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.


Anonymous said...

Exactly. My feelings about the space program are all entangled with my feelings about Daddy, and also about being young and full of hope about adventure and apparently infinite possiblities. No matter how often I visit the Space Center and watch that movie about the history of manned spaceflight, I tear up every time.

Decade after decade the achievement recedes into the past and yes, there is a sadness about unfulfilled expectations and the loss of people you love so much. But the tears are not only sadness. There's also a fierce pride and sheer joy at the remembered wonder of it.

Daddy felt the romance of space, and he infected us with it. But we also witnessed first-hand the dedication and excellence and the hours and hours and hours of intense effort from one member of the vast team that produced such spectacular results in less than a decade. As you say, that's impressive and humbling. What accomplishment can our generation point to?

Love of country is in the mix of my emotions as well. It was no accident that it was Americans who did it first. The Soviet Union had many brilliant minds but they simply could not sustain such a massive effort to engineer so much innovative technology and construct it to such minute tolerances over the long haul. No one else was even thinking that big. I can hardly believe we may drop out of manned spaceflight without setting ourselves another worthy goal.

I have to say that my memories of the Apollo 11 landing are slightly different--mainly that Daddy had to go on summer active duty as an officer in the Army Reserves and was teaching at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth that week. He had to find a TV on the base where he could watch it. That was a major disappointment, that we couldn't be physically together at the moment of triumph. But I think you remember him being there because we were all thinking of him so much as we watched human beings climb out of a spacecraft for the first time to step onto another world.

There are cynics today who dismiss the whole thing as a propaganda sideshow in the Cold War. I pity them. Man on the moon. If you can't catch a whiff of salt air and new worlds to conquer when you hear that, something deeply human inside you has died.

Your sister

Bill Hensley said...

I had completely forgotten that Dad wasn't with us. To be honest, I have no specific recollection of who was there other than Granddaddy, because I so clearly remember him reading the words on the TV screen over and over.

I'm also wondering if the bit about walking outside to look up at the moon happened at just the time I said it did. That could have been earlier or later in the flight, or even maybe a different Apollo mission.

We remember certain key moments so clearly, then we interpolate the narrative a bit, don't we? The memory of those moments is so vivid, however, it makes the whole event seem accessible.

There is too much self-loathing in American culture today. I think we have overreacted to the hubris of earlier times. But with all its faults this is still a great country. There are few moments in history when that has been clearer than the night Apollo 11 landed. It was and is a great and historic accomplishment, and everyone involved can be justifiably proud. Even the American taxpayers who footed the bill. :-)

Rob said...

Thanks for this amazing picture of the moon landing from the "inside", at least sort-of. As you know I've been a space/sci-fi/computer junkie almost as long as you have, but it was always a distant sort of thing that other people thought mildly silly. I can only imagine what it was like to live it as you did.

As always, your thoughtful commentary is great!

Bill Hensley said...

You'll have to come over some time and have a look at some of the NASA memorabilia we have. Only a hard core geek would be interested, but I think you qualify!