Friday, July 8, 2011

I'll never forget.

Growing up, I always heard the comment, "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?"  For me, that's simple.  I wasn't even born yet.  But this morning I watched, at work streaming over the Interwebs, the final launch of America's Space Shuttle program.  And I remember all the important times and where I was.
  • August 12, 1977 - I was 8 years old.  Back then Star Wars and everything space was the hot topic.  I remember plain as day sitting in my bedroom in Detroit trying to run out the clock to watch the whole test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.  I remember watching in amazement as the Enterprise detached from the 747 and flew on it's own.  At the same time, my Mom and sisters were after me to hurry up and get my shoes on.  They wanted to go shopping at TJ Max in Farmington.  I won out in the end ;-)
  • April 21, 1981 - Now 11, my love for all things space never stopped growing.  Early signs of geekdom, I guess.  It was a sunny Sunday morning.  As was our tradition in our house, Sunday mornings meant going to Mass.  So it was likely before then that I was sitting in the living room with my Dad watching history.  I remember bouncing off the wall with excitment watching the countdown.   And then watching it fly.  With it, went my dreams and imagination.  Must have been what it was like for my older brother as he got to watch a lot of the NASA launches from the late 60's.  But also, it's one of those moments I hold dear as something I did with my Dad.
  • Tuesday, January 28, 1986 - Not a fun day to remember.  I was in 11th grade and 16 at the time.  My buddy Joe and I were walking into our Electronics class in high school when we heard the rumors start to fly.  The Shuttle blew up.  Then one of our classmates came running into the classroom with keys to the backroom that had a TV.  I remember watching, pretty sure it was Peter Jennings, as they showed the scenes over and over of the tragedy.  The days that followed also weighed heavy on our nation.  At the memorial service that was held a few days then, then President Regan spoke the following phrase. "Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”  That man sure did know how to deliver words.
  • September 29, 1988 - The day we returned to space.  I was in college at the time.  In my photography class to be exact.  Me and another student hijacked the class so we all could listen to the launch of STS-26 on the radio. Our teacher was ticked.  We didn't care.  We didn't like her, much.
Of course, time passes.  People get older, priorities change as does out perspective on the world.  The shuttle launches continued, without much fanfare.  And for the most part, went unnoticed to most.  But then...
  • February 1, 2003 - It was the day after I got back from my first Lotusphere.  I was beat.  It was early Saturday morning and all I wanted to do was sleep.  But, Sparky the wonder mutt had other ideas.  He had to go out...NOW.  So, I woke up and stumbled out to the living room and the back door to let him out.  At the time, Molly's room was adjacent to there and she couldn't sleep without the TV and lights on in the living room.  As I made my way to the door I noticed something was going on on the TV.  It took my groggy self several minutes to realize just what was going on.  Another Shuttle crew did not make it back.  I remember feeling that same lump in my gut that I had in 1986.  Now an adult, thinking how their families must be feeling right now.  They were all waiting the shuttles return.  Was just a sad, sad day.
And finally, the last stop along the journey in Andy's psyche.
  • Today.  July 8, 2011 - The last tango in the sky.  Now, times have changed.  Instead of have just 3 networks to choose from to watch something, you have several.  But at work, you also have the Internet.  Another change, that 7 year old is now 42.  Old and wise or something.  Sitting in my cube this morning, I began to reminisce of all of the above.  Mind you, there is a policy against streaming....but...just this  I couldn't miss it.  And I didn't.  After a brief hold, away she flew.  Once more reaching towards the heavens.

My kids never really got into the space program.  Seems like to a lot of kids these days that just isn't a priority.  Kind of sad.  I hope, at some point, NASA realizes that our future is out there and get's back on track to getting us into space.  I have often said that we need another Kennedy to make that challenge like he did getting us to the moon.  Perhaps one day, someone will.  For now, we just sit back and hope that the Atlantis grew makes it home safe.  
And thus closes another chapter of life.


Mitch Cohen said...

Andy well written, and being the same age I share many of the same memories.

I think the Shuttle is hard for kids to understand, they probably see it as a routine thing (which in some ways it is, but not in the way it was originally envisioned to be routine).

While I have no actual memories of the Apollo program I have read and watched practically whatever I could get my hands on about them (as well as Mercury and Gemini) each of those programs had a very specific goal - the moon in the case of Apollo which makes them easy to understand in a historical context. The Shuttle won't be as easy it dwarfs any other program in number of flights, and had different missions over the years. From delivering satellites, the Hubble (delivering and servicing) docking with Mir, building, docking and supplying the ISS the Shuttle did it all, hard for kids to point to one thing the shuttle was built for.

