Posts Tagged ‘space’

Still working on the project I teased last week. Should be next Monday. For now …

The Sixties are running out, at least in calendar terms.

And this week, we join my grandfather as — like a stoned hippie staring at his hand against the backdrop of the starry sky — he contemplates a confluence of the extraterrestrial and the deeply rooted.

November 14 and 15, 1969. The Mets are the champions of the world; the Yankees are just one of those other teams wondering how they did it.

November 14 and 15, 1969. The Mets are the champions of the world; the Yankees are just one of those other teams wondering how they did it.

I’ve written about my grandpa’s fascination with the U.S. space program, here and here and here and here, and maybe even elsewhere. As a patriotic American, he appreciated his country’s steps into uncharted territory; as an amateur gearhead and tinkerer, he was interested in the science it took to make space journeys happen.

Apollo 11, in July 1969, was the landmark mission that brought man to the moon for the first time. My grandfather, like many Americans, was riveted to the journey. So it’s no surprise that he would have made it a priority to track the follow-up mission and see what new frontiers would be broken this time around.

The Apollo 12 rocket was hit by lightning during liftoff — not once but twice, according to Wikipedia — which caused a few technical challenges, but did not impair the mission in the grand scheme of things. This must have been publicly disclosed as it happened, since my grandfather made wordless reference to it on his calendar entry.

(According to Wiki, the lightning strikes raised concern in Houston whether the return vehicle’s parachutes would deploy as designed. Rather than worry the astronauts, NASA kept their worries to themselves for the length of the mission. Everything worked out fine in the end.)

Apparently there was not much to report space-wise on Nov. 15, with the astronauts still four days away from landing on the moon.

So, my grandpa turned his attention from the cosmos to his backyard and got his hands dirty tackling a bunch of quintessentially mid-November chores — raking up leaves, winterizing the mower, and either putting up or taking down the storm sash.

(I am not sure exactly what the “storm sash” was, but it sounds like something seasonal. Not sure what my grandpa had to do to his cellar door, either. But whatever it was, it didn’t get done on Nov. 15.)

In the end, the Apollo 12 mission went so well as to be largely forgettable in retrospect.

In one of the mission’s more memorable details, the wrist “cuff checklists” worn by astronauts Alan Bean and Pete Conrad were spiced up by their NASA colleagues with Snoopy-style cartoons and pictures of Playboy playmates (yes, the latter link is NSFW.)

This suggests a certain confidence, comfort and chumminess that was largely borne out by Apollo 12’s success.

The near-disaster of Apollo 13 must have refocused everyone at NASA and knocked the jokes out of the playbook. But in November 1969, that was still five months away and unforeseen, and the business of space was running as smoothly as the business of General Motors.

All of which no doubt came as welcome news to my grandpa, back in Connecticut tending to the health of his own little patch of earth.

Hopefully he got all the leaves off the ground on the 15th. Because, by the time the astronauts splashed down on Nov. 24, a different earthly concern — snow — had entered the equation.

November 24, 1969.

November 24, 1969.


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We’ve already established that my grandpa was a space buff, chronicling American missions on his calendar throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

There’s a Cape Canaveral-sized hole in his calendar in April 1970, when the Apollo 13 mission narrowly escaped becoming America’s first outer-space catastrophe.

Given that the fate of Apollo 13 made worldwide headlines, I am surprised that my grandfather made no written reference to it.

Maybe he was too absorbed in it to write anything down. Or maybe he didn’t write anything down in the middle of the ordeal because he was afraid of how it would end, and he didn’t look forward to having to record the worst-case.

In any event, the three men aboard Apollo 13 made it home safely.

And the next time Americans went into space, about 10 months later, my grandpa was back on board with them, so to speak.

February 5 and 6, 1971.

February 5 and 6, 1971. It was not sleeting and raining on the moon, presumably.

Maybe space buffs can rattle off facts about the Apollo 14 mission off the tops of their heads.

But I don’t know much about it myself, except that the mission went more or less as planned, and America presumably breathed a big sigh of relief.

(There were a few potentially significant mechanical issues, but the astronauts and Mission Control managed to iron them out together; I don’t know to what extent they were publicized at the time.)

Wiki tells me that Apollo 14 was captained by Sixties space pioneer Alan Shepard, who became the only one of the original Mercury astronauts to walk (and play golf) on the moon.

I also learned that I’ve been in the same parking lot with a memento of the mission. Astronaut Stuart Roosa brought hundreds of seeds along, which sprouted back on Earth into what were called “Moon trees.”

