Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A Child Of The Space Program

A little background here.

I posted a link about NASA archives being released a few weeks ago, and my very good friend John Harwood found mention of things his father had done in the archives. His dad found a bug that, if it hadn't been fixed, could well have resulted in us crashing into the moon instead of walking on it. You can read that story here, and it's utterly fantastic.

I asked John to write about what it was like growing up as a kid in that kind of environment, and he was kind enough to oblige. So it's John from here on out.

I am a child of the space program. The real space program mind you, not that current thing where we ride 40 year-old Soviet hardware to/from the Space Office. I was born a month after we landed on the moon, lived in Clear Lake Forest, and grew up with astronauts, NASA, and all things space as part of my daily life. I never considered it particularly remarkable how many kids of astronauts I went to school with or played with around the neighborhood. I watched the Saturn V come in off the barges at Clear Lake. When I broke my nose when I was 9, I did it while smashing into my dad's Saturn V model.

My sister and I used to go to NASA all the time as kids, often just randomly playing outside in the grass after eating in the cafeteria instead of yet another trip to the visitor's center. It wasn't boring in the least, it was just a very familiar place. I toured the grounds with my mother or father countless times, sat in the mission control gallery so often I could draw it from memory, and amassed a tremendous number of those little Saturn V plastic-floaty-thing pens. My mom was quite the space groupie and used to love when my dad would come home and talk about meetings they'd had with Buzz & Neil that day and kept tabs on which astronauts lived where and how many were near us. I was aware that we had a shuttle astronaut in the house behind ours, my sister regularly played with the daughter of one, and I thought it was funny when one of my friend's dads would borrow his music to use as wake up music for shuttle crews when he was running capcom on a mission. That sort of thing isn't unusual, right?

Dad first came to NASA as a young master's degree mechanical engineer fresh out of Purdue. I've been told that a big consideration for his choice was that TRW had good luck getting their young employees exempted from the draft due to the critical nature of their work on the Apollo program. I prefer to think it was the lure of adventure and the fulfillment of Kennedy's pledge that brought him to the godforsaken barren wasteland of Clear Lake City, TX. Given his love of all things science and space, that seems likely enough, but I'm sure having an out from the draft was an attractive perk. He worked for TRW from 1968-1971 as a subcontractor to NASA. TRW was responsible for the design and testing of the Lunar Module's Abort Guidance System. Although they were "across the street" from NASA, he frequently went to meetings on-site and regularly ran into the primary and backup astronaut crews of the Apollo missions. He never sat in mission control, but he was on call during missions (in the support room of the support room of the LM GUIDO station) and even later in life you could tell it had been much, much more than just another job. They were part of history. They made things happen. They. Landed. On. The. Moon.

I recently took my kids to Space Center Houston for the first time to go see the memorial stone we had placed there for my father. I'll not go into that whole story again, but suffice to say that I still have a strong emotional attachment to NASA, the Johnson Space Center, and the US Space Program as a whole. My earliest memories are after my father had already stopped working for TRW, but visits to NASA were a pretty regular occurrence. My toys that weren't Star Wars, Hot Wheels, or LEGO, were largely from the JSC gift shop. 12 years after release, I'm still playing Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space nearly weekly. I have an itch I can no longer sufficiently scratch.

It is one of the bitter ironies of life that by the time we are old enough to take a proper interest in the lives of our parents, they all too often are no longer around to ask questions of. Such is unfortunately the case with my father and was illustrated all too well by our recent trip. We went on both of the red & blue tram tours and my sister, mom, and I found we were seriously confused about which buildings we used to visit back when the visitor's center was just building 2 and not the Disney-fied version you go to today. My sister and I were trying to figure out which buildings we used to play outside of when we went past building 11 (the "astronaut" cafeteria) on the way to the Historic Mission Control site and it just clicked. That's it! That's where we used to hang out! It was fun trying to piece together the past, but how nice would it have been to have my father along on that trip to fill us in on all the details we've forgotten or never knew.

Even though I wasn't old enough to know my dad during the time he actually worked at NASA, his interest in all things space was such that it felt like he still worked there. I'm pretty sure we did more than the standard tour of NASA at least a few times, and I was supplied with a wealth of reading material, both fictional and historical, that fueled my young imagination. I apparently saw Apollo 17 lift off, according to the super 8 film evidence. Being only 3 at the time, I was just baggage and can only imagine how stunning the sound and sight of a night launch of a Saturn V must have been. I do have a great many memories... Cold nights out back with the Celestron telescope seeing the amazing sights (and colors!) to be found out there. Sitting on the shores of a lake watching hundreds of Perseid meteors per hour. Watching the Apollo 13 movie and then afterward getting to hear what it was really like from the other side of the screen.

He never managed to properly share his love and knowledge of auto repair, electronics, and circuit design. There's another whole story of he and a friend creating their own mass-market automotive trip computer before such things were commonplace. That all seemed like work and I didn't learn till too late in life the inherent beauty in each of those. He did bless me with the gift of wonder at what man can achieve when we stop hurting each other for a few moments and dare to dream really big. I have this innate sense of awe of the universe that's hard to put into words. Much of that comes from NASA, but an equal amount of it comes from books like Ringworld and Contact or the wonderful experience of watching Cosmos first-run with dad. He had been a Carl Sagan fan long before Carl became "cool" and knew of Cosmos before it came out and made sure I watched it. That's one of the more powerful memories of my youth, and the wonder they imparted beyond words.

I've tried to keep my interest level up throughout the years and even though NASA tried their best to make spaceflight boring with the Space Shuttle and the ISS, I still tuned in to every launch and landing I could and would often keep NASA TV on in the background when a mission was up. Folks of my mom's generation say they can remember where they were and every detail when they heard Kennedy was shot. That's the Challenger explosion for me. High school lunch in the band hall. It still makes me uncomfortable to think about it and I tense and tear up every time I watch it recounted in a documentary. There are good memories as well. The first time I saw the shuttle on a pre-dawn re-entry track near Austin is burned into my memory for all time. I heard the sonic boom. In Austin. Of a shuttle that was barely north of Houston. Given how many times I watched a re-entry, it's a blessing that for some reason I wasn't watching in February of 2003 and I don't have to carry around the memory of anxiously awaiting that glorious coppery-bright trail only to find multiple debris trails streaking overhead.

I'm cautiously optimistic that we may someday make grand voyages again and I'm certainly excited by the possibilities of the Orion system. I do hope we manage to keep plugging away at that and get back to the moon, or an NEO asteroid, or even Mars in my lifetime. I get NASA's notifications whenever a good ISS sighting opportunity is coming up and I set my alarm and go outside each time to watch it streak overhead. I do so hope I get to do the same with Orion. I took my kids to see the Orion drop-test article when it stopped in Austin on the way to Huntsville and found it was nearly impossible to properly explain the magic potential in that squat little cone. To them space travel is both mysterious and ordinary. They know there are people up there right now, and we've watched them fly over, but it's just a dot moving across the sky. It's just not the same as a man standing on the moon or the violent majesty of twin solid rocket boosters blasting skyward.

We need to explore new vistas again. Children need to grow up with dreams of the adventures space travel has to offer. They need wonder in their lives. In this era of ready-at-hand technology, they need to see that technology do something other than hurl cartoon birds at cartoon pigs. My kids stood in the shadow of the beached whale of the Saturn V with me and I have all these visions of what humans can do when they try and the sense of the spirits of those who strove to accomplish the impossible. The kids just see a giant, intangible thing and all the explanation in the world won't bring it to life for them.

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