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All Spaced Out and Nowhere to Go

By: Mark Flavin

Sputnik was not the kind of word that made you want to hide in your closet, even if you were only ten. My young mind was fascinated with how serious all the adults in my life sounded when they said, “Sputnik.” It was like a swear word, in fact the free world was aghast that the Russians beat the U.S. to the punch at orbiting a basketball sized shiny sphere that beeped at us in defiance. We stood flat footed, no national transcendental goal to be in space, just passive onlookers as the Ruskies bested us. Even though the enemy did it first I thought Sputnik was cool, and that was at least seven or eight years before cool meant – well, cool.

I will never forget that October night, as I shivered in my tiny front yard in our piece of suburbia just south of Seattle, trying to see the little beeping menace go overhead. I had no idea what I was looking for or what direction it was coming or how high in the sky it would be seen. Fortunately my Dad was there to steer my errant head toward the spec of light as it traveled almost directly over head. I remember vividly thinking, “How amazing is that, a point of light zipping through the star field, put there by the Russians,” these were the same guys that made me and my class mates observe stop, duck and cover in case of nuclear attack. This was during practice drills in the halls of Skyway Elementary School; nevertheless the Red Menace was now in space and we weren’t. I knew, we all knew that it wasn’t good, but I also knew even as young boy that a new age had begun, one that I had heard of and dreamed about; The Space Age.

It’s kind of neat to be able to say I was alive when something monumental and unique in the history of mankind happened. I can’t say I grasped the significance of the event at the time but I do know I was ready for it, after all I had seen numerous movies and TV serials about space. What kid could come away from watching Flash Gordon wup it up on Ming the Merciless and not want to be in space? Being a boy the ‘50s in America was all about adventure, and space was my preferred destination. When the Russians got there first I thought “Hey, when are we going?”

The mood of the country was dark, and you could feel it. “How could they beat us?” Didn’t we win WWII? Didn’t we show them our technological superiority during the Berlin airlift? The feeling was that American pride was at stake. Around our dinner table we talked about when the US would make a comeback and show the Reds who was the best; The Space Age had morphed into the Space Race.

Ike was president, and Dad was a Democrat. He had little use for the man as a president and plainly expressed it but I didn’t care, just so we shot something into orbit. After all if this was a race we had better have an entry, and so we did; well almost. I will never forget the evening news footage of the titanic explosion of the Vanguard rocket that never got off the launch pad in December of 1957. The county was in mourning. How could we be so bad at stuff we were supposed to be so good at? I wasn’t the only one asking that question. Finally in February of 1958 we did it, we orbited a small thirty-pound satellite called Explorer I. It beeped an American beep and the country celebrated, I was ecstatic to see it all unfold.

Our expectations on what America could do in space had been fueled by the unlikely duo of none other that Wernher von Braun and Walt Disney; two improbable collaborators that lifted our expectations literally to the stars in the mid-fifties. I recall clearly that evening in March 1955. My parents and my two brothers watched the TV program called Disneyland. This was the same Disneyland TV show that introduced us to the legendary Davey Crockett, king of the wild frontier. Every boy in America wanted a coon skin cap like Davey wore. When Walt introduced Wernher von Braun and the show titled “Men in Space” we knew there was a new frontier, this one in space. Wow! The show was visual opiate for little kids. Here was this charming foreigner, a rocket scientist and his associates, with their exotic accents explaining how we were going to conquer space. No waffling, apologies, or maybe we will go into space, but “ve vill” conquer space! The program was illustrated with believable concepts and a model of an impressive mega-rocket which Wernher convincingly showed us how – not if – we would go into space. There are some who claim that it was this show, which impressed Ike enough to request a copy for viewing by his technical and science advisers. This private showing may have been the impetus to set the goal to orbit a satellite in 1957. Gee, I hope so.

