White Bird Must Fly or She Will Die

Barreling into the atmosphere at 17,500 mph, they were the largest group of people ever to travel in a single spacecraft, eight in all.  And with its collective 987 orbits around the good Earth, they would soon close the book on the Challenger’s ninth successful mission. Tragically it would be the last.

Young, footloose and a little disgruntled, I too was there on that crisp November day in 1985, a face in the crowd. After attending a wedding near San Francisco I’d managed to secure an awesome Auto Driveaway car to make my way back east, a pristine ‘69 Plymouth “Gold Duster,” and then proceeded to post vacancies on the ride boards of every college campus in the Bay area in hopes of finding someone to split the cost of gas.

That evening I received a call from a pair of convivial Danish girls, looking to catch a ride to Denver – this was going to be great! – and after a lively conversation I hung up feeling as though I’d been on the phone with the enchanting Freya herself, free-spirited goddess of love, beauty and destiny, and fellow traveler of the Valkyries.

But turning that Plymouth Duster into a frolicsome chariot just wasn’t meant to be. When I went to sign the Driveaway agreement I was provided with a carefully calculated route – no major deviations allowed: south through the San Joaquin Valley, east on I-40 to Oklahoma City, then south to Dallas and east on I-20 to my stated destination, Atlanta.

By the time I hit Mojave (just past Bakersfield and about a thousand miles from Denver) it was getting late.  With no clear signals on the radio there was plenty of incentive to mutter, and mutter I did. Taking the Denver route would have added a few hundred extra miles to the odometer, so what? What could they have done? Hell, I even knew a Scandinavian toast!

Somewhere within the AM static came a random announcement that Challenger would be landing at Edwards in the morning. I continued to mutter.  Then a sign came into view: EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE – SPACE SHUTTLE LANDING SIGHT.  Say, what was it that announcer had said? I pulled in to a roadside convenience store.

“Follow the signs,” said the woman behind the counter who was used to such enquiries but had never managed to see for herself. “You won’t be alone out on the flat. Maybe you’ll find a party.”

I envisioned a gathering of likeminded souls huddled ‘round a beer keg. It was getting pretty nippy, but as anyone who’s attended a high school football party can attest, that’s not cold enough to keep from celebrating. I kept my eyes open for a bonfire.

The Space Shuttle program had come a long way in the four years since the maiden flight of Columbia on April 12, 1981. Just two astronauts rode in that one, Young and Crippen, whose task was to demonstrate a safe launch into orbit and a safe return. They landed here at Edwards, and soon-after Columbia was fully operational for straight-out missions.

The second Orbiter, as Shuttles were officially called, became operational in April of ’83. Named after a renowned 1870s British research vessel, and with a moniker also used by the last lunar module to land on the moon (Apollo 17), it was christened Challenger, and Challenger would deliver some impressive NASA firsts. Its second mission featured Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space. Its third mission was piloted by Guion Bluford, the first African American to orbit the earth.

In 1984 Discovery joined the fleet, followed by Atlantis in 1985, and Orbiter crews became increasingly diverse, with U.S. congressmen and even a Saudi prince along for the ride as guest travellers. By the program’s eleventh mission in April 1984, Challenger astronauts were able to repair a disabled satellite, another first, which set a precedent that would save NASA millions of dollars through the years.

After so many successes and nary a failure the Space Shuttle program was at its zenith that chilly morning of November 6.  Which couldn’t be said for me. The dirt road I was now on was a study in tortuousness and with the moon in its final quarter the Duster’s headlights barely pierced the murk.

At looooooong last I saw a hand-painted sign pointing away from the road and, though visibility was merely a concept, gladly made the bumpy turnoff.  In an instant it felt as if I were driving across a never-ending parking lot. This (I later learned) was Rogers Dry Lake, an endorheic saltpan that forms the central part of Edwards Air Force Base.

Smooth, but save for my headlights I remained enveloped in darkness … except for a faint glow in the distance. I accelerated. Aiming for that I was soon able to make out a cluster of beacons in the middle of what looked like a glimmering string of pearls. It was like a scene from Close Encounters. I accelerated some more.

Growing in intensity as I approached, the image was only shattered when I finally entered the bright expanse and found myself – well after midnight in the middle of a dry lake bed – amidst a long row of vending stalls, all open and offering Space Shuttle badges, hats, tee-shirts, postcards and other memorabilia. The “string of pearls” turned out to be a long line, over a mile, of RVs (recreational vehicles), all meticulously parked side-by-side and facing in the same direction. Barring the vendors there wasn’t a soul in sight. They’d all gone to bed.

The only sound, besides my engine, was the singular hum of the portable generators that served all the lights. After driving up the front side and down the back (not a party in sight), I finally parked between a couple of Winnebagos, buttoned up my jacket, pushed down the seat back, and tried to get some sleep.

Daylight, when it finally arrived, brought a different story. With the sun up I could see in every direction, as far as the distant bordering hills, and three-quarters of the flat was cordoned off for the landing.

Military personnel patrolled the area, chatting amiably with onlookers, many of them RV owners of a certain age sporting Space Shuttle ball caps and aviator sunglasses. Others ambled about with camper kitchen mugs and admired one another’s Coachman Classics, Holiday Ramblers, Georgie Boy Swingers and Bluebird Wanderlodges.

