Saturday, July 18, 2009

Remembering Apollo

I was raised on the space program. On my sixth birthday in 1962 my family moved from Fort Worth to Houston so my father could take a job at NASA. He was an aeronautical engineer at General Dynamics in Fort Worth when it was announced that NASA was building a new space center in Houston. He applied immediately, but it was some months before he landed a job there. At that time the Mercury program was in full swing, but Dad was hired to work on Apollo. President Kennedy had already committed the nation to go to the moon.

It took hundreds of thousands of people to make Apollo 11 possible. I am proud of my father’s role, but it is humbling to realize how many others were involved. He worked initially on the aerodynamic design of the launch escape system. That’s the small rocket that sits atop the capsule, ready to lift it quickly to safety if anything goes wrong with the booster. We still have a wind tunnel model which was used to test one of the early designs. Later he worked on the reentry aerodynamics. Coming back from the moon, the Apollo command module would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph, much faster than any previous spacecraft. This was an aerodynamic challenge of the first order. On top of that, Apollo was the first capsule designed to be a solid lifting body, so the astronauts could fly it down to the designated target area. With this ability the Apollo missions routinely landed within sight of the recovery ship.

I remember being a space junkie even before we left Fort Worth. At that time, every mission received full TV coverage from launch to splashdown. I was always glued to the tube. I watched the coverage of John Glenn’s first orbital flight, and I remember, even at five years old, the anxiety about whether his heat shield was loose during reentry. Later I followed every achievement of the Gemini program as NASA worked out the techniques that would be needed for Apollo: longer flights, larger crews, spacewalks, rendezvous and docking. Other boys collected baseball cards and memorized game stats. I became a walking encyclopedia of space trivia. I could tell you the height of the Saturn V rocket, the thrust of each stage, and every detail of the mission profile. I knew the names of most of the astronauts and could tell you which missions they had flown on. I had posters of rockets on my bedroom wall. A packet of publicity photos from NASA was one of my most treasured possessions.

The night of July 20, 1969 our whole family gathered around the TV to watch as the Eagle touched down on the moon. What an exciting time it was to be alive. Something like a quarter of the entire world population was watching with us at that same moment. The sense of wonder, pride and history was palpable. After the landing, it was to be several hours before the astronauts exited the vehicle. I remember we went outside and stood in the backyard, staring up at the moon. How strange to think that two men were there on the surface at that moment. I remember marveling at the thought that something could be in plain view, and yet so far away as to be invisible. It was hard to imagine just how far away they were.

When the moon walk started we were again glued to the television. We sat in the darkened living room of our home: my parents, my sister, my grandfather and me. I sat on the floor near the TV with my grandfather behind me on the couch. When the first ghostly images began to be transmitted we strained to make out what we were seeing. There was no doubt, though, about what was happening the moment Neil Armstrong stepped off the landing pad and onto the lunar surface. His words are burned in my memory. “I’m going to step off the LEM now. That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The words seemed so appropriate.

However great the novelty and wonder of that moment was for me, I cannot fathom what it must have been like for my grandfather. Born in the Oklahoma Territory in 1892, he often told us stories of the first time he ever saw an automobile and the first time he heard about the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. In his lifetime mankind had gone from the first halting steps at heavier-than-air flying machines to massive rockets propelling three people to the moon, a quarter of a million miles away. As we watched the astronauts exploring the surface, every few minutes a title graphic would be displayed on the screen saying “Man on the Moon”. And every time it came on the screen my grandfather would read it out loud, in a tone of voice that spoke volumes. It was as if he couldn’t quite believe he wasn’t dreaming.

My grandfather died in 1979 and my father died in 1995. I have gazed up at the moon thousands of times in the past 40 years, and on none of those occasions was any human presence there to wonder at. Will there ever be again? Surely it will happen again someday, but my grandfather will not be here to see it, nor my father, nor perhaps will I. And now as I think back to that magical night 40 years ago it is as much with sadness as with wonder. The promise of that moment seems yet unfulfilled. I am still a space junkie. I still await eagerly each new development in the conquest of space, but I am chastened by the slow pace at which the future becomes the present. It is in this context that the accomplishments of my father’s generation seem even more extraordinary. Congratulations, Dad, to you and all your colleagues for a feat that only in hindsight, perhaps, we can fully appreciate.