Tag Archives: Apollo program

Feels like the first time

It’s kind of like the way we used to react to news about space launches and, frankly, it feels good to this old goat.

NASA today postponed the launch of the Artemis I rocket planned for a moon mission. We have to wait now until Friday around noon before the space agency can send the world’s largest rocket into space and toward the moon.

Yes, I am filled with anticipation that is beginning to feel as I did when my dear Mom and I waited for hours on end for the Mercury astronauts and then the Gemini astronauts to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Artemis I mission signals NASA’s return to a new space race. NASA wants to return to the moon before China sets foot on the surface. NASA administrator Bill Nelson has said he fears China could claim the entire lunar surface as Chinese territory. No can do, China.

Artemis I is meant as a test run for future manned landings on the moon, using it as a base from which NASA plans to launch manned flights to Mars. All of that news makes this one-time spaceflight junkie more anxious than I have felt in a long while.

I have supreme confidence that NASA will get Artemis I off the launch pad in due course. If not Friday, then the space agency will have to resolve the myriad issues that caused the postponement.

Americans last departed the moon 50 years ago. Every one of those Apollo launches caused my gut to tighten when the rocket engines ignited and the Saturn V missile roared off the pad.

To be sure, I am filled with anticipation of watching astronauts launching once again toward deep space travel.

I also am filled with a bit if wistfulness over Mom’s absence from this latest thrilling space adventure.


Another NASA celebrity astronaut leaves us

There once was a time when astronauts were celebrities. We knew their names. We followed their careers. We got up early to watch them blast off from the Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch pad.

Another such astronaut — and please pardon this intended pun — has left this Earth for keeps. Alan Bean died today at age 86.

He was the fourth man to walk on the moon, aboard Apollo 12 in November 1969. He made the flight to the lunar surface with the late Charles “Pete” Conrad.

Alan Bean didn’t achieve the kind of celebrity status of, say, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the seven men selected to fly in the initial Mercury missions, or most of the Gemini astronauts who came along later.

Bean was among those picked for the third group of space pioneers, the Apollo program. He joined NASA in 1963 after serving as a Navy test pilot.

My years in the Texas Panhandle makes me remind you that Bean hailed from that part of the world. He was a native of Wheeler, a tiny town east of Amarillo.

My most glaring memory of Bean’s time on the moon stems from some innovative measures he took to deploy a camera on the lunar surface. The camera wouldn’t start taking images. What did Bean do? He grabbed a hammer and beat on the device! Then it worked.

NASA doesn’t have a manned space program of its own these days. We’re sending our astronauts into space aboard Russian rockets. I’m trying to imagine how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would react to that bit of aerospace irony.

Back in the day, though, Alan Bean was among those individuals we prayed for when they rocketed into space. As President Kennedy said about the goal of sending astronauts to the moon and returning them safely, “We don’t do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard.”

Alan Bean and his colleagues just made it look easy. It wasn’t. He needed to beat on a state-of-the-art camera with a hammer to enable the device to record his history-making adventure for the rest of time.

May he now rest eternally.

2018: the year of memorable commemorations

Fifty years in a marriage is a big deal, I trust you’d agree.

It’s the “golden anniversary” of a couple’s taking vows to stay together “for as long as you both shall live.”

This year marks the 50th year since the occurrence of astonishingly important historical events. I hesitate to call many of these occurrences “anniversaries,” given that very word connotes a happy event. What we’re going to mark as this year progresses too often are much less than that.

For instance:

  • On Saturday, it will be the 50th year since President Lyndon Johnson announced the suspension of bombing in North Vietnam — and then told the nation he “would not seek, nor … accept my party’s nomination for another term as your president.”
  • This coming Wednesday marks the date 50 years ago that James Earl Ray assassinated the great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was standing on that motel balcony. I’ll have more to say about that in a few days.
  • Fifty years ago on June 5, 1968, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — my first political hero — won the California Democratic Party presidential primary, only to be gunned down in a hotel kitchen pantry. More on that tragic day will come later as well.
  • The summer of 1968 produced a bloody confrontation in Chicago as Democrats sought to nominate someone to run for the presidency. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, but the story of that event was the bloodshed in the streets.
  • The 1968 presidential election gave us Richard Nixon. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • Finally, that tumultuous year came to a close with a glimmer of hope. Three men took off atop a Saturn V rocket and roared into space, toward the moon. They orbited the moon and on Christmas Eve, Americans heard these men — Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders — read from the Book of Genesis about the creation of our world. Borman, the mission commander, then wished “all the people on the good Earth” a Merry Christmas.

I will look back on that year as a time of tumult, terror and tempest. I also will remember it as a year that ended with the perfect salutation.

Another astronaut-hero leaves us

There once was a time when Americans knew the names of all the astronauts who dared to risk it all for the cause of space exploration.

John Young was one of those men. He died this weekend at age 87. I am saddened to hear this news.

Those of us of a certain age remember waiting with bated breath while space ships launched from Florida and flew into the heavens. Those were exciting times. The nation was engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union. We won the race … eventually.

Young wasn’t among the first seven men picked to fly into space. The Mercury Seven all are gone now. The last member of that original group to pass from the scene was the great John Glenn, the former Ohio U.S. senator who flew aboard the shuttle Discovery 36 years after he became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.

John Young was among the Gemini astronauts who followed the Mercury heroes into space. Young flew twice aboard Gemini missions.

Then he got to fly to the moon twice; he orbited the moon aboard Apollo 10 and then walked on its surface as the commander of Apollo 16.

Oh, but Young wasn’t done.

NASA developed the space shuttle, a reusable ship. Young got to command the first shuttle, Columbia, on its maiden flight in 1981. He would command a second shuttle flight later before joining NASA’s administrative team before retiring in 2004.

