What The Apollo Missions Meant To Me

“Do you want to go to Houston in January?”  Julie said. “I guess, but why Houston?” I replied. Apparently,  Spirit Airlines had a cheap fare to Houston, and Julie felt that it would be warmer than Chicago.  

I had forgotten about the trip, and then it was suddenly upon me.  We needed to leave the house by 3:30 AM on a Thursday and at 9 PM the night before I was frantically packing. Over the years, I have learned to pack both lighter and more efficiently.  I keep a Dopp Kit ready to go, so all I had to do was to transfer the liquid items into a quart ziplock bag for TSA. Also, I packed a hoodie, some shirts, an extra pair of pants, my sleep ware, and of course, socks and underwear. 

I have a camera case in the style of a backpack, which is my under-the-seat carry-on. Since I use the bag when I’m not flying, I made sure to dump out all of the pouches and pockets.  Thankfully, there were no banned items. Into my backpack went a fully charged iPad, a minimal first-aid kit, sunglasses, lip balm, a battery bank with adapter cords, and a few packaged snacks for the flight. The front pouch of the backpack is padded for cameras.  In it, I placed my small Olympus OMD EM10 camera with its kit lens, an extra camera battery, a 20 mm F 1.8 lens, and a few other camera accessories. I’m an avid photographer, but I don’t want to haul a lot of extra camera gear.  

I usually wake up early, but that is not the case for Julie.  Yet, she was a good sport, and we were soon on our way to OHare International Airport.  Our gate seemed to be in a different state, but that is what you expect when you are flying on a budget airline. Soon we were boarded and waiting to take off.  Surprisingly, the budget carrier’s customer service was pretty good. However, my legroom was terrible, and within about 30 minutes, I started to have leg cramps. I  focused on the fact that the flight was only 2 hours; it was a long two hours.

One place that we wanted to visit was the Johnson Space Center/Space Center of Houston, and after a light brunch, we drove through the gates, paid our admission fees, and started our tour. We were approached by a tall black man wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the center’s logo.  “Can I help you?” He asked. And with that, he gave us a detailed overview of what to see not only at the museum but also at the adjacent Johnson Space Center. He strongly suggested that we board the two shuttle tours as both of them would take us around the Johnson Space Center’s campus.  One of the tours would allow us entry into the actual command center where the Apollo space missions were directed.  

I was flooded with childhood memories.  I grew up during the 1960s, and the space race dominated my thoughts during those years. That decade was a time of great American pride.  There was a feeling that we could accomplish anything, figure out anything, do anything. I watched every single space launch and always held my breath when the giant rockets rose slowly and somewhat crookedly as they traveled up and beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

The 60s were a time when Americans feared that the USSR was going to invade our country and make us slaves to communism.  Russia not only had launched Sputnik, the first satellite, it had also placed the first person in space. There was an honest concern that the US would be left behind.

However, on May 5, 1961, Alan Sheppard was strapped into a tiny Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. He was sent on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight.  The Russians had already placed Yuri Gagarin into a real earth orbit one month earlier, but there was a sense that we were still in the game. However, it wasn’t until February of 1962 that we successfully sent John Glenn into Earth orbit on top of an Atlas rocket.

As a kid, it seemed that each new flight offered a spectacular new accomplishment, and in 1965 NASA launched the first human-crewed Gemini capsule, which held two astronauts. Where the Mercury capsules were controlled on the ground, the Gemini capsules were piloted by the crew.  The Gemini flights captivated me, and during these missions, astronauts walked in space, docked with other spacecraft, and did many other firsts (for the US) in preparation for an eventual lunar landing. 

In 1967 tragedy struck the US when three astronauts were killed aboard Apollo 1. Its pure oxygen-containing cabin suffered a flash fire. Suddenly, my hubris shattered. 

