The Shuttle, then and now

NASA Photo

Today I walked down to the break area at work to get some ice and I saw a small clot of folks gathered around the television, holding their coffee and watching the screen. I glanced to see what had their attention and saw footage of the Space Shuttle Discovery strapped to the top of a Boeing 747 on its way to Dulles airport and the Smithsonian.

That scene brought back a long-ago memory for me.

It was… maybe 1980 or so. I was working for a salt company in Hutchinson, Kansas. We had bought a small solar salt company in Utah. The production method was to pump saline water from the lake into a series of crystallization ponds and let the sun evaporate the water over the summer, leaving a layer of salt on the bottom of the shallow ponds. This would be picked up by a loader, screened and packed into bags, and then shipped out for animal feed or de-icing.

The company offices and warehouse were in Ogden, but the production ponds were located on the Great Salt Lake in a very isolated location – a little ways around the tip of Promontory Pont.

There are several large, successful evaporation operations on the lake… this was not one of those. It was a small company that made some salt from a few acres of ponds. It was called the Lake Crystal Salt company and its location on the remote arm of the lake (sealed off, more or less, from the rest of the lake by a railroad causeway) gave it access to some concentrated brine, and it did produce a lot of salt in its tiny ponds.

It’s long out of business, but looking at google maps, the ponds are still there (I’ll remember the shape of those ponds ‘til the day I die).

At any rate, part of my job was to fly up to Utah at the end of the summer to do an inventory of the salt that had been produced in the evaporation ponds during the warm season. We had designed and built a core drilling machine out of a gasoline powered post hole digger and would don rubber boots and walk around the ponds in a grid pattern, drilling holes down through the salt to the hardpan beneath. I would reach down the hole with a tape measure and determine the depth of the salt. I still have small scars on my hands from where the rough salt crystals and harsh concentrated brine would scrape at my skin. I would then take all these measurements and use them to calculate how many thousands of tons of salt we would have for sale after it was harversted (harvested… it was surprisingly like farming).

It was a two – man job, so I would hire a laborer in Ogden and the two of us would drive out every morning to the site. It was a long drive through some very desolate country. A handful of workers lived in a dormitory out there, only coming back on weekends – but I didn’t want a part of that, so I stayed in a hotel.

It was quite a drive and to have time to get any work done we would leave Ogden well before dawn. From Ogden north to Brigham City and then west, out across the mountains and desert until we could curve south down the length of the Promontory Point peninsula. The sun would rise behind us and light the beautiful, rugged, isolated mountains in a golden fire.

One morning, as we were driving, not another car or soul in sight for miles, I spotted, way up ahead, something odd. It was an aircraft of some type. It looked like a biplane, though something was off. Distances are hard to judge in the desert, but it looked a long way away. That would mean it was huge. It was flying very low, however, so I wasn’t sure about that. As I watched, it flew behind a large mesa and I lost sight of it.

“What was that? Did you see that?” I asked my worker.

“I think I saw something, but I don’t know what it was,” he said.

We drove on, scouring the sky until we reached the opposite end of the mesa. Suddenly a huge, ungainly aircraft lumbered out from behind the rock and crossed the highway directly in front of us. It was no more than a hundred yards off the ground and no more than two hundred in front of us. I slammed the brakes and skidded to a stop on the shoulder. My worker and I tumbled out of the car and stood in the desert, our mouths hanging open as the plane slowly curved around us. We were gobsmacked. It looked so close we could reach out and touch it.

It was the Space Shuttle attached to the top of a 747. Keep in mind this was 1980 and the shuttle wouldn’t make its first powered flight for another year. My memory is a little hazy but I think we saw the Colombia on its way to Florida for its first launch. We had seen pictures of the shuttle and its transportation 747, but on the tiny television screens of the day. To see the thing live, so close, coursing through the crystal clear high desert air at dawn, unexpected in the middle of nowhere, was an astounding sight.

It flew past us and then disappeared behind another mountain. We climbed back in the car, drove on out to the evaporation ponds and put in a full day of work.

That night I watched the Salt Lake City news on my hotel television and they covered the landing of the shuttle at a nearby air base. They said that they had flown the shuttle past the Morton Thiokol plant out in the Utah desert mountains where they were building the solid rocket boosters to give the workers a view of what they were working on. On my next drive out to the ponds I looked closely and could pick out burned spots on the mountains where the engines had been tested.

I saw the Colombia once more, over Dallas, one morning twenty three years later. It was a nice day and we had the front door open to get some fresh air in the house and I was shaken by a loud boom from the sky. We rushed out to see the smoke trails in the heavens.The Colombia was breaking up over the metroplex to die and fall in a million pieces on in the East Texas Piney Woods.