Now that a brand-new military branch has been formed, I wonder if the United States Space Force will again make space travel commonplace. The announcement reminded me of our days in the High Desert of Los Angeles County, California, near Edwards Air Force Base. The space shuttles were built near our small home in Palmdale. When a space shuttle landed at Edwards, 30 miles north, the double sonic boom would rattle our windows twice in quick succession.
We bought a house delicately called a “fixer-upper.” The neighbors’ oleander bushes bloomed over their block-walled backyard. The children boosted each other up to peep at the pretty landscaping on either side of us. “We have a lot more sand than they do,” they proudly announced.
Our home also boasted peeling, green linoleum and tattered brown shag carpet. Blackened electrical outlets soon led to the discovery of aluminum wiring.
But before long, we reclaimed our yard from the desert and made it bloom. We put up a fence for the children to climb over to play on the steep, sandy hills infested with snakes and scorpions. Tile replaced the linoleum, and our new tan carpet seemed impossibly chic. I pony-tailed copper wiring in each outlet to make it fire-safe.
We grew to love our desert home. It had only one fault. Some geologist had named it San Andreas. Later studies of a reliable map showed it ran between our living room and family room. Real estate agents said that it was better to be closer to the fault than farther away because of the shape of earthquake shock waves. I wonder if they were better salesmen than seismologists.
When an earthquake struck the first warning was that dogs and coyotes howled in sudden unison. Next, we heard a deep rumble calling us to repentance. A unique vibration set us to shaking an instant before the earth followed suit. We had only two minor earthquakes in the 40 months we lived there, but that was enough to fortify our religion.
Almost every evening, the sky would explode in color as though the angels used a paint store for target practice. In the spring, those reds, oranges and purples bend down from the sky to lick the Antelope Valley in a wildflower Mardi Gras. Poppies, primroses, lupine and aster blanket the desert in a crazy quilt of color. Hundreds of people drive into the wilderness as we did, to revel in the desert’s redemptive transformation.
Now and then, when we knew that a space shuttle was slated to return to earth on that day, we’d go outside, hoping for a glimpse. Though we heard the double booms, we could never see anything from our back yard.
In 1991, we heard that NASA was soon going to stop landing shuttles at Edwards AFB. I hated the thought of never getting to see a space shuttle land, so early one summer morning, I dragged my kids out of bed before daylight. A friend and I drove out to Edwards AFB. By 6 a.m. thousands of cars lined the dusty roads. We parked with a clear view of the shuttle hangar with the landing strip on the dry lake bed vanishing into the north. A tall chain link fence kept us a safe distance away.
We waited in the car as the day warmed.
BOOM! BOOM! The double sonic booms occurred because the shuttle was traveling at more than twice the speed of sound. We darted back to the fence. America had already lost Challenger. We fell silent with sudden dread. Heat already rose in ripples from the runway.
We did have a great view of the hangar. But the space shuttle touched down several miles north. “That was about as exciting as tossing a piece of rice in the air,” my daughter, Tricia, quipped.
The littler ones missed it altogether. Eventually, Columbia rolled into clear view, safe, sound and triumphant from the abyss of outer space.
In a few weeks, Columbia was mounted piggy-back on a jet and transported back to Florida. It seems primitive now, but then, it was a modern wonder of engineering and ingenuity. What wonders will the new Space Force bring?
Only in America, God bless it!