“Here we are!” The Doctor stepped out from the TARDIS with a pleased, almost smug look on his face. He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels as Martha emerged next to him. “Cape Canaveral, 1981. Weeeell, more properly, Merritt Island. People get that bit confused. But this is brilliant! I’ve wanted to see this for ages. Just never got round to it yet.” He grinned, all bright eyes and teeth.
“1981?” Martha thought for a minute. “Cape Canaveral- this is about a space launch, yeah?”
The Doctor rewarded her with a laugh. “A space launch, indeed! Today, I’ll have you know, is the date of the first space shuttle launch. This is April 10th, 1981, and in about an hour and a half, the shuttle Columbia is going to fly up into space like... like... well, like a ship flying into space.” The Doctor scratched the back of his head, looking chagrined. “That fell a bit flat, there. But there’s nothing quite like it! You humans, going to the stars.” He nudged her with his shoulder, grinning stupidly.
As they talked, they strolled along a road set into sandy soil. There was water on either side, and Martha could smell sea salt. “Well, it’s not like it was the first time people went into space. And they didn’t even land anywhere or anything, did they? So, what’s so important about this one?”
“Aaaaaaah, yes. But this is the first time you’re sending something that’s going to come back and be used again. Up until now, this day, this time, you kept sending up these enormous bottle rockets- they’d go up and explode and fall back to earth in bits, and you’d just hope that the bits with your people in them stayed intact.” The Doctor winced a bit, at that. “But today, you’re sending up your first real ship. After today, humanity is going to believe that the stars are right around the corner, no more strange for them than flying in an airplane! People start sending NASA letters asking what the fares to the moon are, the whole nine yards.”
The Doctor paused, waving away Martha’s skeptical look. “And it doesn’t matter that they were wrong. These ships, they keep flying for decades. This ship itself-” he pointed to their left, to the launchpad a few miles away, where the shuttle stands, white and gleaming. “This very ship flies for more than twenty years. Clunky and poorly designed and prone to unfortunate accidents though they may be, these ships eventually herald mankind’s first true ventures into space- years down the line. But it’d never have happened without those hundreds of shuttle flights, those decades and decades of throwing themselves at the sky and hoping to miss.” The Doctor grinned. “I love humans,” he said, and half-hugged Martha as they walked.
Walking through scrubby grass, salt air blowing gently across her face, the Doctor’s arm draped loosely over her shoulders, Martha thought that she had never had an appreciation for her own people before she met him. In the same way that you never go to see your own town’s sights unless a visitor comes, Martha never thought about humanity as anything special until she had the Doctor with her to help her see them.
“Miss Jones?” the Doctor said, as she started to see people in the distance. “Shall we go find the VIP launch site? I think that I may be a visiting aeronautics engineer, and I could use an assistant.”
Several arguments, some jiggery-pokery with the psychic paper, and a couple of shuttlebus rides later, Martha and the Doctor found themselves in a largish crowd of people, milling about in a fenced-in area next to some bleachers. They’d been passed by the crowds of people camped in folding chairs out on the causeway and admitted through security into the VIP viewing site, where the Doctor had promptly got into an animated conversation with a pair of German dignitaries. Martha found herself sitting next to a beaming grey-haired woman wearing a loud, flowered blouse and a bright pink fanny pack.
“Oh, aren’t you just so excited?” She said to Martha. “I know I’m excited. When I heard about this launch, well, I just called up Senator Chiles- he’s a friend of my husband’s, you know. They’re thick as thieves, those two! Well, I just called him up and said, Lawton! Lawton, you’ve got to get us tickets somehow! And we had to get up at dawn to get here, but I didn’t mind the least little bit. So, how do you come to be here?”
Martha blinked at the woman. It took a few moments to register that she’d stopped talking, and that she somehow seemed to expect Martha to respond. “Erm... I’m with him.” She pointed towards the Doctor, still chattering away in German. “He wanted to see the launch, and thought I might like to see it, too.”
“Oh! You’re English, aren’t you?” The woman clapped her hands. “I can tell by the way you talk. Oh, how very exciting. And you’ve come all this way to see our American spacecraft? Well, what do you think of America? Have you been before? Did you get to Disney World yet? I think everyone should go at least once.”
Martha blinked again. “Um.” she said. "Well."
“Martha!” All of a sudden, the Doctor appeared next to her. “They’re about to start the countdown. They had a computer glitch that’s delayed them, but that’s all sorted now.”
He smiled at her. It was that open, easy smile that seemed to come to him more rarely than it should. Most of the time, he was too wrapped up in fixing things or investigating other things to just enjoy the moment. Martha found herself grinning like an idiot back at him.
“So, are you English, too? I just love the English,” said the woman in the flowered blouse. The Doctor shushed her, waving his hands towards the huge clock in front of them.
“T minus two minutes! They’re pulling the vent hood off now. See? They call that, believe it or not, the ‘beanie cap’.” He rummaged around in his jacket, and pulled out a compact pair of binoculars. “Here, these’ll help.” He handed them to Martha.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, looking into the eyepieces. “Hey, I can see some kind of smoke coming off the engines.”
“T minus 1 minute 35. Yeah, that’ll be gasses venting from the engine now. It’s a mad way to fly, this. They’re going to shoot a bunch of flammable gas out of the engines, light it on fire, and ride that massive explosion all the way out to the stars. Completely insane! And now it's T minus 50 seconds- they’ll be on internal power now. No more connection to the launch pad, other than those last restraining bolts that are going to keep it from flying all apart until the right moment.”
At T minus 30 seconds, the crowd held its collective breath as the real countdown began. Excitement and tension were thick in the air.
At T minus ten seconds, the crowd began to chant in time with the clock. Martha could see the fountain of ignition sparks at the bottom of the rockets, and she dialed back just a bit on the binoculars, so she could she the whole shuttle.
At T minus two seconds, Martha noticed a strange flare off to the side of the main booster. “Doctor,” she said. “What’s that?”
At T minus one second, the flare expanded in a huge, brilliant ball of flame. Martha heard screaming around her as she dropped the binoculars and jerked her hands up to her blinded and aching eyes.
The Doctor, almost absent-mindedly, shot out a hand and snatched the binoculars out of the air. Holding them, forgotten, by his side, he gaped at the shuttle. It was leaning precariously against the gantry, grey clouds billowing out from underneath it.
“That wasn’t,” the Doctor said, slowly, “supposed to happen.”