Meet Your Neighbors: Columbia disaster does not shake faith of retired space shuttle worker

It was 22 years ago when the first space shuttle was launched.

But Jerry Fink has not forgotten the feelings he experienced as he watched the liftoff on television at the Rockwell International plant in Palmdale, Calif., where he worked as a manufacturing engineer in structures.

"Watching that first liftoff was really special," Fink said.

"It was like I was pushing it off the pad.

"Talk about goose bumps.

I wanted it to succeed in the worst way and was walking five feet off the ground afterward."

But triumph one day can turn into tragedy another.

Columbia, the first shuttle in space, was destroyed on its last mission as it re-entered the atmosphere Feb.

1.

The shuttle disintegrated 39 miles above Texas, claiming the lives of seven astronauts.

Fink recalled another day when seven astronauts perished as the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 second after liftoff on Jan.

28, 1986.

"That was the darkest day in the space program," he said.

"It took a long time to recover after from that accident what with the first teacher in space and all of the children watching the launch.

"All of us (at Rockwell) began asking ourselves, 'Did I do something wrong?'

Fink went to work in 1960 for North American Aviation.

Fink worked in the B-1 bomber program in the early 1970s.

When North American Aviation was sold to Rockwell International in the mid-1970s, he switched to the shuttle program.

Fink, a Nebraska native, oversaw construction of the payload bay doors on the shuttle.

"But (Rockwell) did most of the avionics and we made coatings for the heat tiles," he said.

"We applied carbon fibers and baked them in ovens.

Each tile had to go in a specific location on the shuttle."

Fink has a good deal of memorabilia from the shuttle program collected prior to his retirement from Rockwell in 1990.

He has several photos of the Columbia, along with crew patches from Columbia and Challenger.

In addition, Fink has patches from the Apollo program.

Two of his most prized possessions are medallions made from metals from a space shuttle and made available only to Rockwell employees.

They are round and about the size of a half dollar.

One is a Columbia medallion from the STS-3 mission of March 22-30, 1982.

The other is an Apollo XI medallion made after the first lunar landing in July 1969.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and Michael Collins was the mission pilot, who orbited during the historic mission.

The Apollo XI medallion depicts the launch vehicle on one side.

The reverse side shows one of the astronauts, presumably Armstrong, walking on the moon with the lunar module in orbit above.

Fink said his faith in the space program has not been shaken by the recent loss of Columbia.

"It's a research and development program that has led to miniaturization of many things used in the medical field, circuitry and other areas," he said.

"(The astronauts who died) all knew the risks and were willing to take them.

If they asked me to fly on the shuttle today I would."

Fink and his wife, Pam, have been married 25 years.

She worked as a loan officer for a California bank for 20 years.

The Finks were traveling in a recreational vehicle in 1989 when they happened to pass through Kingman.

They liked what they saw and decided to make it their home upon retirement the following year.

Jerry likes playing golf today.

Both Jerry and Pam enjoy woodworking, riding an all-terrain vehicle, camping and fishing.

Neighbors is a feature that appears Monday in the Kingman Daily Miner.

If you have an interesting story you'd like to share, contact Terry Organ at 753-6397 ext.

225.