friends I had made in Stone Hill, I wouldn't have gotten to be there.


My pass for the 3rd shuttle launch.  click for a larger version Afterwards I checked into getting passes for launches. At that time, all you had to do was write to NASA, and if it was far enough in advance, they would send you one. I have 14 passes from several of the first 25 launches. I saw the third launch with the woman I would end up marrying. The ones at night are even more spectacular than the day launches. When I couldn't get a pass, I've driven over to Titusville to watch from across the Indian River. Traffic is no-where near as bad as it once was. While it's not as close, and not as loud, it's still a beautiful spectacle to see. I particularly recall one launch that went up just before dawn. As the shuttle and the smoke trail rose higher into the sky, the color went from dark, to light, to orange, to yellow then to brilliant white.

It was later on that I found out that the date of April 12th had another major significance in the history of space exploration. Twenty years prior to that launch, the very first man from earth was launched into space. Yuri Gagarin rode Vostok 1 on a 1 hour, 48 minute flight and preceeded Alan Shepard into space by 25 days.

You can't get passes anymore after 9-11. Only VIPs get onto the base for launch. You can still go over to the east coast. From just about anywhere, it a great show. If you've never seen it live, you owe it to yourself to do so. Take the time. Make the effort. Nothing else can compare with it and I'll never tire of watching them ascend to the high frontier.

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