This week we shake loose from the Nixon-Ford years and go all the way back to JFK’s last summer, where we find my grandfather preoccupied with two very different types of machinery.
Many of my grandfather’s more enjoyable calendar entries combine major national news with something completely mundane. In this case, we have a groundbreaking manned space flight sharing May 15 and 16, 1963, with the arrival of a new washing machine.
(The new washing machine — “IT’S HERE!” — seems to have inspired rather more excitement than the first American to spend a full day in orbit. Well, hey, no more ring around the collar is a big thing.)
My grandfather’s painstaking notation of Gordon Cooper’s trip brings back a time when space launches registered more deeply with the average American than they do now. We were still racing the Russians then — and still ever so slightly behind in May 1963, if I’m not mistaken — and every flight brought us a little farther along than we’d been before.
I found this entry educational, too, because my knowledge of the space race has always had a glaring hole between John Glenn’s flight in 1962 and the Apollo 11 moon mission seven years later. (I even tend to forget Alan Shepard’s flight, a year before Glenn’s.)
Between May 1961 and May 1963, when Project Mercury ended, America sent six big tin cans into space with men aboard. And in 1965 and ’66, another 10 manned flights went up as part of the Gemini program. I had forgotten just how many missions there were — each one making the great unknown seem a tiny bit more familiar.
There’s something cool, in retrospect, about these crewcut guys with their bulky spacesuits, powdered rations and sardine-can capsules. They tackled a frontier that was about 1,000 times more foreign than it seems now, using technology that was probably about 10,000 times less sophisticated than it is now.
One can argue whether America’s investment in space instead of social problems was worth it in either the short or long runs. (While Apollo 11 was heading to the first moon landing, race riots were tearing apart York, Pennsylvania.)
But the bravery and sangfroid of the first astronauts, and the technical skills and imagination of the people who put them into space, are beyond dispute. Close to a half-century later, I can understand what would lead an average American to note his country’s space advances alongside the important information of his own daily life.
Will future space missions — whatever their cost — similarly reconnect a divided America to its pioneer spirit? You’ll have to read my granddaughter’s blog to find that out.
Having said all that about the early years of manned space flight, I’d love to be able to devote equal time to the washing machine purchased by my grandparents in 1963.
Regrettably, I have no information on the machine. Like an Apollo lunar module, it did its job and was deliberately jettisoned.
Most likely, its forsaken hulk continues to rust even today in some barren lunar landscape in New Jersey or Staten Island. (Perhaps future generations of space flights will be abandoned because America will need to sink its scientific R&D money into restoring its trash-fouled water to potability. Good luck with that, granddaughter.)
The apparent reference on May 15 to Pitney Bowes — a major employer in the Stamford area — is similarly mysterious, as no one on that side of the family worked there. Couldn’t have been half as cool as either a space flight or a newly laundered batch of work shirts, though.