Later that year we watched, “Man and the Moon” again a home run punctuated with clever Disney animation and illustrations. Here was an articulate German rocket scientist telling us in our own language, and with authority that space flight was not only possible but possible on a grand scale. In hindsight von Braun, not-withstanding all of his Third Reich baggage, had the bold confidence and technical savvy that allowed the U.S. to be first to the moon. I’m certain that his collaboration with Disney was the catalyst that persuaded reticent policy makers to back a winner. Von Braun was the logical choice to be the architect of that whole effort to land on the moon, along with a bevy of other German and American scientist and engineers. With the concepts illustrated in the Disney programs even the most pedantic bureaucrat could easily see that rockets and space flight were exciting, and as a kid in that era the excitement was infectious. I remember building model rockets, launching little lime green translucent plastic pump up water rockets, reading about rockets, even drawing rockets.

NASA was created in July of 1958 as the decade of the fifties ended. The end of the fifties meant the Eisenhower administration was over. The new administration of John F. Kennedy elected in 1960, which replaced Ike’s, had the political will to go way beyond orbiting a small beeper. A new young president made his will known with the famous “put a man on the moon” proclamation to Congress, the American people, the Russians, and the world in general. Everybody loves a good race, especially one with no rules, spending limitations, or restrictive regulations, so when JFK put forth the challenge of a lunar landing I thought he was surely the best president America had ever produced. When you are thirteen, things are reduced to very simple abstractions, but in hind sight as a politician he did a very bold thing at a critical time. You may argue about his motives all you want, but the man made a critical decision for the country. It’s called leadership, we live in an era where our leaders fear bold initiatives of any kind, other that spending our way into the poor house, let alone a national commitment to space that is anywhere near the scale the one JFK made on our behalf way back in the ‘60s. It is arguably the reason for our technological prowess in the following decades.

Launching a beeper into orbit was quite a feat, but a manned spacecraft, that was wildly risky business. I recall seeing some TV footage of titanic explosions of test vehicles that never got off the launch pad. It is hard to fathom the wave of hero worship that swept across America when the original seven Mercury astronauts were introduced to the nation in April of 1959. It was astounding to us mortals that anyone could be that brave. After all no one had the foggiest notion of what would happen to a human exposed to the speed, radiation, temperature and pressure that these men would be seeing. Sure today it’s accepted as almost routine (which it isn’t) but then it was a business only for the skilled, steeled and willing.

Life Magazine, Time, Newsweek all had feature articles on these men who would challenge the unknown. No one who was alive then could possibly forget the official NASA photo of seven lean test pilots posing in form fitting chrome pressure space suits complete with helmets and boots. We had no Tom Wolfe catch phrase to hang on them but looking at those gleaming all-American space gladiators you intrinsically knew they had the “right stuff” to do whatever was necessary; and they did.

It was at this point that you might say the nation went space happy, at least from my perspective. The constant buzz was about space, rockets, science, and yes, even my least favorite subject; math. Our science teachers wasted no time in using the craze to whip up a little enthusiasm about science, but honestly it wasn’t too difficult. Nearly every kid was interested in the space age, except for some of the athletic ones, and they soon came around after they found out astronauts were ultra physically fit pilot / athletes.

I remember becoming soul mates with a bunch of nerdy science types, “brains” as they were called, who actually carried briefcases to class. This was the seventh grade for crying out loud! The lesson was; when you fall into bad company like that one day you ultimately find yourself with a briefcase in your hand. There I was strutting proudly down the halls of my junior high, never having to stop to at a locker to grab a book, they were all right there; this was decades before backpacks. They also made terrific weapons by which to assault foolish anti science pukes who ridiculed us. After all as we learned in science class, Force=Mass times Acceleration, and we had mass on our side.

The space craze deepened and school sponsored science clubs sprang up. We would hang around Mrs. Stutzki’s lab after school at my junior high school and do cool stuff with bell jars and beakers. She must have thought she died and went to heaven when kids actually stayed after school for anything other that punishment.

The school administration also knew the value of what was happening. I remember sitting in my homeroom class and watching TV of the network coverage of John Glenn’s mission, then following his progress through the day as announcements were made over the PA in my other classes. It was truly a magical time in our history and I think most kids and adults knew it.

