Thursday, July 21, 2005

Apollo 11

It was 36 years (and one day) ago that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I was going to write about this yesterday. But I got busy and it slipped my mind. But I should be excused this minor slip. Apollo 11 landed at 4:17 PM Eastern Daylight Time. But Neil Armstrong didn't actually walk on the moon until six and a half hours later - at 10:56 EDT. At that time in was 2:56 UTC in Greenwich England on July 21st. So in some parts of the world the first walk on the moon happened on July 21.

I was at my grandmother's house in Madison SD on July 20, 1969. I was 11 years old.

I spent most of my days at that age climbing in the trees in my Grandmother's yard. I remember my Grandmother coming out in the middle of the afternoon (around 2:30 PM) and telling me that Apollo 11 had landed on the moon. I was impressed, but also busy. I was trying to get myself across a 10 foot gap between two trees without touching the ground, so I didn't have too much time to pay much attention.

Later that night we all settled down in front of Grandma's TV to watch Neil Armstrong's moon walk. For a kid of 11 it seemed like things took forever. We spent a couple hours listening to Walter Cronkite telling us all about the lunar landing. There wasn't any video to see until Commander Armstrong moved out onto the ladder and activated the camera that was mounted on the side of the Eagle.

Waiting to see pictures from the moon about drove me nuts. After all I had all the patience of an eleven year old. I drove my Grandparents to distraction with endless questions. Finally we got to see the images from the camera mounted on the side of Eagle and watch Commander Neil Armstrong take that one small step. My grandparents and I sat and watched together for a couple hours. Once Buzz Aldrin finally got onto the lunar surface I got very interested. I watched these two men hop around like bunnies. I sat entranced, trying by the sheer force of my will, to cause one of the astronauts to trip and fall. I wanted to see how far he would bounce. Apparently I spent too much time believing what I saw in the cartoons.

Years later I realized how silly that desire was. In retrospect I'm glad I was disappointed. The potential damage to one of the astronauts from a fall would have been very traumatic to watch.

Once the moon walk was over I grabbed Grandpa's binoculars and headed out to the back yard. I spent several minutes peering at the moon trying to see the flag that Armstrong and Aldrin had placed there. I was sure that if I looked hard enough I could see it. Going back into the house that night without seeing the American Flag on the moon was a disappointment that almost overwhelmed the excitement of seeing the Armstrong's luner excursion.

At the age of 11 I didn't really understand the importance of that lunar landing. But I was hooked on the space program. I watched every rocket launch and every subsequent moon landing. I watched every shuttle launch. I stood in the hallway at work, watching through the door of the audio/video closet connected to the conference room, with tears running down my face as we watched Challenger explode during launch.

I have been down to Edwards AFB to watch the shuttle land.

I sat in the living room watching debris of the Columbia streak across the sky as more brave asrtonauts gave their lives in the exploration of space.

I didn't get to see anything about the Apollo 17 mission. By 1972 the news media considered the space program to be old news and the coverage was limited to a few articles in the newspaper and a brief mention of the evening news.

By 1972 I had decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. But that was the same year that I was diagnosed as near-sighted and my childish dreams of space disappeared behind a pair of wireframe glasses.

Instead I settled for a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I knew that I would never be accepted into the military as a pilot. So I took a clue from Harrison Schmitt on Apollo 17. Schmitt was the first and only scientist to walk on the moon.

I figured that engineering was my only hope to get into space.

Unfortunately during my high school and college days I got to watch the death of the United States Space Program. So that by the time I graduated from college there was almost no space program to join.

NASA still existed but it was an organization that was more interested in maintaining it's funding than they were in putting men back on the moon.

So I ended up working for a Department of Energy Contractor in Texas. From there I ended up at China Lake were I went from dreams of being an astronaut to being a rocket scientist.

My entire adult life I have been interested in space and space technology. For a variety of reasons I was never able to work for the space programs. But I have never lost my interest in space. It all goes back to that hot humid night in Madison SD when Astronaut Neil Armstrong traveled to the moon and then reached all the way back to earth and touched my soul.

I had given up on my dreams of getting into space. But watching Spaceship One last year fly out of Mojave and into space rekindled those dreams. Not so much for me, but for my children, or grandchildren. I just hope that someday a brave soul will reach out from the blackness of space and touch their souls the way Astronaut Armstrong touched mine.

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