I just watched the Space X Dragon capsule splash down after returning from its maiden flight to the International Space Station. And, while I can’t say exactly, that probably brought my total time watching space missions to somewhere in the hundreds of hours, if not more.
I have been interested in manned space flight since the beginning in the 1960s. I remember watching Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and the rest as they took off in their Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spaceships. Then I moved on to the Space Shuttle and now Space X.
I remember getting up in the middle of the night to watch launches or landings, and suffering through delay after delay, but never wanting to give up and leave the TV, lest I miss something important.
There were plenty of ups and downs in the space program, no pun intended.
I’ll never forget the Apollo 1 fire on Jan. 27, 1967 that killed NASA astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Ed White II, when a blaze erupted in the command module during preflight testing at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex 34 in Florida.
Then there was the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, which took the lives of the first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, as well as astronauts Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik.
Then of course no one will ever forget the re-entry breakup of the shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, which killed astronauts Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
And the Apollo 11 catastrophe still sends shivers down my spine. On its way to the moon with Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert on board, an explosion left the ship nearly fatally crippled. The nation held its breath as it limped back to earth and successfully landed with all crew members safe and sound. What a testament to NASA and its staff.
I watched them all, and still remember.
While the losses were tragic, the space program’s successes certainly made their mark on humanity. NASA has successfully launched more than 200 crewed flights since its creation in 1958. That alone is worth noting.
It took thousands of scientists, medical personnel and engineers to accomplish that.
The most remarkable one of all, though, was Apollo 11, which carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Aldrin followed, while Collins sat alone in the capsule as it orbited the moon, no less a hero.
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said after jumping onto the moon’s surface from the LEM or Lunar Landing Module.
I remember sitting in front of our black-and-white TV, goose bumps sprouting, as he said that. (In fact, I just got some as I wrote this.)
And I’ve been lucky enough to have had some personal experiences of my own with the space program. In the mid ‘80s, on a visit to some relatives in Florida, my wife, daughter and I got to see the launch of a space shuttle.
I will never forget it. And there are those goose bumps again. The roar of the engines and the accompanying vibrations will live with me forever. You really don’t get a sense of the speed with which a spacecraft travels until you see it up close. I’ve never had an experience like it since.
I also had the opportunity to meet a couple of astronauts, although once such occurrence didn’t go so well. At one time in my career as a journalist, I was the editor of a lifestyle magazine in Palm Springs that featured celebrities.
One of my reporters got to interview Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell, and, naturally, I had to be there. During a break in their conversation, I cut in and asked what turned out to be the stupidest question of my life. Since he had circled the moon, I asked him what it was like on the dark side.
I really pushed a button. He got very upset and yelled … actually yelled … that it is not dark on the other side of the moon, and told me in no uncertain terms that I should have said “far” side of the moon.
After a grimace from my reporter, that was my last question for him.
Fortunately my next experience with an astronaut went a bit better.
Later in my career, when I was doing PR for my local school district, the Beaumont Unified School District, I got to meet and spend a couple of days with NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell, now Tracy Caldwell-Dyson, who was a Beaumont High School graduate.
She had stayed friendly with one her classmates, who, at the time was a principal in the district. This friend asked Tracy to visit some of the schools the next time she was home for a visit, and she agreed.
When asked if I wanted to meet her, I probably said, “What are you kiddin’ me?” Of course I would.
I remember her being very gracious and friendly with the kids and teachers. And she never yelled at me.
I also remember wanting to ask her something I thought she’d never been asked before, so when it came time to sit down for a one-on-one interview, I tried my best to act professionally and not like a giddy fan. I must have carried it off, because it seemed to go OK.
So after asking all the obligatory questions, I asked her what it smelled like on the International Space Station, where she had spent a few weeks. I figured with all those people cooped in a relatively small space, it must have had its own unique aroma and she’d say something interesting.
But no. She just shrugged and said it smelled fine. I really didn’t believe her, but what could I do. I took my disappointment and carried on.
So now I’m retired and back to just watching space stuff on TV. And with the United States back in the business of sending people to space without having to rely on the Russians, I’m as excited as ever.
Southern California-based Space X is now NASA’s vehicle provider, which is a good thing. The mission that just ended, I hope, will result in a renewed emphasis on — and excitement about — space travel in this country.
Before the Dragon capsule took off, the two astronauts it carried, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, said they had given the vehicle it’s own unique name, but would not reveal what it was until the trip was underway. The name they gave the spacecraft was Endeavor, which was not very original because there have been others with the same name.
If they’d have asked me, I was ready with a much better name. Since it was the Dragon Capsule, I figured what better name than Puff? You know, as in Puff the Magic Dragon?
Oh well. Another disappointment, but not enough to quell my interest in space travel. Life, and the missions, must go on.