We collectively watched and listened and read as NASA put together a cohesive plan based on the Presidents goal. We learned of Project Mercury, followed by Project Gemini, then Apollo. Hmm, Greek gods, was this a conspiracy to push Greek mythology on an unsuspecting clutch of baby boomers? We may never know, but this is for certain; the names were a perfect blend of mythology and rocket science that kept us hungry for more information.

The most successful outlet for my hunger was Life Magazine. This glossy, compelling weekly essay in photo journalism was seductive. The issues that covered the astronauts were phenomenal. Amazing black-and-white photography as well as full color images of the astronauts, their suits and equipment, the rockets and spacecraft, launch facilities and support crews were the most gripping reading my young mind was exposed to. These were not coffee table decorum, but a record in stunning pictures and prose of high adventure. I remember pawing over those issues like captured intelligence reports; extracting every bit of information on what was happening all over our nation and the progress toward winning the space race.

Project Gemini began launching spacecraft with a crew of two astronauts when I was in high school and we became fully indoctrinated in space related merchandising. I remember badgering my Mom to buy Tang instant breakfast drink because I read that NASA was planning on sending it on board the Gemini spacecraft. Tang was and still is a wickedly acidic, fluorescent yellow-orange drink but if a rocket pilot was going to drink it then it must be ambrosia for space explorers, so my brother and I guzzled it for breakfast.

In the early 60s Project Gemini was in full swing; it was to be the next step to the moon. We learned about how the astronauts were going to practice rendezvous and docking, and longer duration flights. It seems odd now but there was still a lot of concern in all; observers and professionals, about the physical aspects of being in space for long periods. The Mercury craft had only spent a little over a day in orbit but it was supposed to take around eight days in transit to the Moon so some additional flight time was needed to make sure the trip was safe as well as perfect the new techniques and hardware.

Gemini was an exciting spacecraft and I remember listening to my two preferred science correspondents; Roy Neal at NBC and my favorite, Jules Bergman on ABC as he showed in great detail the interiors, systems and hardware the astronauts were using. We learned they would have an, “on-board computer.” This was the stuff of science fiction since computers of that era were few in numbers and filled entire rooms. Much later in life upon seeing the Gemini Space Craft at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC I was shocked to learn the computer was a four function calculator the astronauts used for navigation calculations; remember, in the early 1960s nobody had hand held calculators, they hadn’t been invented. I sat captivated as Jules would described the missions objectives, flight plans, astronaut backgrounds, fuel cells and tons of space hardware and gadgets. We sat riveted to the TV awaiting the next step of the countdown, or the next Tang commercial. Whoever invented the countdown thing was a genius. Talk about tension, especially when there were “holds” in the count. It fed my boyish imagination with visions of dangerous, explosive stuff that might go off in a huge brilliant blast with the astronauts being hurled clear by the thundering rocket powered escape tower.

Through the network TV coverage also came the enigmatic, “voice of mission control” that was fed from NASA Launch Control and for Mercury flights it was Col. John “Shorty” Powers. You would hear his voice in the background during network coverage. His monolog was a confident, cool, controlled announcement of facts; the practiced professional resonant voice that would count 5…4…3…2…1, Liftoff. I’m sure the astronauts hearts were racing at lift off but mine was too. I can only speak for myself, but I was there with those skilled, disciplined pilots as they rode a column of fire into space wishing with all my heart that it could be me. It was so exciting to hear the voice of mission control call out the fantastic speeds and altitude of the ascending vehicle as the shaky telephoto range cameras kept vigilance. They would follow the glowing spec thrusting and staging its way into space with two Americans on board.

Much of the nations exuberance for space was set temporarily aside when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, it really took an immense toll on spirit of the country. He was a person for which I had the highest regard, a real leader and it was the saddest time of my young life. Fortunately Lyndon Johnson was a strong proponent of the space program so it continued to flourish, although nothing else appeared to be working in the nation during his tenure.

I graduated from High School in 1965 just as Project Gemini was winding down and Project Apollo was preparing for flight. The space program was still a race, a moon race, that no one had won. Nobody could predict what the Russians would do; after all they were a closed society. You could not watch a launch of their cosmonauts, or follow their space program; it was never allowed by the communist state.

