Friday, July 10, 2009

My Apollo 11 @ 40

Looking back, I really can't explain what transfixed me about the space program.

I was a little boy held in awe watching the last of the Mercury flights and then the Gemini series, when I could, on our Zenith console TV. I cried real tears when the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts were broadcast on the PA of my elementary school while most of my schoolmates looked at me as if I was crazy. I was vaguely familar with whom White and Chaffee were at the time but Gus Grissom was a hero! Gus Grissom died! A hero died!

As all small children do I got over it pretty quickly.

I recall not being impressed with the Apollo 7 mission because they didn't go anywhere. I didn't understand the concept of a safe mission to try out new hardware at the time.

Apollo 8 filled me with a sense of wonder. They were orbitting the moon! The moon! Of course, I was distracted by Christmas and the anticipation of presents as I was all of 8 years old. Frank Borman was the media darling of that mission and he was added to my pantheon of heroes.

Apollo 9 is a cypher to me. I can't recall anything about that shot. A pop song, the Monkees; something else must have taken front seat that I can't remember now.

Apollo 10 I followed as closely as a 9 year old could. When the LM descended towards the lunar surface I was mentally begging them to continue on and land. I could not understand how they could get so close and not just go all the way. Oh, it was frustrating for a young and impatient space junkie.

Then came 11. THE moonshot. I followed every little interview on TV and article in the paper - the Miami Herald in my neck of the woods. It was summertime and I had no school and no other responsibilities so I watched every televised moment of the mission.

It's funny - every one talks about Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra's telecasts of the mission as being the definitive broadcasts. I have to say that Cronkite's lack of technical savvy turned me off even at that young age even though I knew then, somehow, that he was a news icon.

My TV hero for Apollo 11 was ABC News' Jules Bergman. The man knew his stuff. He would pick up his little models of the CM and LM and show how they worked and what they would do and you just knew he knew exactly what he was talking about. I also remember bit pieces on NBC by a very enthusiastic Jay Barbree who's still following NASA to this day. I don't know whatever happened to Bergman but he deserves attention for his insights and reporting.

July 20 1969: I sat on the floor a few feet from the old Zenith console while my parents sat several feet behind on the couch when the Eagle landed, in the evening our time. It was Christmas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one for me. My parents, alas, were less than elated. The TV said that the astronauts would take a rest period before leaving the LM and that meant BEDTIME to the folks.

I whined and cajoled and...just before being forced to bed the TV announced that the astronauts would be coming out soon! I reclaimed my spot on the carpet and watched various news analysts debate whther the men would sink into lunar dust and what other calamities may befell them.

Finally, FINALLY, a bit after 10 PM they exited the LM. The static-laced images came through as well as Armstrongs famous first words: "One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind". He then moved around a bit and, belatedly, the TV image was overlaid with a "MAN ON MOON" caption. Or something like that; I'm sure I could look it up but it would steal from the memory.

After a while of watching my parent insisted I go to bed. It must have been around midnight and, frankly, I was so tired with anticipation and the excitement that I didn't complain.

The next morning the Herald headline was "MAN ON MOON" in the largest type I had ever seen. I sat at our dining room table until my Dad was finished with the paper and passed it over to me (I had been an avid reader for a while by that time). I read it quickly and without depth; I waited for my Dad's attention to move elsewhere. Then I took the front page and stashed it in my room to keep what I thought was forever (It was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992).

The later missions didn't impact me as much. I remember Shepard's golf drive and a few other things from the successful missions. The Apollo 13 crisis was surreal to me - I thought that NASA was infallible and that it was all going to be OK and it wasn't until years later that I understood how wrong I was and the depth of the crisis.

I'm 49 now and it's almost 37 years since the end of the moon missions. In 1974 I had to do a report for school on the Space Shuttle. I thought it was a great idea but when I saw it was limited to low earth orbit I knew, even at that age, that human spaceflight was going to be limited to a low ceiling for a long time to come. So when Viking landed on Mars shortly thereafter I wanted; no, I needed proof of life to be found to give us a reason to go out again.

Even if the most ambitious plans of NASA are funded to fruition, with typical teething delays, I'll be 70+ before a man walks on Mars. Buzz and Neil will no longer be with us. It doesn't seem fair.


Alex Feldstein said...

Good post John. It brings memories of my experience at the time. What a moment, never to be forgotten!

Rick Schummer said...

The fact any of the moon walking astronauts will not be around to see the Mars walking astronauts is quite a shame.

Enjoyed reading your post.

Anonymous said...