A reporter asked Young after he flew the Columbia to a safe landing after its first flight whether he landed it manually — or whether he let the computer land it. No pilot worth a damn, Young said, would want to let a computer do something that a pilot could do by himself. That was his way of saying he had his hands “on the stick” when he guided the shuttle Columbia home.

John Young quite clearly was made of the right stuff.

NASA gets big boost to its manned program

Human beings were put on this Earth to explore.

We’ve sought new worlds on our own planet. We’ve committed to seeking new worlds “out there,” beyond our worldly confines.

To that end, Donald J. Trump has signed into law a bill that commits $19.5 billion to NASA with the aim of launching human beings into deep space, possibly for exploration of Mars.

Oh, how I want to live long enough to see that day.

The president signed the bill into law in a ceremony at the White House surrounded by astronauts and politicians. It was a jovial affair that — I’m sorry to say — got overshadowed this week by the rancorous and raucous debate over overhauling the nation’s health care insurance system.

The NASA appropriation is worth the money, the effort, the emotional capital and the anxiousness that goes along with what many of hope will transpire: a mission to Mars.

“For almost six decades, NASA’s work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on Earth,” Trump said during the signing ceremony. “I’m delighted to sign this bill. It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed, reaffirming our commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science and technology.”

As the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union reported, “The measure amends current law to add human exploration of the red planet as a goal for the agency. It supports use of the International Space Station through at least 2024, along with private sector companies partnering with NASA to deliver cargo and experiments, among other steps.”

I was among the Americans disappointed when NASA grounded its shuttle fleet. We now are sending Americans into space aboard Russian rockets. I’m trying to imagine how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would feel about that idea, given their own commitment to the space program and the defeating the then-Soviet Union in the race to the moon … which we won!

Space exploration isn’t a “frill.” It ought to be part of our political DNA. It’s already ingrained in human beings’ desire to reach beyond our grasp.

I spent many mornings with my late mother waiting for Mercury and Gemini space flights to launch. Then came the Apollo program. Our nerves were shot as we waited for astronauts to return home walking on the moon.

I grieved with the rest of the country when that launch pad fire killed those three astronauts on Apollo 1, when the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff and when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it flew over Texas on its way to landing in Florida.

I’ll be a real old man — I hope — when they send humans to Mars.

This new NASA appropriation could take us a bit farther along on that journey.

Another space hero leaves us

Eugene Cernan wasn’t among the seven original astronauts chosen to fly into space. He was, though, among the second group, the men who would fly aboard the two-person Gemini craft.

Cernan died today at age 82 and I want to say “so long” to another space hero.

I have two distinct memories of Eugene Cernan while watching the space program launch Americans into space — when we used to hold our breath waiting for their safe return.


Cernan flew aboard the Apollo 10 mission in May 1969. He and mission commander Tom Stafford separated the lunar lander from the command ship as the assembly neared the moon’s surface. The lander began gyrating violently and Cernan could be heard over the radio cursing like the sailor he was as he and Stafford fought to regain control of the craft.

Routine? Hardly. That mission was the setup for the historic Apollo 11 moon landing flight two months later.

A dozen years after that, Cernan was providing expert broadcast commentary as the space shuttle Columbia would launch on the maiden voyage of the shuttle program.

As Columbia’s rocket ignited and the ship lifted off the pad toward Earth orbit, you could hear Cernan cheer Columbia on, yelling: “Fly … fly like an eagle!”

Cernan would be the last man to leave footprints on the moon as he commanded the Apollo 17 mission. NASA canceled the rest of the program.

I long for the day when we can restore our manned space program and hope as well we can revive the pithy excitement expressed by Eugene Cernan.


Film reminds us of space race thrill

We just returned from watching a film that reminds me of the excitement of an earlier time.

I wish we could gin it up once again.

“Hidden Figures” is a story about a math genius, a computer genius and a budding engineer — all of whom are African-American women — who go to work for NASA in the early 1960s. The space race was getting revved up. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik and sent Yuri Gagarin around the world in a 100-minute orbit. The United States was still trying to figure out how to launch its Redstone rocket that would take Alan Shepard on a 15-minute up-and-down flight into space before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

They needed this young math whiz to figure out landing coordinates. Taraji P. Henson portrays Katherine Goble Johnson, the math genius who is asked to verify the coordinates where John Glenn’s spacecraft is supposed to land after completing a few orbits around the planet.

The film relays the sense of urgency we felt then. President Kennedy implored the nation to pursue space flight “not because it is easy … but because it is hard.”

It occurred to me while watching the film with my wife that our recent presidential campaign didn’t produce a single policy statement or pledge — that I heard, at least — from either Donald J. Trump or Hillary Rodham Clinton about restoring and resuming the U.S. manned space program.

The candidates were too busy insulting each other and impugning each other’s integrity to spend time talking about much of anything of substance.

I consider manned space flight a fairly substantive issue to pursue.

The United States scrapped its space shuttle program and is now hitching rides aboard Russian space ships into Earth orbit. I’m trying to imagine how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would feel about that particular turn of events.

Even during his farewell speech to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama said not a single thing about the future of space flight. I wish he would have at least offered an ode to the future of manned space exploration as something future presidents and Congresses should pursue.

The film we watched today affirms to me that this nation has it within its soul and spirit to reach farther than ever before. We’ve landed on the moon. We made space flight “routine,” through those shuttle missions, if you believe a program that took the lives of 14 astronauts should ever deserve to be considered routine.

NASA is developing a deep-space craft that is supposed to take human beings to Mars, or perhaps to one of the asteroids, or perhaps to one of Jupiter’s moons.

I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see that happen. I damn sure hope so. The film we saw today has reinvigorated my desire to see us reach beyond our comfort zone yet again.