The retired couple in the Winnebago to my left had made Chinese lanterns from plastic detergent bottles, all the rage, which they hung with pride from the rear overhang. But after I stumbled out of the car, stretched, and began to stroll in the direction of the port-a-potties I noticed that “The Mrs.” was keeping a close eye on her creations and me. Admittedly, I was in bad need of a shave.

While people began to line up along the cordon, like spectators at a big parade, I made my way to a now-crowded vending stall for a cup of breathtakingly over-priced instant coffee and moseyed on.  Further along, I noticed a German flag – as seen in the picture above.

The eighth person on this flight was German astronaut Ernst Messerschmid of the European Space Agency’s Spacelab program. As there was only accommodation for seven in the crew compartment, Messerschmid had to sleep in the Spacelab module itself, which was housed in the pressurized payload area. Despite the discomfort it had been a successful mission, except for one mishap concerning a few dozen rats in a holding pen. Apparently floating rat feces and food crumbs had found their way into the crew compartment and the Mission Transcripts reveal an abnormal barrage of serious swearing as a result.

Fortunately by the final descent everything, including the crew’s language, had been cleaned up and radios throughout the crowd were relaying Shuttle/Ground Control communication with an occasional announcement about the Orbiter’s location. Some Shuttle-spotting veterans began to aim their telescopic lenses at the precise spot where they expected it to come into view.

Meanwhile the RV crowd was now comfortably settled into lawn chairs on the roofs of their rigs with radios and binoculars at the ready. Although the thoroughfare was becoming increasingly packed, most were deep in conversation with their neighbors, ten feet above the fray.

The excitement level was raised a few notches with the announcement that the spacecraft, with radio communications disrupted, was now re-entering the upper atmosphere at the speed of Mach 24, a velocity at which atmospheric friction induces temperatures of over 3,000° F!

By the time communication was re-established, Challenger, having rolled through the stratosphere, was over Hawaii. Then the Shuttle commander announced that he could see the landing sight … and a hush stilled the crowd.

BOOM! BOOM! Everybody jumped  as the decelerating craft broke the sound barrier, and with mouths agape every face turned skyward. “There it is!” An eagle-eyed fellow spotted it without a telescope, and one by one those around me saw it as well. I squinted, cursed my myopia, and at long last saw it too … a drifting white dot, like a tiny toy balloon in the indigo sky.

Designed to carry 65,000-pound payloads to an orbit of 230 miles above the earth and land with payloads of 32,000 pounds (including small satellites), this was no toy however. In fact, with a wingspan of 80 feet and a length of 120 feet, the Shuttle – now leisurely making a major U-turn while it continued its descent – was immense.

While the pilot and Ground Control bantered over every move, “…air speed 300 mph…landing gear down…,” the craft, now easily visible with the naked eye, also became easier to define until even I could make out the famous plane-like profile. I tried to capture the moment with my Instamatic. But the closer it got to the ground, the faster it seemed to travel, and when it touched down at 09:44:51 and quickly deployed its billowing brake chute, it was still too far away for a decent shot.

Once the Orbiter had rolled to a halt everyone cheered. Some (like me) were star struck, much as our grandparents might have been after witnessing their first airplane landing.  But for others it had already become routine, and many now referred to it as “the space liner.” Only a few months later, with Challenger’s next mission, that would change of course, and 73 seconds after liftoff this “great white bird” would be obliterated in one of history’s most infamous explosions.

As for me it was time to hit the road, and the rush to the exit took on Grand Prix proportions. While the Duster cranked along at 50 mph, hundreds of other cars did the same, like so many scurrying cockroaches heading in one direction. But the enormous flat easily accommodated us all and Air Force personnel adeptly directed traffic back on to the main road.

Yes, I missed my chance to make merry under Freya’s gaze. But 30 years on, myth or no myth, I can’t help but to reflect on how I was once in the appraising presence of the Valkyries, swooping through the freshly torn firmament as a harbinger of things to come.

And what better tune than this to bring it all back? Although it never received the acclaim of the Grateful Dead, or Jefferson Airplane or Santana, It’s a Beautiful Day was one of the first San Francisco bands to emerge from the celebrated “Summer of Love” in 1967.

Featured on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1969 this, their signature song, was apparently inspired by the experiences of lead singer, David LaFlamme and his wife (keyboardist) Linda, while living in the attic of an old house in Seattle.

“We were like caged birds in that attic,” LaFlamme later recalled. “We had no money, no transportation and the weather was miserable.  It was quite an experience but it was very creative in a way….” White Bird was one of the last songs performed at Fillmore West before it’s closing in 1971.

White Bird

White bird

In a golden cage

On a winter’s day

In the rain

White bird

In a golden cage


The leaves blow

Across the long black road

To the darkened skies

In its rage

But the white bird just sits in her cage


White bird must fly

Or she will die

White bird

Dreams of the aspen trees

With their dying leaves

Turning gold

But the white bird just sits in her cage

Growing old.

White bird must fly or she will die

White bird must fly or she will die

The sunsets come, the sunsets go

The clouds roll by and the earth turns old

And the young bird’s eyes do always glow

She must fly

She must fly

She must fly

White bird

In a golden cage

On a winter’s day, in the rain

White bird

In a golden cage alone

White bird must fly or she will die

White bird must fly or she will die

White bird must fly or she will die

2 thoughts on “White Bird Must Fly or She Will Die

  1. One of my all-time favorite songs. For so many memories and so many reasons, it remains so. Great story to go with it. Thank you!!

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