One of the Moon trees was planted outside the police station of a little town in Massachusetts where I used to live. Presumably, barring lightning strikes or other catastrophe, it is there to this day.

Apollo 14 returned to Earth without incident on Feb. 9, and my grandpa was glad to record its arrival.

After the near-tragedy of the previous flight, it was — as the British say — a restoration of normal service.

February 9, 1971.

February 9, 1971.

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“Bob, this is Gene and I’m on the surface. And as I take these last steps from the surface back home — for some time to come but, we believe, not too long into the future — I’d like to just list what I believe history will record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return — with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

– Eugene Cernan, astronaut, Dec. 17, 1972

You could question whether America’s challenge of December 1972 has truly forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. (Or today, for that matter.)

And clearly, that business about returning with peace and hope for all mankind hasn’t happened either. It was known at the time that Apollo 17 would be the last flight in the series; perhaps it was not as firmly established that America would never again go to the moon.

I do not think my grandpa was quite as skeptical as I am when he tracked the world’s final manned lunar mission as it happened. I imagine he was caught up in the technological spectacle of the endeavour, just as much as he had been during the previous decade-plus worth of American space flights.

How do I know? Well, it showed up on his calendar. And if it showed up on his calendar, he was interested:

December 6 and 7, 1972. Launch was, indeed, delayed for several hours. I wonder if it was televised, and if my grandpa stayed up to watch?


December 19, 1972. Splashdown.

If there had been open access to Soviet space flight information during that same period, I wonder whether my grandpa would have been just as interested.

I suspect he would have wanted to check out what they were doing and how they were doing it. His interest as a tinkerer, a mechanics buff and an admirer of science would have trumped his patriotism, I’m guessing.

(But he wouldn’t have put Soyuz on his calendar.)

Getting back to Apollo 17: The mission appears in retrospect to have been smoothly run and successful — the fourth straight routine mission (if a trip to the moon can be considered routine) after the near-calamity that was Apollo 13.

I wonder if my grandpa thought that maybe we should send a couple more rockets up there, now that we’d gotten the whole process down to a science.

Or, as a retiree on a fixed income, maybe he thought that it was high time the U.S. stopped spending his tax money on Apollo missions. (Wikipedia quotes a NASA estimate that the entire Apollo program cost $170 billion in 2005 dollars.)

I bet the former was much more likely than the latter. If NASA had sent eight more missions to the moon, I imagine he would have followed all of them.

I used to know that feeling: I remember sitting in my second-grade classroom, watching the first space shuttle landing, and being pretty thrilled by it. Maybe I’ve just gotten older and less excitable, but it feels like a long time since an American space mission was the sort of unifying event that would inspire people to write on their personal calendars.

Maybe our problems on Earth have come to be so large that they dwarf the shared thrill of a successful space mission. Were we to send a man (or better yet, a woman) to the moon tomorrow, I probably would be one of those people on Twitter who carps about how many schoolbooks we could have bought with the cost of the mission.

What would really be fun would be to go back to December 1972 and talk over both sides with my grandpa … almost 40-year-old me with a can of Rheingold or Ballantine, he with a juice glass of the same, and the two of us comparing our opinions on America’s massive space investment over a postprandial plate of cookies at the dinner table.

If the money we spend on space exploration helps us figure out time travel, then I’ll get excited.

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One thing my grandpa never got to enjoy — and he would have, as a space buff and a photography hobbyist — was open access to the entire photographic record of individual NASA space missions. I can see him getting lost for an hour or so in contemplation of the visual record of Apollo 17.

Today, NASA’s website offers an extensive image library from the mission, as well as other space missions. (The agency also offers written transcripts of Earth-to-space communications, though those tend not to be all that exciting for the most part.)

I really haven’t had much of interest to say in today’s post, so I’ll share a couple of worthwhile shots from the Apollo 17 mission so you’ll feel it was worth your while to stop by.

All photos below are reproduced courtesy of NASA, under the terms laid out here.

Eugene Cernan’s wrist notebook, showing his notes for some of his other remarks prior to leaving the Moon.

The capsule recovery team waits for pickup as the USS Ticonderoga looms in the distance. Note how battered the exterior of the capsule looks.

Eugene Cernan is helped out of the capsule and into the recovery raft. Imagine being close enough to take that picture.

Astronaut Ron Evans holds a packet of soup.

Astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, looking every inch the space cowboy in his shades.

Jack Schmitt and the flag on the lunar surface, with Earth visible in the distance. My grandfather is not shown, but he might have been watching.

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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.

May 15-16, 1963

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.

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