Apollo 11 remembered

Posted by on July 20, 2013 in Essay, Event | 3 comments

Apollo 11 remembered
Lunar Module rotational hand controller

Lunar Module rotational hand controller

I grew up with space.

I grew up learning and memorizing the names of each of the astronauts, their histories, flights and records, much in the same way other kids learned batting averages, home run counts, saves and ERAs about their favorite baseball players. Gemini 7, 14 days in space (14!), Gemini 8, first in flight abort, Gemini 4, first US spacewalk, and on and on.

Outside of Christmas or my birthday, launch day for Gemini-this or Apollo-that were “my” holidays. Clippings of up coming flights, mission logos festooned my room. I even had a blackboard with the distance and mission time for on-going flights that I would update regularly like my mini-remote Mission Control display. Sometimes with a pre-dawn launch I’d never get to sleep I was so excited. (Years later I would feel much the same when going to see the movie, Apollo 13 on opening day).

I grew up with space.

Airplanes were too low and too slow to curry much interest. One had to at least hit 400,000 feet altitude, use terms like LEO, DSKY, and TLI , and to get me up at 3AM to watch Walter Cronkite introduce us to the finer details of the new mission.

I grew up with space.

Me And Neil Armstrong

Not the Viet Nam war, not the protests, my older sister had staked out that territory.  My world was full of F1 engines, hold-down arms, flight plans and snoopy-hats. It was full of quindar tones, mockups, Revell models and in-flight garments.

I grew up.

And brought space with me.

On Sunday, July 20, 1969, the family was in full force watching the news coverage of the Apollo 11 landing. In an effort to preserve this moment I had learned how to film the TV screen with my dad’s Super-8 movie camera starting with Apollo 10. The cartridges held a full three minutes of film, and Apollo 11 would merit four of them. Perfectly scheduled for the summer when I’d be out of school having just finished 7th grade, I would lay in front of the TV on a pillow not wanting to miss a single moment. With the camera, my audio cassette deck deployed, I was the one-man news production titan that would put CBS to shame.

Having just returned from Florida only two days before where I saw the launch (from 20 miles away, but I still saw it), this was my Woodstock without the sex, drugs, rock&roll and 2 feet of mud. NASA was rebroadcasting the air-to-ground on shortwave so we were able to listen to some of the mission audio on my dad’s ham radio receiver in-between the network coverage. Pity that they never did that for any other missions.

Across the nation baseball would stop for no one. With ten cities in the battle of the diamond, five holding double-headers, tens of thousands of fans opted to not live this history in real time. With apologies to Princess Bride, it was “Inconceivable!”

The Minnesota Twins and the Seattle Pilots interrupted their pregame activities for the announcement of the landing. Standing up, the crowd sang America the Beautiful. And the Cubs and Phillies were three innings into their second game, when it was briefly halted for the news.

Fans at home likewise grew impatient when their games were interrupted by the network coverage, as two things so quintessentially American battled back and forth interrupting each other.

And back at home; we were briefly confused as CBS’s animation appeared to be  about 30 seconds ahead of the mission audio, showing LM on the surface while Buzz Aldrin was still reading out altitudes. Little did we know that CBS had the timing right, but Armstrong had to burn the engine an extra 40 seconds and nearly to empty so as to find a suitable landing spot. Finally the words “contact light! okay engine stop…” came. I can still hear my dad’s voice saying “oh wonderful!” in the background of my 44-year-old recording.

Aldrin on the MoonOnly a few hours later the crew would take the first steps on the surface, while we all strained to figure out what exactly we were looking at from the crude black and white images piercing through 241,387 miles of vacuum, captured in Australia, relayed back to Houston, fed out to the networks, transmitted to each of their local stations and hurled through the air to our TV and into our memories. July 20 would never be the same.

Nine months later, Neil Armstrong spoke in Palo Alto on the eve of the Apollo 13 mission. I don’t remember which group it was or how we managed to get tickets, but it was a surprisingly small and personal room. The same recorder I used during the mission I brought with me to get Armstrong live. Pity my batteries were almost dead so Neil sounded more like Alvin and the Chipmunks on the replay. Afterwards he stayed for the autograph signing ritual, something he’d stop doing years later. There was a photographer from the local newspaper, which resulted in the following image of Neil and me:

Yes, I brought space with me as I grew up. With Distant Suns, telescopes, autographs and spacecraft parts, it’s hard not to think back on those amazing days of summer, the day we reached out and whispered to the face another world. And for once, the great “didja hear?” news story wasn’t about Viet Nam, political assassinations, student violence rocking college campuses, or any one of a dozen other such stories, it was about something so rarely achieved these days: bravery, exploration and universal wonder.  One could almost say that Project Apollo represented the end of the era of the great explorations. From Erik the Red to Columbus, Magellan to Sirs John Franklin, Ernest Shackelton, Edmund Hillary, Auguste Piccard to Yuri Gagarin.

Veteran astronaut, Gene Cernan would command Apollo 17, the final lunar landing. He fervently desires that he’ll be alive on the day that permits him to finally give up the title of  “last man to walk on the moon.” I certainly hope he will get his wish.

And to the men and woman of NASA and her contractors during that time, many barely out of college. Thank you for a July well spent.

As Apollo said to Julus the son of Aeneas in the Aeneid

sic itur ad astra (“thus you shall go to the stars.”)