EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE – Twenty-five years ago, a quarter-million people trekked to a desolate desert lakebed to watch a historic first. Space shuttle Columbia on April 14, 1981, became the first spacecraft to fly out of orbit and land on Earth, to the cheers and waving American flags of a vast crowd watching from the edge of Rogers Dry Lake. “You were looking around in the sky trying to figure out where it was. … All of a sudden it was, ‘There it is!’ and people pointed up into the sky and then the double booms. … It was just gorgeous. It looked like it was coming right at you. I still get chills,” said Jenny Baer-Riedhart, then a NASA engineer. At the 25th anniversary of that first flight, after two deadly accidents, the three surviving Palmdale-built shuttles are nearing retirement and it’s plain they never lived up to the original promise of being reliable, cheaply-operated “space trucks.” But that first flight captured Americans’ imagination like few other events. The crowd variously estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 had started moving toward Edwards as soon as Columbia rocketed from Kennedy Space Center on its maiden flight on April 12, 1981, 25 years ago today. “The minute they heard it had launched and would land there were people driving overnight to get here,” said retired NASA engineer Roger Barnicki, who for the first landing was in charge of swarms of VIPs, including congressmen and then California Gov. Jerry Brown. The first non-VIP arrivals were already waiting in line outside Edwards’ gates the day before the landing. The Air Force opened the gates at midnight to let them onto the primitive public viewing area created for them on the eastern lakebed shore, surrounded by miles of desert. People arrived in motorhomes and truck campers, which were parked in orderly double rows on the lakebed’s smooth, hard clay. Families with children came in cars with no food or water. Their better-equipped neighbors helped them out. “They started building bonfires. We had bonfires on the hill. We had bonfires along the east shore,” recalled Joe D’Agostino, who still works at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. As Columbia fired its retrorockets at midmorning to pull itself out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere, traffic was halted on the base. Spectators crowded at the ropes that marked off the viewing area, even though you could see the shuttle from any place on the lakebed. Almost the size of a 727 jetliner, Columbia appeared in the sky as a tiny white dot. It turned high overhead to line up with the five-mile-long runway marked out on the lakebed, which the Air Force had used for decades as a giant landing field. The distinctive double sonic boom drew a collective gasp from the crowd. Once the craft flicked out its landing gear and touched down, somebody working for NASA flipped on a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” through the loudspeakers. People cheered and hugged. One spectator decided he needed a better view so he climbed up on his car to look through the telescopic sight of a rifle, recalled Air Force engineer Johnny Armstrong. “He ended up in the hoosegow in Bakersfield,” Armstrong said. Somebody else decided to drive across the lakebed toward the parked Columbia. A string of vehicles followed, until government helicopters herded them back. People generally don’t recognize the risks faced by Columbia’s pilots John Young and Robert Crippen in going into space and back in the first flight of a craft that was attempting something never done before, said astronaut Gordon Fullerton, who flew preliminary landing tests and who later went into space on Challenger and Columbia. “No crew on any endeavor I know about has faced a greater risk or a greater unknown,” said Fullerton. Now Burt Rutan and British airline mogul Sir Richard Branson, in a totally nongovernment venture, are building rocket planes in Mojave to fly paying passengers into space, though not into orbit. [email protected] (661) 267-5742 AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREOregon Ducks football players get stuck on Disney ride during Rose Bowl event160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!