We don’t go on vacations very often but we had an opportunity to take a summer road trip through the Southeast a number of years ago and we thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. To prepare for the trip, my wife and daughter mapped out our entire agenda on an Excel spreadsheet. They wrote down all the sights we wanted to see, calculated the mileage and driving time between each stop, logged the hotel information and printed maps for each area. They actually enjoyed doing it. It was quite impressive. All I had to do was load the vehicle and start driving.
Since we were going through Houston I just had to stop and see the Johnson Space Center. I’ve wanted to see this place for a long time. I’ve always been interested in technology, jet aircraft and NASA so I couldn’t pass this up. I may reminisce a bit and I may get a little techno nerdy at times but hang in there with me.
As a child living in Southern California, it seemed like I was surrounded by amazing things. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it seemed to me the world was full of discovery and adventure in those days. Hero’s, dreams and possibilities abounded. There were times I could watch a rocket traveling through the atmosphere at dusk after it launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. It left an amazing trail of color. I’m guessing they were testing the Minuteman but at the time, the details didn’t matter to me as much as the result. There would usually be a news report later that night commenting on the unusual light in the sky.
It might seem odd that it would be a big deal, but back then even though rocket launches did occur; they weren’t so common they were commonplace. There was also a general worry we could be attacked by communist governments and weird things in the sky freaked people out. Some of you may remember we had atomic bomb drills in elementary schools. The knowledge we could be nuked is a cold reality for a child to shoulder. If we were in class for an atomic bomb drill, we’d duck and cover under our desks as if that could prevent serious harm from a nuclear detonation. I have an old book my parents purchased that explains how to survive an atomic bomb. One of the pictures shows a man standing outside, tipping the brim of his hat downward to shield his face and eyes from the detonation. Yep, that would do it.
One of the other things that captivated my imagination were the Blue Angels. Occasionally they flew over our home during precision performances during the early 1960’s. I could be wrong but I think they were flying the F11F-1 Tiger. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture from the 60’s but the picture below is from 1983 at El Toro, California, when they were flying A4F Skyhawks. Not long after, they started flying the F/A18 Hornet. I saw those in action at Miramar around the time the movie Top Gun came out. It was an amazing show. If you haven’t seen an air show I highly recommend you see at least one.
Besides observing rockets and fighters, I followed stories about NASA as well. I was a little young to keep track of the entire NASA Mercury program though I’m sure my parents did. I followed the Gemini and Apollo missions. Watching the Apollo 11 landing on the moon was amazing. I witnessed a truly historic event on TV as it unfolded. When Apollo 13 had their catastrophic malfunction, I watched the reports on TV and read as much as I could about the ordeal. I was relieved and jubilant when they returned home safely. I still have an original newspaper clipping of the Apollo 13 mission packed away somewhere. I also have several other articles including this one of the Apollo 15 lunar launch dated August 2, 1971.
My wife and I were lucky to go to DC with some friends of ours recently and a few of us went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I took a photo of the door of an Apollo command module. It seems like an awful lot of gadgetry for a door but I suppose you’d want to make sure it was fail-safe. It would be a real drag if the seals leaked or it accidentally popped open while you were in space drinking a little Tang after lunch.
We made it to the Space Center Houston and it was well worth the trip but I was initially a little disappointed. Maybe it was because I had built it up in my mind or partly because the most prominent display right inside the entrance was a massive jungle gym covered with kids who were apparently hyped up on soda. After I fought my way passed the gym I was able to see a few displays.
I eventually got so caught up in the place I forgot to take any pictures. We were impressed with the collection of astronaut space suits. Of course, we were blown away by the display of a Saturn V rocket laid on its side. Seeing the Saturn engine unit alone was worth the trip. The Apollo command module seemed kind of small in comparison to what had lifted it into space. How could three men sit in that tiny capsule for so long? It bothers me to sit in an airplane seat for a couple of hours.
I was just as interested to see the Mercury and Gemini rockets even though the center didn’t seem to treat them with the same affection as Saturn V. I would have liked to see them laying next to Saturn V for comparison. Mercury was almost the size of a rocket you could buy at a hobby store. Gemini wasn’t too much larger. I may be exaggerating slightly.
The Space Center tour guide also took us into the viewing level of Mission Control. Our guide talked to us about the center and made a point to mention the photographs of the Challenger and Columbia astronauts hanging on the wall in Mission Control. It really struck a chord with me when he said they put astronauts photographs on the wall when astronauts are on mission. They only take them down when the astronauts return home. When the gravity of what he said hit me, I found myself choking up a bit and started thinking about what had happened to the shuttles.
I vividly remember standing in the parking lot of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station when a colleague, who has since passed away, told me the news about the Challenger Space Shuttle. I was stunned. My mind was trying to process what he just said. The news shook us up. Later when I got home and saw the news footage of the explosion and the emotions of Christa McAuliffe’s mother during the launch, I felt terrible for her. I still have the image of her reaction in my mind. Years later when Columbia broke apart over Texas I was watching the re-entry on TV. Mission control center personnel kept trying to contact Columbia over and over. It was already apparent from the camera footage they were gone but we were all hoping it wasn’t true. I was shocked, saddened and disheartened when the news was announced for each shuttle.
I can’t help but think about the association of the NASA space program with President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy presented vigor and energetic vision, as well as a strong voice for the space program. It seemed to me everyone was captivated by the technology, great achievements and positive accomplishments of the skilled, dedicated and brave individuals in the space program even if not everyone saw the point. When President Kennedy was killed, the entire world seemed to pause. I was in the second grade and can still remember going home early that day and seeing the U.S. flag flying at half mast. Because Kennedy was so clearly associated with the space program it almost seemed as if the people at NASA were the ones who could carry President Kennedy’s spirit on into the heavens. In a manner of speaking, they did. The manned space program was one example of the heights to which each of us could aspire. Something about it glittered.
Today, there are times I wonder if we’ve fallen back to Earth. Has the strife that plagues our world caused us to lose our luster? When I start feeling this way I look for things that glitter.
I remember seeing it when I visited Marbridge, a local foundation that cares for special needs adults. I was taking a tour through the facility when I stopped and talked briefly with residents who were making stuffed animals for children in the local hospital who were fighting cancer. The art teacher asked them why they help others and they all chimed in at the same time exclaiming, “Because We Can!” I was blown away. Their enthusiasm and commitment, in spite of any disabilities, brought tears to my eyes. I realized how inadequately I give compared to these individuals who give so freely. I thought, my son could live in this place. He could have a good life here.
I see things that glitter in my son when he selflessly reaches out to lend a hand or when anyone commits an act of service for another. I look for that special light in people more than I used to. I find the light. I find it everywhere. There are people who toil silently to make this world a better place and we would all be less without them. I realize there are heroes who live quietly among us and the world is still filled with dreams and possibilities.
Maybe, I’m reminded of that simply by walking through a Space Center and realizing I’ve momentarily forgotten what the impossible looks like.
~ Half Baked Person photos and story copyright © KH Amundsen, Kirk Amundsen 2011