Archive for July, 2009

So, thinking about the 40th anniversary of the moon landing brought up other space-related memories for me. Since my blog is at least partly a “remember when” kinda deal, I figured I might as well write them down.





In July 1975 the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was launched. It was a joint project between the United States and Russia. Those not living at the time or who aren’t old enough to remember probably have absolutely no concept of just how incredible that was. The Cold War was still going strong, with Russia and Communism being depicted as the great enemy.

I was in junior high at the time and lived every day with the knowledge that at any time the world as we knew it could end because of nuclear weapons. It was common to think of a nuclear strike originating from the U.S. or Russia in terms of “when”, not “if”. All sorts of scenarios were discussed from outright war, to accidents because of misunderstandings or miscommunication.

Yet in the middle of all that those focused on space and the future put aside the enmity and tensions and forged ahead with planning the joint venture. To me personally it was a sign of hope that eventually humans could overcome their differences and find common ground to live in peace.

On Thursday, July 17th 1975 the Apollo and Soyuz space capsules docked while in orbit around Earth. I had commandeered the TV set to watch the historic event. I recall my sister, two years younger than me, being upset that I insisted on watching something so utterly boring. I tried to explain that we had the opportunity to watch history being made, but that didn’t seem to carry any weight with her. She did continue to watch with me though. I haven’t asked her since then what she remembers or if it ended up having any impact on her. Maybe I should do that.

All of the preliminary stuff was TV news commentators using graphics and models to show what was happening up in space. Obviously there weren’t any cameras in orbit to take video or photos of the docking. Finally after the maneuvers were done a live feed from inside the Apollo capsule was sent and we watched as the hatch between the two vehicles was opened and the two commanders shook hands. The first handshake between two countries in space. Not just two countries, but countries that had been, and still were, bitter enemies.

My sister was right in a way. The live video in and of itself wasn’t terribly exciting. It was fuzzy images of people moving weightlessly in extremely tight quarters and shaking hands. No real suspense and no real action. But all the same, I did get to see it live, it was a historic event, and I remember it to this day. And since the U.S and Russia haven’t blown each other up with nuclear weapons, I don’t think my clutching on to the event as a symbol of hope was misplaced.




The Starship Enterprise – Sorta

The next thing that excited me about the space program was the introduction of the space shuttles. Some consider them to have been a mistake and misdirection, that we should have continued our efforts in expanding outward to other planets. Instead the focus turned to sticking close to home. I don’t really have a strong opinion on that either way. I just know that the concept of a vehicle that could make repeated trips into space seemed like we had arrived in the future and science fiction was quickly becoming science fact.

The first shuttle never actually went into space. It was designed primarily for heavy testing. Originally they had intended to retrofit it for trips into space, but that proved to be economically unfeasible because of the damage testing had done.

What thrilled me, and seemed so terribly fitting, was that they named the first shuttle Enterprise. That wasn’t the original intent, but a huge write-in campaign from people across the country convinced NASA to do it. Actors and others involved in the Star Trek TV show were involved in the dedication ceremony. Great stuff for any SF fan!

It’s an interesting juxtaposition of reasons for naming space craft. The Enterprise of Star Trek fame was named thus because there is a long history of U.S. and British navy vessels bearing that name, including the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier built in the late 1950’s. Then the first space shuttle was named the Enterprise after the fictional space craft in Star Trek.

I remember watching at least one of the Enterprise test flights on TV, but it’s been so long I don’t recall if I’m combining memories of more than one flight. I think I am. I remember watching the Enterprise piggy-backed on a Boeing 747. It was never launched by itself with a rocket, an airplane was always used to get it in the air. The first several flights the Enterprise remained attached to the plane for the duration. Then five free flight tests were done where the 747 got the shuttle into the air and then the shuttle detached and glided by itself for a bit and then landed under the control of a pilot on board.

There were other aircraft in the air during the tests keeping pace, so there was good footage available for TV of the test flights. Aside from having a vivid image in my head of the shuttle being on top of the 747, I also vividly remember the excitement of seeing it detach to fly on its own, and then make a safe and successful landing. The test flights took place throughout the year of 1977, with the final one taking place on October 26th.




The Challenger Disaster

Space shuttles had been making regular missions since 1981, so by 1986 it all seemed old hat. Only the most dedicated space buffs followed all the missions (which wasn’t me). But in 1986 the Challenger garnered a lot of attention because it would be the first time a regular citizen went into space.

