Saturday, August 25, 2012

If you believe they put a man on the Moon

I was 10. Prime age for a kid utterly jazzed by the idea of humans in space. Actually my first memory of the US manned space program was probably sometime during Gemini, and my first lasting memory is of Grissom, Chaffee, and White burning up on the pad while testing the Block I Command Module on Apollo I.

I remember Wally Schirra commanding the first Apollo flight after the fire. That was nervous time, just like the first Shuttle launch after Challenger. There was no "Go with throttle-up" with Apollo, so the launch itself, the liftoff, was the first sigh of relief, and splash was good stuff too. I look back on some of my old videos of the program and marvel at how young everyone looks.

I've written before about being a kid growing up in Chicago in 1968, and what it was like to have a year go from Martin, to Bobby, to Grant Park, to the Democratic Convention, and then finally to Apollo 8, with Borman, Anders, & Lovell reading from Genesis as they circled the Moon. Early on in the mission, after taking it around the Earth a few times, Borman hit the throttle, and for the first time in human history, 3 guys escaped the effects of Earth's gravity completely. I was fucking spellbound. Agape. Agog. Somebody sent Borman a postcard after the mission that said "Thanks, you guys saved 1968." I've always liked that, even though Borman's kind of a dick. Correction, a gigantic dick.

Anyway, in the middle of my (then) beloved Cubs running away with the NL East, and in the middle of the summer of 4th grade, we loaded Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Mike Collins onto Apollo 11 and shot them at the Moon.

What can be said about Apollo 11 that hasn't already been said? A lifelong love affair between me and the space program had begun. I read voraciously. I have hours and hours and hours of video from missions starting with Mercury and carrying up to Curiosity landing a Mars a couple of weeks ago.

If I had to say which accounting is my favorite, it's easy..."Carrying the Fire" by Michael Collins. You can have Jules Bergman, and Cronkite, and all the other people who tried their best to impart what was going on with this business of putting people in space, and they get in line behind Collins.

In his book Mike speaks most (understandably) about his own role in the Apollo 11 mission, but he spends considerable time analyzing Buzz and Neil as well. In the later, re-release of Mike's book, updated, he spends the last section breaking down the roster of active and retired astros of note. He goes pretty hard at Buzz, expressing some sadness that he'd struggled with alcoholism and depression, and he makes a point both here and in the early edition of pointing out what a pain in the ass Buzz was leading up to, and to a lesser extent during the mission itself.

As soon as they lifted off, staged, and reached Earth orbit, their checklist was like somebody's idea of a Lucille Ball sketch. There was more stuff to do than time allowed, and Buzz, apparently, was going rather slowly and fucking around with unimportant stuff. Mike finally snapped at him a little bit, and then it was back to business. Buzz pulled his head out of his ass.

Neil Armstrong on the other hand was never a problem. Absolute efficiency, and a mind like a computer, according to Collins.

The stories have all been told about Neil by now, and they'll be retold in the next few days. Neil went down the ladder first because he was the commander, because the hatch was situated closer to him, and because Buzz had pissed off Deke Slayton by politicking behind the scenes and going "over Deke's head" to George Low, for a decision about who'd go down the ladder first. Deke solved that problem by calling Neil and Buzz into his office and stating "Buzz, I understand you spoke to George about the order of EVA. Okay, here's the deal...Neil goes out first. It just makes more sense, and besides, he's the commander, ...okay fellas?"

Neil sparkled on Lunar descent. He never hesitated, and took over from the computer when it became overloaded. (I think they had 16meg of memory or something.) Little under 30 seconds of descent fuel when they touched down, but Buzz says he'd bet everything he owned that Neil would have ignored that abort order and landed anyway.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

"Roger Houston, understand we're #1 on the runway." (when they were cleared to take off from the Moon and rendezvous with Collins in Columbia.)

Three pretty nice quotes, and the last one is about as close as Neil Armstrong would ever come to cracking a joke while working.

And that was it.

No more Neil Armstrong.

Oh sure, the trip home was exciting, and the parades, but for the most part as soon as Eagle lifted off from the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong's journey stopped taking place in public.

A total professional for his entire career. A classic overachiever. And, as I mentioned on Facebook, a role model for any parent who wanted to use an example to teach their kids.

If anyone in the history of mankind could have cashed in fame, and became obscenely wealthy, it was Neil Armstrong. I still sit in wonder of the guy. No self-aggrandizing and self-marketing like Al Shepard. No politics like Glenn. Neil went home to his life. He didn't become a total recluse of course, and he spent most of the 2nd part of his life doing what he truly enjoyed, teaching.

Fuckers today could learn a lesson from Neil.

In this age of media generated celebrities, stupid people making stupid money on stupid TV shows, overpaid athletes behaving badly, gajillionaire movie stars pretending like they actually deserve to be gajillionaires,...a guy like Neil Armstrong would seem like a chump for not cashing in. But that was never his way, and I'm sure he enjoyed the 2nd part of his life as mush as he did the first. And it was a life adventure that will forever be unique. He was Lewis & Clark. He was Columbus. He was first, and everybody else came after him. So far we've had 12 men walk on the Moon, and for the time being that's the number.

But some day we'll go back, some other astro will walk on the Moon, and some kid will be as amazed as I was. Thanks Neil.


switters said...

Well crap. Too cloudy here for Neil's blue moon. Gorgeous last night though.

switters said...

Hey Michael, exactly 2 years ago I was 4 weeks into a 10 week wine and beer binge that I'm still not sure how I got out of, only to go back even deeper 14 months ago. My mom and dad made it possible for me to live day to day trying to stay dry, and pretty soon, warm, where my real full time job is staying sober. Not trying to, but doing so.

People  like you help me to keep sawing and pulling nails out of old lumber and ripping flooring till it looks new and scraping and digging. You know, the fun stuff! But you also keep me talking and reading and thinking.

I'll try to pay you back someday, but for now I can keep doing. I often get tired of living in a construction site; often I find it to be a blessing.

Michael said...

Buddy, I apologize for not replying to this earlier. I have been neglecting this blog terribly ...which is to say ignoring it completely. You are a valued friend, and I'm in your corner. You already knew that, but I wanted to say it.

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