When Columbia made the first space shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base in April 1981, it was an event the size of Woodstock. About 500,000 people gathered to watch, breaking into applause when the craft cruised into view and touched down safely.
In that moment, after decades of tantalizing boom and frustrating bust, the Antelope Valley seemed to have earned its nickname, Aerospace Valley. Each time crowds gathered at Edwards Air Force Base's dry lake bed to see a shuttle land, it gave a sense of identity to residents of these high-desert suburbs 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
"It was like the Super Bowl," said Michael Doyle, a video controller who used to tape shuttle arrivals for NASA.
A day after Columbia was destroyed, people in Palmdale and Lancaster said their sense of loss was personal, even though most of the jobs associated with the shuttle program left long ago.
"It's like history going down the tubes," said Debbie Plantikow, a bartender at Lancaster's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7283. "I've grown up with the shuttle."
In Palmdale, Kevin Zarley, 43, recalled his days working as a machinist in the shuttle program from 1980 to 1991.
Zarley's daughters would brag that their dad helped build space shuttles, and he would beam when he heard the double sonic boom as one landed at Edwards. Tears welled in his eyes Sunday as he recounted turning on the TV and watching the Columbia disintegrate minutes before landing. "I spent thousands of hours on that aircraft, building it," he said. "It becomes part of your life."
In the Antelope Valley, landmarks to aerospace are everywhere.
Downtown Lancaster features the Aerospace Walk of Honor, some 90 granite slabs honoring Edwards test pilots and astronauts. One of the town's main drags is called "Challenger Way."
A few miles away, a cafe called Wing and a Prayer welcomes fighter pilots from Edwards with the legend: "Through these portals pass the oldest and boldest pilots in the world."
The decades since World War II have transformed the windy, rattlesnake-infested, 2,500-square-mile valley on the border of the Mojave Desert into a place that built some of the world's most complicated machines: fighter jets, spy planes, B-2 stealth bombers, and, starting in the late 1970s, space shuttles.
The Antelope Valley's reliance on aerospace has proved a mixed blessing economically.
When contractors snagged giant government programs for cutting-edge air- and spacecraft, the region boomed as thousands of industry employees and mom-and-pop subcontractors poured in. But during industry downturns, much of the population washed right back out, often so quickly that it left half-finished housing developments in its wake.
Those who stayed forged a special connection to the oddly shaped machines that rocketed over their heads.
Fred Hann, a member of Lancaster's first City Council in 1977 and a onetime mayor, spent Sunday showing out-of-town relatives two of his favorite monuments: an F-15 fighter jet mounted downtown and an F/A-18 that stands outside the stadium for the local minor league baseball team, the JetHawks.
As a boy, Hann could distinguish between planes by the sound of their engines. Later, his own children would stand outside wide-eyed as space shuttles were slowly towed down the streets to Edwards.
The local aerospace culture has survived even as defense contracts dried up, military bases closed and aerospace jobs disappeared, many of them never to return, Hann said.
Drawn by an atmosphere similar to the bar featured in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," astronauts and members of shuttle recovery crews drift into Lancaster's Wing and a Prayer to quaff beers, surrounded by walls covered with pilot memorabilia. Televisions at the bar show test-flight tapes.
"And you get to watch them with the guys who are flying the planes," said Kathy McKean, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department employee, who lives nearby. "It's a piece of history."
Steve Mally, an engineer working at Edwards, mused about the local effect of the Columbia's destruction. With shuttles grounded indefinitely, related businesses could be paralyzed, and the few remaining jobs they supply could be lost.
Years before the loss of Columbia, the region's fascination with the shuttle program had begun to slacken. Most of the landings were moved to Florida's Cape Canaveral.
By the time Columbia came to Palmdale a final time in September 1999 for a tuneup and upgrade at Boeing's Major Modifications facility, the shuttle's comings and goings no longer galvanized the whole community.
About 350 local engineers and technicians worked on Columbia, providing it with a new engine and examining the 24,000 heat-absorbing tiles that guard its exterior. It left without fanfare for Florida in February 2001.
About 200 employees remain at Boeing's Palmdale facility, down from 800 before most of the work was relocated to the company's Florida locations.