I had some choices to make with the Viet Nam war escalating beyond any reasonable scale so I joined the Air Force instead of letting the draft send me to some rice paddy war of attrition in Southeast Asia. Besides that, I was trying to get closer to something related to space, albeit remotely related. It was during my first year in the Air Force that the Apollo I Command Module fire occurred. I could not believe that we could be so careless, neither could the press, the congress, or for that matter the astronaut corps. We all had a sense that those responsible for the programs were infallible and confident, perhaps too confident. The lesson for the nation was that we were fallible mortals, pushing as hard as we could to achieve an ambitious goal and in the process we made poor choices. It cost the lives of three fine men but at least we didn’t do something stupid like cancel the program like some hand wringers were advocating. We somehow collectively did the right thing and pressed on.

The ultimate in space adventure was when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the pale lunar surface; the culmination of not just a decade of effort but millennia of dreaming of off world exploration. We did the moon shot so well, maybe too well. We made it look easy, when it was anything but easy. Watching those crude images on a tiny TV with my wife Judy and new baby daughter Laura made me proud I was a part of a nation that kept a commitment of a fallen leader to explore instead of destroy. We could have done so much more in space, we had the technology figured out, it was the discipline part America never seemed to master.

So when did all the magic and wonder wear off; for some in my generation it was when we were shuttled off to the Viet Nam war. For some it was over when JFK was assassinated, and others after Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin completed the vision that the president had offered. We could have gone on to do even more amazing exploration, even landing on Mars. In my mind, and I suspect minds and hearts of a lot of others the magic, amazement and wonder never left. It is too easy to become diverted from a worthy cause. We have had and shall always have wars, assassinations and the close of different phases of space exploration, but to let the base elements of human nature quell my interest in the High Frontier; never!

I remember when Apollo 16, the final Apollo mission to the moon was preparing to leave the surface. It was after my hitch was finished with the Air Force, I worked for a natural gas distribution company as a draftsman. They had an executive lounge with a TV on the same floor where we worked. My friend Harold and I sneaked into the lounge at the appointed time, right around morning break and turned on the TV and sat, just the two of us, and watched as the camera the crew had left behind pointed at the LEM to follow it as it blasted off from the moon. What a scene, and what a disgrace that only two of us out of dozens in that building were interested enough to watch, but you know that was their loss. I saw it live, as it happened and it was that same vicarious experience of wonder and envy for every manned launch I have seen and no one can take that away from me.

I am certain there will never be a time for America, or the world for that matter such as the space race was. It is too bad that NASA as become a four letter word for some instead of an icon for one of the most difficult feats accomplished by humanity to date. Now it’s all about big labs, big budgets and lots of PHD’s looking for water under Martian rocks. Sorry that does nothing for me unless it’s an American in a space suit turning over the rocks. Let’s get back to human exploration and space travel starting with the Moon only this time let’s not limit it to there. Mars is some place of tremendous interest for a wide variety of reasons which all equals a large constituency backing such a plan. A large scale manned mission to Mars, with the ultimate goal of permanent colonization would engender the kind of interest and support that Project Apollo did. But let’s not do some piddly little effort like NASA has planned that will take decades to accomplish, let’s do it in ten years or less. We have wasted too much of our resources growing toad stools in mico-gravity. Ask any ten year old kid what a thrill that kind of space program is to them, I’m certain I know the answer.

I hear a lot of talk about, “rocket science” and how difficult it all is. Tell that to the guys who designed the Saturn V moon rocket with slide rules. Rocket science is applied science; you know, engineering. We engineers are trained to solve those kinds of problems. Nothing magical about the process, it just takes the national will to set the right priority. I know from firsthand experience, I saw it happen based on the words of a visionary and yes, politically astute President. We don’t lack the talent or money. We have a leadership vacuum greater than the one that tiny Russian Sputnik sailed through in 1957 beeping its defiance to a stunned America. The thrill is not gone for most Americans, but the political will (or backbone) of our leaders surely is. We await a rekindling of the exhilarating leadership of a JFK, the technical competence and vision of a von Braun and the imagination of a Disney, without that we are a nation that is all spaced out and has nowhere to go.

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