Thursday, July 21, 2011

Recollections from a Child of the Space Program

The Space Shuttle Atlantis has just landed as I type this, the twin sonic booms announcing her arrival. It’s the end of an era, a sad end that came too soon, thanks to politicians who have no imagination, no vision, and no commitment to the betterment of mankind, despite their meddlesome efforts to engineer society into their idea of Utopia.

As is typical with the Obama administration, we’re wasting an incalculable fortune in lost opportunities and human capital. There’s just no reason for us not to continue being the world’s leading space power. The Shuttles still have many flights left on their airframes and many Americans want us to maintain our lead in spaceflight. But do our politicians reflect our will and do as we the people wish?

Sorry if I’m bitter, but I grew up in the shadow of the space program.

I’m going to see how much I can remember of my experiences growing up in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m sure some of you also have ties to the space program and have your own memories. I’d like to hear about them in the comments, if you’re so inclined. Ima, that’s your cue…

The private military school I attended in Mobile gathered the student body in the gym in front of a TV so we could all see Alan Shepard’s first flight, as it did also for John Glenn’s flight. That was the time when I started dreaming of exploring space. I didn’t think, however, that we’d get to the moon in my lifetime.

I’m glad I was wrong. Of course, I was a young’un and didn’t read the newspapers except for the comics, so I was surprised to learn that we were indeed, going to the moon. President Kennedy’s announcement woke me right up. I started finding out anything and everything I could about the Mercury and Gemini programs. I remember having a favorite astronaut, Wally Schirra, for reasons that had nothing at all to do with my real name, really (wink).

I remember crying when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died aboard Apollo 1 in the tragic launch pad fire. The city of Huntsville named the next three schools after them, so their noble sacrifice could be an inspiration to future generations. That was when reality set in, sobering but not diminishing our national mission to reach the Moon before the end of the decade of the ‘60’s.

One day, not long after Mom and I had moved to Huntsville, I was in our apartment when I heard something that sounded like a tornado. Since it was a nice day outside with no storms, I couldn’t figure out what that sound was. Soon, the walls began to shake, and the pictures with them. The phone rang. It was one of my buddies who was hollering, “Hey, do you hear that? That’s one of the Saturn V engines they’re testing down by the river!” Whew. For many of the later tests, a few of us would gather in the front yard of a friends’ house on a hill where we had a good view of the exhaust plume which would hang in the Alabama air for what seemed like hours. We’d try to see shapes in it like a cloud. Good times.

Did I mention that somebody named Werner von Braun was a local hero?

On the night of the Moon landing, a bunch of us junior high schoolers gathered at a friends’ house to watch it on TV. As I walked home afterwards, I remember looking up at the Moon and thinking, “We did it, we finally did it. Dreams really can come true.”

My introduction to politics came when I heard that we were cancelling Moon missions. Why? Wasn’t there so much more to do? We were just getting started, and I wanted to go, too. Who are these people who would prevent us from reaching for the stars?

The next year, in my first year of Machine Shop school, we took a field trip to Marshall Space Flight Center where I saw my first computer controlled milling machine, which a buddy’s dad operated. That’s when I knew I could still contribute in some way to our space effort. Thus began my career in manufacturing.

I remember seeing the Shuttle Enterprise flying around Huntsville on the back of the jumbo jet, and later took a picture of BackwardsBoyBoy under her wing in a stroller at the public event.

I would later work at Marshall for a fellow named Charlie Yeager, Chuck’s second cousin, in the old Gemini vehicle assembly building. He was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, and I was honored to work with him and get to know him. Charlie, if you’re still here, I think about you, Cecil, Mike, and all the other guys with great fondness. And I still remember our flights to Talladega to watch the NASCAR race and qualifying. More good times.

Charlie had “NASA in his pocket.” He had done just about every little behind-the-scenes job that you could imagine at Marshall. One day, I was looking for some special screws, 100-degree pan-heads, stainless steel, one and a half inches long, not your standard shop item. I’d looked everywhere in the shop, and when I couldn’t find any, I finally asked Charlie if we had any. He looked at me while he dug in his pocket. “How many do you need?” he asked. I said six, and he pulled six of them out of his pants pocket.

That was Charlie.

The building itself was a museum of space. There were old spacesuits just lying around, along with a section of the first Space Station, wrapped up in a corner. While I was there, we built a full-scale mock-up of the laboratory module of the new Space Station, as did every other NASA facility. The design team then toured and viewed all the mock-ups and finalized their design from our ideas. That module is on the NASA tour, so you can see some of my work. So, yeah, there’s a little bit of me flying in low Earth orbit right now.

Challenger, and later, Columbia. We don’t often witness noble death. For those of us who Believe, they’re still flying, only with different and better wings.

So, I’m sad today. I can only hope that the pause will be as short as possible while we work on new and exciting missions once again and regain our lead in space.

We still have the Right Stuff. I wish our politicians did.


Zilla said...

Beautifully written, you've got me all choked up!
I was a little kid in the dawn of the Shuttle age, McDonald's gave out mini matchbox car sized space shuttles in the Happy Meals! I had a Challenger one. I was in eight grade watching "the first teacher to go to space" on a TV that was brought into our classroom when we lost the Challenger. They sent us home from school to pray, (Catholic school) and I did.
Here's my post from the day our last space shuttle flight launched, I was sad that day, and I am sad now. What a terrible thing Obama has done.

I've added you to my blogroll, BTW, I really like your writing!

Ima Wurdibitsch said...

I'm late to the party, BWB. However, I did pimp your blog on the ONT.

I'm stunned (still) that our astronauts are going to have to hitch a ride to the Space Station. One of the coolest jobs I ever had was when I taught at Marshall Space Flight Center. I worked at the Payload Operations Center and taught real, live rocket scientists how to use the custom software to read/display telemetry data from the Space Station. My classroom was an old mission control center. Now? Ack. So sad.

I know H'ville isn't really a small town these days but I think it's possible we may have crossed paths at some point. I was here in 73-74 and moved back in late '78. I went to Westlawn, Butler, and Bob Jones. I worked at MSFC for a few years but most of the rest of my work was/is DoD.

If you and your significant other are ever back in the area, let me know (AoS yahoothingy). I'd love to buy y'all a drink.