Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - One Small Step

I have scraps of memories from the late fifties and early sixties. Houses we lived in. My father working in his shop. Me falling into the water at a lake. Stuff like that. My memory really started recording in long term storage at the start of the Kennedy administration. So, around 1960. “Ask what you can do for your country.” The Cuban Missile crisis. We had already seen the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 and a few years later, the first man in space in 1961: Yuri Gagarin. And a few years later in 1963, the first woman: Valentina Tereshkova. We were losing the space race!

The National Aeronautics and Space Act was signed into law by president Eisenhower in 1958, in response to Sputnik, thus creating NASA. Wernher von Braun became the head of the Marshall Space Center in 1960. The race was on!

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” So spoke President Kennedy in 1961.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, his lunar program was a way to hold onto his legacy. I kept up with the program. With NASA. Watched the Disney propaganda cartoons about space exploration. Watched the Jetson’s. I want my flying car! And while Johnson’s Great Society and the escalation of the war in Viet Nam was unfolding, I paid more attention to the space program and Star Trek than anything else. My school work focused more on the science and math classes. I started making a small notebook full of different charts from math and science books. Logarithms. Melting points of different materials. Conversion tables. I could have just bought handbooks with that stuff in it, but it felt more pioneering to record it myself, as if I was the one discovering all of these magnificent properties of Nature. I still have the three volumes it eventually compiled to be. It’s the root of my lily pad buried deep in the mud of time.

Halloween was a time to dress up as space aliens. I built a Lost in Space spaceship out of aluminum flashing I found in my father’s shop. He was not impressed by my choice of building materials. My friends and I flew it around the back yard landing on strange worlds like Old Dump and Unmowed Grass. We were the Louis and Clark of the galaxy.

The Mercury program was our first manned foray into the heavens. John Glen was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.The Gemini program continued to learn about, test, and perfect space activities, such as space walks, endurance, and drinking Tang. These were essential to preparing for the ardures of a trip to the moon.

The Apollo Project began in 1961. This was going to send a three man crew to the moon. It consisted of a tiny cone shaped Command Module at the top. In here was room for a crew of three. This was on top of the Service Module that would take them to lunar orbit. Inside the Service Module was the Lunar Module that would bring two of the crew members to the surface of the moon and then back up to the orbiting modules. Below this were the three stages of the mighty Saturn V Heavy Lift Vehicle, which had to be powerful enough to lift everything from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and into earth orbit. When it launched, the earth shook. Saturn, indeed.

In the meantime there was the 1964 World’s Fair. Along with the Dinosaur pavilion and the Belgium waffles, there were futuristic rides depicting life in space. The future was above the clouds. Along with hydroponic gardens, domed cities under the sea, and freeze dried ice cream.

I remember seeing inside the Huston launch Command Center on TV. Johnson had decided to put the Command Center in Texas instead of Cape Canaveral. Funny that. Engineers sat in rows busily maneuvering their slide rules. Walter Cronkite reported from the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center. Walter was the most trusted man in America and everybody’s favorite uncle. If Walter said it, it had to be true. We miss you, Walter.

I remember writing an essay in sixth or seventh grade. It was about the space program, of course. I don’t remember more than one part. I said that I wished that astronauts and cosmonauts could work together for the exploration of space. I couldn’t see why we were pursuing separate paths to the same destination. It didn’t make sense. Couldn’t we save money and go faster if we worked together? I hadn’t yet gotten an introduction to politics. Today, of course, there is the ISS. The International Space Station. This has been a joint operation. We are no longer able to send a person into space. We have to rely on Russian technology in the Baikonur Cosmodrome. That’s not a bad thing, except for the politics.

In 1967 tragedy struck. Apollo 1 caught fire on the launch pad with three astronauts on board. They were burned alive in a capsule full of pure oxygen. We lost Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee that day. It was a national horror. A day of mourning. Changes were made to the ship’s design.

Apollo 8 and 10 went all the way to the moon but did not land. Apollo 8 just orbited the moon and came back. On Christmas Eve, 1968, they read from Genesis. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” We received spectacular pictures of the earth taken from the moon. Philosophers noted how fragile and delicate it looked. Like a blue marble in a black velvet sea, the atmosphere a mere blur on its surface.

Apollo 10 launched the Lunar Module from the Command Module, but did not go all the way down. It was a test and they returned to the Command Module and came back to earth without ever landing. That must have been tantalizing and frustrating. Apollo 9 never left earth orbit. Then came Apollo 11.

I was in Sacramento, CA. My father and I were there for a vacation visiting his brother’s family. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins boarded the Command Module and Uncle Walter narrated the launch. I was glued to the television. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin launched the Lunar Module, named the Eagle. Michael Collins stayed behind to keep the lights on. They almost couldn’t land, the terrain was too rocky. But finally, when they had almost no more fuel to spare, they found a smooth surface and put the module down. “The Eagle has landed,” came the report from the tiny ship, whose hull was no more than thick aluminum foil. And Neil Armstrong got out and descended to the surface.