In future missions, NASA changed the atmosphere from pure oxygen to a less combustible atmosphere mix, and the number of flammable materials in the cabin were reduced.  In October of 1968, Apollo 7 launched with a crew of three, and the country was once again moving towards its goal of landing a human on the moon. Which, of course, happened in July of 1969 with the flight of Apollo 11.

When the first crewed Mercury mission launched, I was eight, and when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I was 16. Only eight years and so much had happened.  In1969 I had a summer job that started early. However, I made sure that I stayed up to see the fuzzy black and white TV image of Mr. Armstrong as his foot touched the moon’s powdery surface. How fortunate I was to witness one of the most momentous events in history!

The impact of the space program went well beyond a lunar landing.  It was an inspirational program during an inspirational time. I had already been fascinated by the sci-fi B-movies. I had found a “mentor” in Don Herbert, the host of “Mr. Wizard,” which was a TV show that encouraged kids to do scientific experiments. However, the space program took me from fantasy and the ordinary to the extraordinary. Everything about it was real, yet it seemed unreal.  NASA had the coolest on-board computer, the most fantastic space food, and a mission control center that seemed right out of the future. It inspired me to think beyond myself and to believe that I, too, could do anything. I was an American, living during the most fantastic time in history. I thought that the only thing that could stop me was me.  

We boarded the shuttle and made the short trip from the Space Center of Houston to the adjacent Johnson Space Center.  The tour guide telegraphed some facts along the way. The land was used for grazing cattle before it became one of the most famous places on earth.  The buildings were designed to look like a college campus. The displayed Saturn rocket was the most massive rocket ever built, and so on. As we approached the Christopher C. Kraft Jr Mission Control Center, we were cautioned that the building was still in operation, and we were to remain absolutely silent during our time there.

We entered Mission Control and climbed over 80 stairs to the Apollo command center. NASA had spent millions renovating the room, which echoed a 60s vibe.  The space was filled with built-in CRT consoles and huge viewing screens. We stepped into the observation room and took our seats. This was the same room that dignitaries and the press used when the actual flights took place.  Even the burnt orange theater-style chairs were the original ones. Our guide started up a video that explained the significance of the room. Then it happened, the entire control room lit up. The computer monitors turned on and started to stream data.  The giant screens illuminated showing flight paths and the grainy image of Neil Armstrong as he took his first steps on another world. It felt like I had been transported in time. My heart started to race as I felt my excitement build. The same excitement that I felt on that July night in 1969 when I saw the first video transmission of a human being walking on another world.

As the space program continued, people lost interest.  They grumbled that the cost was too high for too little.  However, the price isn’t only measured in the gain of scientific knowledge, the discovery of new materials, or political bragging rights. An entire generation of children became interested in science because of these programs.  They became computer designers, engineers, medical doctors, researchers, and pilots. I think it is impossible to determine the overall gain that our country made because of NASA and the space program.

The Johnson Space Center continues as a facility that now manages satellites as well as missions to the International Space Station. A new initiative, the Orion program, will return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars over the next few decades. 

On the shuttle to the Johnson Space Center, I saw young children.  I wondered if one of these boys or girls lives will change due to their visit?  A future scientist, engineer, researcher, or astronaut? NASA isn’t a waste of taxpayer’s money, it is a substantial investment in our future. Just like President Kennedy, we need to summon our imaginations to comprehend this fact.

Mike

Here is the audio reading of this post: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/what-the-apollo-missions-meant

The tiny Mercury space capsule.

The Apollo spacecraft housed three astronauts.
The Apollo spacecraft housed three astronauts.
A real Saturn rocket, the largest rocket ever built.
A real Saturn rocket, the largest rocket ever built.
Mock up of astronauts on the moon.
Mockup of astronauts on the moon.
Massive engines from on the stages of the Saturn rocket.
Rocks brought back from the moon.
The real Apollo mission control.
A more modern control center used for the International Space Station. Note the ashtray loaded with cigarettes!
A more modern control center used for the International Space Station. Note the ashtray loaded with cigarettes!