Sad to see the last one launch with no plan in place for the next phase of US Manned space flight.

Jo Ann Card said...

Andy, Great Post. Since I'm just a couple of years older, I have the same memories. In 2003, Husband and 18 month old Wild Thing #1 were in Orlando. We had been told not to be frightened when the Sonic Boom happened as Columbia lands. We realized around 3 that we never heard the boom, so we turned on the TV and saw the sad news.
Wild Thing #1 did 2 reports this year about the Space Shuttle program. He's interested, but doesn't consider astronaut as a career choice. Seems odd to me. I thought being an astronaut would be cool.
If you have IMAX in your area and they are showing Hubble, so see it ! It will bring tears watching the Atlantis crew fixing hubble !

Anonymous said...

The Apollo missions inspired me growing up.

As an adult (not a grown up :-)) and visiting Cape Kennedy I went to a meet and greet with a former Apollo flight director. A lovely chap, we talked for a while. Eventually I said "You know I admire what you did very much, I always wanted to be an Astronaut" Him "Yep so did I".

Must see if I can find a photo and get his name.

Jason Hook, Commander of many space missions flown in cardboard boxes from a living room in London.

Marie said...

Growing up the 1960s, as an elementary student we spent a lot of time learning about space, the space program and the astronauts. John Glen and the other astronauts were our heroes of the day! And perhaps because I lived near Washington, DC we read a lot about the Cold War, the Soviets, Sputnik and our duty as children to learn math and science so that we as Americans could be the first to the moon and beyond. I'm sad to see the loss of encouragement to reach for the stars!

Philip Storry said...

Why should we worry that kids aren't interested in space?

I think this is a critical question. In fact, I'm wrong. The critical question for me is... What are they interested in?

I'm in my mid-30's. I grew up with space, as you did. I remember having a book on Space Camp/The Shuttle as a child, which inspired me. I wanted to go in to space. But as a Brit, my chances of getting into space were only marginally greater than my chances of being elected US President.

I found Space exciting because of the technical challenges, and - frankly - because of an illusion.

Space was hard. Damned hard. We were mere infants in space. But we had all this literature that talked about people going to Venus, Mars, Jupiter... In weeks. Or going to other star systems instantly...

That sets up a distinct disappointment when we see how much it costs to get to the moon, let alone a nearby planet like Mars. Neither our politicians nor our public, in any country in the world, seems to have the will to spend enough to send a man to Mars.

Does this mean that space exploration was a waste of time?

Certainly not. Remote probes to the moons of gas giants are teaching us a lot. Rovers on nearby rocks with atmosphere have shown us how varied planets can be. Remote space exploration has, most definitely, been worthwhile.

But even if we discount all of the science, we have three great moments that everyone should think about: The pale blue dot, the Blue Marble, and photos of the Earth from the orbit.

The pale blue dot shows us just how small and insignificant our planet is, cosmologically.
Search YouTube to hear Carl Sagan say that a lot better than I can. Really, do. It's worth it.

The Blue Marble is a closer shot of the earth - taken from an Apollo craft on its way to the moon. It shows a perfect blue-white planet suspended in darkness, and gives a hint to the thin bright edge of atmosphere. It's an iconic image of our planet, and should be breathtaking for all.

And any photo of the earth taken in orbit that includes space shows you the money shot - the razor thin band of gas that we live in.

Not only is our planet a tiny blue dot hurtling through space, but we live in a tiny fraction of that planet. A slim area in which the gas is heavy enough that we can survive.

To paraphrase Carl Sagan - and you'll recognise this from that youtube search you did earlier...
"Everything you ever did, everything everyone you know ever did, everyone you knew, everyone you ever will know, everything you ever will do, everything everyone you will ever know will do... Happens in that razor thin strip of gas on that small blue dot."

I'm no environmentalist. I don't believe that we should exert huge effort to save species that were already dying, or that we should deny progress because it may harm a finely balanced system we barely understand...

But I do think that the space race left us a gift. A boon.

If the next generation has no interest in space, then we must hope that their interest is in that razor thin strip in which we live.

That they care about the impact we have as we live. Not just on the plants and landscape, but on the animals and the people.

That razor thin strip is all we have. The limits we hit in the space race confirm that. But how we live in that razor thin strip is up to us.

Up to the next generation.

If that is the legacy of the space race, then I think it was money well spent.

Brad Hair said...

Terrific timeline of your experiences and memories. I too shared many of those times, and am very sad to see it all ending.