“That’s one small step for (a) man. One giant leap for mankind.” We made it to the moon within this decade, as Kennedy wished. Historians still debate whether he included the (a) or not. Either way, it was stupendous. The American flag ‘flew’ on the moon. Later in our trip, we visited Reno, NV, and stopped at a casino. On the top floor was a bar, where my father and Uncle Chet stopped for a drink. They had a special drink in honor of the space flight. It was something simple like a gin and tonic, but it came in a glass shaped like the Service Module: a cylinder with a cone shaped rocket engine on the bottom. I still have it in a cabinet in my living room.

There were more in the Apollo series. Some included rovers that allowed the astronauts to go-cart around, collecting samples. We heard singing and saw puffy space suits bouncing around clumsily. Someone played golf on the moon. All meant to usher in a new age of space exploration, colonization, and civilization. And space golf.

Then came Apollo 13.

While on route to the moon the Service Module had an accident. A tank exploded rupturing the hull of the module and disabling some of the systems. “Houston, we have a problem.” They were already on a trajectory to lunar orbit. All they could do was sit and wait the few days it took to get there and hope they could fire the correct sequence to send them back to the earth. All unnecessary systems were powered off. This posed another problem. Once turned off, it wasn’t certain that they could be turned back on again. Back at NASA engineers used simulations to test shutting down and starting up the important systems. If there was too much of a current spike, a circuit breaker would trip and the system would never come back. They had to keep trying different sequences of system startups until they found one that would not trip the circuit breakers.

Meanwhile, the astronauts had moved into the Lunar Module for the life support systems. The air temperature had dropped to 40 degrees, where it stayed for the whole trip back. Since space is basically a vacuum bottle you don’t radiate heat the way you do on earth, but you still lose some.

Some things had to be repaired. Engineers at NASA would try Rube Goldberg methods of fixing them. They would get instructions like, “Take the system manual. Rip off the front cover and use the tape to form it into a tube…” It worked. There were two major worries. One was that someone might puncture the thin foil hull of the lander. Another that someone back in the Command Module might accidentally hit the switch that jettisoned the lander. They put a piece of tape over that toggle switch. Good idea.

Finally they reached earth. They all moved back into the Command Module and jettisoned the Lunar Module, which they had christened their life boat. Finally they could see the damage to the Service Module. There was a ripped out hole in its side. The Command Module, that tiny, cone shaped bud of a ship that had once sat on top of a mighty Saturn V rocket, now plunged into earth atmosphere like threading a needle and splashed down safely into the Pacific. Too far one way and it would have skipped off the atmosphere and bounced off into space. Truly lost.

The successful missions brought back samples from the lunar surface. Rocks that could teach us a lot about the composition and origin of our only satellite. This, it was supposed, would help prepare us for further exploration and colonization. One of the lunar rocks was incorporated into a stained glass window at the National Cathedral in Washington. A tribute to God and Man.

There were four more Apollo missions, Apollo 14, 15, 16, and 17, the last being in 1972. There were plans for Apollo 18, 19, and 20. These were cancelled due to congressional budget cutting, even though some of the hardware was already built. It seems that after the initial lunar landing the public lost interest. It was no longer politically profitable to keep up the lunar program. And they didn’t want to risk another Apollo 13.

I thought it had all been about science. It had been about bread and circus and sticking it to the Soviets. Politics, lost in space.

Years later my disillusionment grew. Wernher von Braun, it seems, had been a Nazi war criminal. Operation Paperclip had been a US Intelligence operation to bring German scientists, engineers, and other types to America after the war, many of whom had been Nazi party members and had leadership roles. They should have been in Nuremburg, not NASA. Some of these found themselves in leadership positions in the foundling CIA. Don’t want to waste good propaganda and torture techniques. They were used to fight the cold war. The enemy of my enemy. I wonder what they are doing for us now? When you make a bargain with the devil, you always lose. Their goes our moral high ground.

And later, the conspiracy theories. The lunar landings had been shot in a sound studio in Hollywood. You can see the flag waving and markings on the rocks showing that they are props. Why can’t you see stars in the sky? The lunar flights saw alien bases on the far side of the moon and were told not to come back. We are still going to the moon today and have extensive bases there. The Apollo 1 astronauts had been sacrificed to space demons to assure the program’s success. My theory is that on the far side of the moon is a huge sign that says, Quarantined!

I don’t like the term ‘conspiracy theory.’ It’s lazy reasoning, name calling, and is used too freely and sometimes throws out the baby with the bathwater, so I don’t use it at all. I prefer to simply say something is either true or false. But in this case I’ll make an exception. Have tin foil hat, will (space) travel, eh Scully?

Twelve people have stood on the moon: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John W. Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmitt.

Nine have flown to the moon and did not go to the surface: Frank Borman, Bill Anders, Tom Stafford, Michael Collins, Dick Gordon, Stu Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans. (Also Jim Lovell.)

Three went to the moon and almost didn’t come back: Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise.

Twenty four in all. Since December 1972 no person has gone back to the moon.

Forty five years. The future is under the clouds.

(Special thanks to Wikipedia and NASA’s web site for specific references I couldn’t possibly remember on my own. I did know about Tang, though.)

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