Friday, November 30, 2012

Thoughts from my Dad: The Space Program

Left to right: Eisele, Schirra, Cunningham
I knew when I was in the first grade that I wanted to be an astronaut and that and I wanted to marry Julie Bentley. I never became an astronaut but that year, behind the school building during lunch recess, I married Julie. I remember many things from my first grade because of my teacher, Mrs. Jones - she was mean and this was surprising to me because her name was my name too. I remember getting out of music class and going down to the lunch room. Julie was not far away. This was my first experience with the space program - sitting on top of the lunch room tables watching Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission. That was October 11, 1968 - with Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donn F. Eisele, and Walter Cunningham. It orbited the earth once.

The following December I was concerned about getting a GI Joe Astronaut. He had life-like blonde hair.  At school Mrs. Jones was teaching us about the Apollo 8 that was about to launch. I don’t remember seeing this in the lunchroom but throughout the 2nd and 3rd grades we had special assemblies highlighting the space program. It was broadcasted on television and we watched from the classroom or at home on our T.V.  (that only had 2 channels). While I don’t have a perfect memory of the space program, there are few important dates that I do remember.

January, 27 1967
I remember watching a program on Apollo-Saturn (AS) 204. On the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. On this date, At 6:31 p.m., the capsule was engulfed in flames and the three astronauts aboard—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died of asphyxiation. In retrospect I see now why the Apollo 7 mission was such a big deal when I was in the first grade.

Major Matt Mason (A doll...)
July 20, 1969
Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. make the first manned soft landing on the Moon and the first moonwalk. What I remember the most about that “One small step for mankind” was the following January for my birthday, I received the bendable astronaut named Major Matt Mason. I bent his arms until they fell off and the flag was worn. I miss that toy. GI-Joe and his accessories were called dolls back then, but I wish my siblings had called them action figures instead. My interest in science and space travel was one of ridicule and teasing, but the GI Joe Henshin Cyborg Base Station was worth the ridicule.

Now that I think of it, most of my memories from the space program from 1969-1977 come from my toys and food - the Pillsbury Space Food Sticks at my grandmas (Chewy Chocolate was my favorite). Space sticks with Tang was a meal fit for any astronaut.

April 11, 1970
Although many events, both tragic and celebratory, happened during this time period, I don’t remember any excitement in school that compared with the - Apollo 13 launch which suffered an explosion in its SM oxygen tanks. Its Moon landing was aborted, and the crew, James A. Lovell, Jr., John L. Swigert, Jr. and Fred W. Haise, Jr., return safely. I remember that some thought it was a ploy to get American's attention on the fading interest in the space program. I was only 9 years old so I remember some things just in passing.

July 30, 1971
Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin drive the first moon rover. The next year, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt drives a similar rover. I do remember this and not for the science or interest in space exploration but more so because I wanted the GI-Joe Commander Space Lunar Moon Rover for Christmas. When I was about 15 I was less interested in becoming an astronaut and more concerned about the girls in the playground (my first grade marriage did not last).

January 28, 1986
Challenger explosion.jpg
The Challenger Explosion
The Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed and its crew of seven—Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe—was killed during its launch from the Kennedy Space Center. The explosion occurred 73 seconds into the flight as a result of a leak in one of two Solid Rocket Boosters that ignited the main liquid fuel tank. For me it happened at 9:40 AM and I was watching the news and getting ready for my trigonometry class. I can still recall walking on campus to my class, looking up at the clouds and trying to imagine the shock those bystanders must have felt with the realization of what had happened. For some the realization of what had just happened did not come until several minutes later. During the following weeks I learned that the cause of the explosion was the result of faulty “O” rings. They were manufactured not far from where I lived.

By 1977 I was less interested in GI Joe, but I do remember that GI Joe goes interplanetary in the form of a new 8-inch space-exploring super Joe. These action figures are smaller, cheaper and just not like they use to be. At this time I was 15, and my interest in the Voyager program was the jokes I could make about Voyager traveling to Uranus. I knew about Skylab, and around this time there were many firsts including an untethered spacewalk, a women walking in space, and other experiments that were being performed in space. I remember Reagan being the first president that I voted for, and again near my birthday January 25, 1984, President Ronald Reagan made an Apollo-like announcement to build a Space Station within a decade as part of the "State of the Union Address" before Congress. Reagan's decision came after a long internal discussion as to the viability of the station in the national space program.

It wasn't until recently that my curiosity of space exploration was once again sparked. On August 6th the Curiosity landed on Mars. The rover has traveled hundreds of feet over the Martian surface. In the process, it has left its mark on the surface leaving behind a trial in the sandy red planet and a tiny piece of itself behind. Unlike the Apollo astronauts' footprints on the moon, Curiosity's trails will probably be wiped away by the planet's frequent wind and sand storms. Though the physical traces won't last- for others its impact lives on in the images the rover is sending back to Earth. For me, it’s not the images or the trail that will leave lasting memories but the comments like this from my grandchild and child that fuel my interest:
"Dad, someday I'm going to walk on Mars!" To this day he talks on and on about Mars. We watched the video of the Curiosity rover landing and now he's excited to see the rover in person someday.
My grandson (5 yrs old) has several girlfriends…and as of yet I have not received a wedding invitation. Maybe he won’t get married in the first grade like I did, but he may one day make it to Mars. Until then I will dream of space travel and all the excitement in store for future generations.

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