I got to see 2 different moon launches live, including the last trip back in 1972. Never was able to see a shuttle launch live, but watched more than the average bear on TV. My dad was a rocket scientist (no, really!) and in fact played a part on the team designing and testing the liquid tank (the big fat one between the two solid boosters), so I come by my interest in space honestly. I try to instill that same love of space into my own kids now.

Richard Schwartz said...

Being somewhat older, for me the whole shuttle program was rather routine from the beginning. My mom plunked me down in front of our small, black and white set to watch the Mercury flights when I was a toddler. Gemini flights took me through pre-school and the early grades, and kids' books about the space program were a staple for me in the learning-to-read phase.

I was glued to the television for every launch and every splashdown, and I was even allowed to stay home from school on a couple of occasions -- or I faked being sick -- so I could watch.

The Apollo 1 launch pad fire was one of the first real shocks that I endured in my young life. I knew all the astronauts by name and mission. They were friends I had never met. I'm sure I cried over that, though I don't quite remember. I think I've blotted out the memory.

I was in the hospital for a minor operation for Apollo 8, and my parents paid the extra fee for the television in my room, so that was where I watched their the famous Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon.

The world stopped for Apollo 11, of course. It was a Sunday, and everyone was home. It was summer, so there was no school the next day. I'm pretty sure that all we had, still, was a 19" black and white TV. Some neighbors had color sets, but we watched as a family. Besides, what did it matter? It wasn't like there was going to be a lot of color on the moon, and I think their camera was black and white anyhow. I remember thinking about the fact that my grandparents were born before the dawn of powered flight, and flying was still a rare thing -- at 8 year old I had yet to fly in an airplane even once, and neither had any of my friends -- but here we were watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, a quarter million miles away!

The most riveting of all, though, was Apollo 13. The film brings back those memories every time I see it. I knew by then, from the Apollo 1 fire, from reports of accidents in the Russian program, and from all the reading I had done, how dangerous this business was... but they got home safely! America could do anything! We could go to the moon, and we could come home even in a crippled spaceship.

When I learned that Apollo 17 was to be the last moon mission, I figured that this would be only a temporary thing; we would surely be back on track in a few years. I watched the shuttle launches at first, and then stopped. I was waiting for the next big thing.

I was at work that day in 1986, and despite the extra hoopla that was raised around sending a schoolteacher into space, and one from New Hampshire no less, I had no plans to watch. I was too busy coding... Until word started to go around. This was a huge office building, with 4500 people, and only one TV down in the cafeteria. It was probably a 19" screen. Hundreds of us gathered around that screen in sadness, then went back to work, and caught the recap on the evening news -- again and again and again, for weeks and weeks. So much for the "America can do anything" attitude. Reality set in.

In 2003 I was working at home, and the television was on a news channel, though I was not paying much attention. It was just background noise, and though I was aware that a landing was planned, it wasn't as if I went out of my way to plan to watch. It was just what was on, and I was paying only half attention until the landing didn't happen and the reports started coming in. Unlike 1986, I didn't just go back to work that day. Times were very different in the post 9-11 world, and the attitude of "America can do anything!" was long gone. It was more a question of "Can America do anything any more?"

Andrew Pollack said...

Very well written. I remember these days as well. I remember how NASA was the ultimate symbol of the future in those shuttle days.

The shuttle program became routine for many of us, incredible as that seems. We read our science fiction books where the act of leaving a planet is treated as the most mundane part of the travel and forget just how incredible that is.

I regret never getting to see a shuttle launch. I did check the schedule each year around Lotusphere, but never was able to get to one. I can only hope the US gets back into spaces in a big way quickly.

As much as I loved the shuttle program, I agree that it was time to replace it with a next generation approach. They've learned what needed to be learned with that platform. It was a flying experiment of a craft -- crazy expensive to operate, highly complex, and very hard to keep operational. In way, they are the Formula 1 of spacecraft. What we need now, is more along the lines of a good highway truck -- expensive to buy, but able to regularly haul massive loads for years at a time with fairly low maintenance time and budgets.

NASA should manage that program, but not necessarily develop it. Let private industry do that and let NASA focus on what to do with that capacity once we have it. Let NASA focus on in-space construction techniques, mining techniques, and advances in long term habitation.

Anonymous said...

Theres been some cr*p (for a european Loti) Lotusphere speakers but the two stand outs for me are easily Gene Krantz and Neil Armstrong. You could just feel the glow from the latter at 30metres away.Awesome.

ps Walter Kronkite was great too, a pleasure to hear and see him, RIP