It was decided for several reasons, one being to regain public interest in the space program, to send a teacher into space. Over 11,000 teachers across the country applied to be the chosen one. After several elimination rounds Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire was selected. Christa being on the mission heightened public and media interest. She was very enthusiastic, had a great public personality, and thus was a perfect choice. I know I was excited about it because it was another step forward from science fiction into reality, as space would no longer be the sole domain of astronauts.

As an interesting side note, when I was looking up dates and such for this I read that Barbara Morgan, Christa’s back up teacher for the mission, later joined NASA as an astronaut. She flew on the Endeavor as a Mission Specialist in 2003. It was the 150th manned U.S. space launch.

On Tuesday, January 28th 1986 Christa McAuliffe and six other crew members launched in the shuttle Challenger. The launch video was being fed live to school classrooms across the country. I had an appointment that morning at the courthouse in downtown Seattle. As I was waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street to the courthouse a woman standing next to me asked if I’d heard about the shuttle exploding. I thought something along the lines of, “yeah right.” It seemed like a joke in very poor taste, but then it was quickly obvious she was quite serious. A couple others chimed in talking about it also.

My initial reaction was stunned disbelief. Shuttles had been launching for years by that point. How could something like that happen? It couldn’t be as bad as people on the street were making out. But everyone around me on the street and in the courthouse was talking about it, and the reality began to sink in. Not only that there had been a major malfunction, but that it was pretty obvious that all on board had died. My emotions shifted from stunned and numb to horror and grief.

I rushed home after my appointment was finally finished (I was working graveyard at the time so was home during the days) and immediately turned on my TV to watch the coverage and get updated on what had happened. The video of the launch and disintegration was played over and over again as experts recapped and speculations were made about what caused the accident. I cried a lot as I watched.

The tragedy has always been that seven people lost their lives when it could have been avoided. But on a more personal level I have always felt that the greatest tragedy was that they lost their lives on the way up. I know that if it had been me it might have seemed worth it if I had at least been able to experience the wonder of being in space and seeing the beauty of earth from orbit. But three of the Challenger crew members were cheated of that, and to me that makes their deaths even more heartbreaking.


The Final Challenger Crew

The Final Challenger Crew


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What a view.

What a view.


So here we are. It’s been forty years since humans first stepped foot on the moon. Forty years! Looking back from this perspective there are two things that surprise me the most. The first is what was accomplished in 1969 with fairly primitive technology. The second is that we haven’t really come very far in the forty years since then, at least compared to our expectations back then.

I was seven years old when Apollo 11 went to the moon. That was old enough that I have general memories of the excitement and awe surrounding the event, but not old enough that I have truly specific memories. I know my family was gathered in front of the TV watching that night and I know that I understood on a basic level that it really was a leap for humankind. But I’ve seen replays of the video so often in the years since then that I can’t filter out what I remember on my own and what I’ve seen in the years since.

I do have a very specific memory of watching Apollo 15 astronauts walk on the moon in 1971. It was a Sunday and after the morning church service someone had set up a TV set in the lounge area so we could stand around and watch. Even though in a sense we’d already been there, done that, it was still just as exciting to me to watch the live footage. I felt the same way again when the space shuttle started going into space. Awe at what we were accomplishing and excitement over what it might mean for the future.

Space fascinated me as a child, and I think that was quite common in those years as the space program got underway and picked up steam. My interest was fueled by watching Star Trek on TV and by the fact that my mom liked reading science fiction. An interest that she passed on to me as I became a reader myself.

I remember the first plastic models I ever put together. I’d seen the set in a local store and just had to have it! In order to get it I had to save up my 25 cents per week allowance to make the purchase, though I don’t recall how much it cost. The set included 5 models in it, all different types of rockets that had gone into space. The biggest and most interesting of course was a Saturn V rocket with a capsule for astronauts on top. It was the only model in the set that was used in manned spaceflight.

I also remember a space game and booklet that I’d received as a birthday gift. It was a thick cardboard folder that had an educational booklet stored in the inside front flap that talked about the space program. The folder opened out into a game that had a spinner and markers included. The goal of the game was to travel to the moon and orbit it and come back to Earth before your opponent. Since we hadn’t landed on the moon yet just orbiting it was a big deal!

I’m a sentimental soul at heart, and when I read about or watch a documentary about the space program in the 60’s and early 70’s I often get a bit teary eyed. The famous photos of the Earth from those first trips into space still fill me with wonder and awe at the exquisite beauty. The astronauts risked their lives going where not only no man had gone before, but where humans aren’t really intended to be. There is no mercy and no forgiveness for mistakes made in the harsh vacuum of space. Yet they went and did it anyway. It’s still one of the most amazing achievements of humankind.

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