Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Challenger, go at throttle up!"

Since I started my self-imposed “discipline” of writing a blog every two weeks, I always have in the back of my mind a concern about coming up with a suitable and interesting topic. Sometimes all it takes is a random, fortuitous thought that quickly blooms into an idea. Days like today are easy, in that I have a ready-made topic just based on today’s date. That’s just fine with me. I’ll take easy any day.

Of all my interests throughout my life, I think space exploration, and especially manned spaceflight have always taken the forefront of my interests. As with other blogs I’ve written, I want to remind everyone reading this that the events I write about are filtered through my own memories and perceptions. I try to be accurate with the facts, but I’m sure there are times where I’ll fall short on this. So, let’s see how my recollections mesh with the facts on this captivating topic. We are go for launch!

I’ll start with our dive club meeting last night. Wait, what? Dive club? What does diving have to do with space flight? Well, thanks to one of our members, Shelby Dill, our guest speaker was astronaut Terry Virts! He gave a fantastic presentation, and was gracious with his time in answering our myriad of questions. In case you are curious, there actually is a direct connection between diving and spaceflight. Astronauts train in the neutral buoyancy lab to simulate weightlessness. From Colonel Virts’ description, it sounds like a fun place to dive if not training for a mission. Of course, I wouldn’t want to take my gear into chlorinated water. Salt water, yes, chlorinated water, no!

My earliest memories are watching the Apollo flights. I remember watching TV one day as a very young child when one of the Apollo crews transferred from the aircraft carrier to the silver isolation unit. I recall watching these three guys in green suits and “gas masks” wave to the camera and go into that cool silver “camper.” So, these biological isolation garments (“BIGs”) were used through the Apollo 14 mission, so it had to be one of the earlier missions. I’m guessing it was the Apollo 14 crew, though, as I was almost six at the time. I would’ve been too young to remember the earlier missions, I think.

While I don’t specifically remember this event, my mom enjoys telling the story of how I came home from elementary school one day with a note from my teacher. Apparently I corrected her on some facet of the Apollo program. 

“Patrick, you shouldn’t correct the teacher in class.”

“But, I was right,” I countered.

“That may be so, but there’s a time and a place to do that, and the middle of class, in front of other students, is NOT the time or the place.”

So the story goes. But hey, I was right!

I wasn’t content to just sit around and watch TV about the space program. I also liked to turn flash cubes into a lunar module (LEM). Yes, I added a hyperlink to “flash cubes” because some of y’all won’t know what I’m talking about. So, to make LEM, I would take a used flash cube and remove the clear plastic cover. Then I’d carefully bend out the four expended bulbs into legs, invert them and replace the plastic cover over the bottom of the flash cube. Voila! Instant LEM! Did you ever take a close look at a Hershey’s kiss? They look a LOT like an Apollo capsule, if you ask me. Several months ago, I related the flash cube story to a colleague at work, and got called a nerd for my efforts. It was a fellow scientist who called me a nerd. How ironic. I do take it as a badge of honor, though, to be called a nerd in this case.

While I remember a little about Skylab, I remember more about the Apollo-Soyuz mission. I even built the model of Apollo-Soyuz. I wish I had it today, as I bet it would be a collector’s item. Unfortunately, after Apollo-Soyuz, it would be a long dry spell until the space shuttle started flying several years later.

Watching the space shuttle take off like a Saturn V, and land like an airplane was so cool! I was in high school when I watched John Young and Bob Crippen blast off in Columbia. I know I wasn’t the only one who was totally captured by this event. TV coverage allowed the world to watch both the launch and landing of Columbia, as well as video from on orbit. Yes, you read that correctly: “on orbit.” While the more common “in orbit” is generally acceptable, NASA people typically prefer the term “on orbit.” If the NASA people prefer “on orbit,” then who am I to use anything else?

I was in college when the Challenger accident happened. On that cold January day thirty years ago today, I sat in an English class, wondering if Challenger launched. I had to go by the library after class, so I asked one of the staff if the shuttle launched, and that’s when I learned about the accident. I hurried back to my dorm and went to the TV room, where many of us stayed glued to coverage for the next several days.

Let’s consider what else was going on in the world at the time. This will probably sound crazy today, but seriously, my first thought was that it was a terrorist event. I wondered if Muammar Gaddafi (I googled the proper spelling of his name) had anything to do with it, and if he did, there would be hell to pay in Libya! Of course, terrorism was ruled out pretty quickly, but that first day had me wondering.

Several years pass, and here I am working as a paramedic. My sister told me she met “this NASA guy” at a party and they hit it off. They eventually got married, in fact, and are still happily married today. So, I find out that not only is he a “NASA guy,” but works in mission control as well! How cool is that? To his credit, Mikey was, and still is, quite tolerant of my incessant questions. He doesn’t work in flight control now, but still does support for the ISS.

Thanks to Mikey, he was able to arrange for passes for us (way before 9/11 changed everything) to go inside the original Gemini and Apollo control rooms! Holy crap, I got to sit at the very console Gene Kranz occupied as one of the Flight Directors during Apollo 11 (and other missions). I actually met Mr. Kranz a few years later while on jury duty in Galveston. He was right behind me in line as we went through the metal detector in the court house. As I passed through the metal detector and reached for the little basket holding my keys and change, I accidentally knocked it off the shelf. Keys and change went flying everywhere. Oh, crap, now what? I was frantically trying to pick everything up so I wouldn’t hold up the line any more than necessary when I heard his distinctive voice behind me.
“Here, son, let me help you with that.”

“Ummm, thank you, Mr. Kranz!” was all I could manage at the time. It was cool to meet him, but I would prefer a different setting if I had my choice. I did get to shake his hand, though, so it wasn’t a total loss.

I really need to digitize more of my photos. I’ve got pictures of me sitting at not only the Flight Director’s console, but also EECOM (Think Apollo 13 here…), FIDO, Flight Surgeon and a few others. I had to sit at the Flight Surgeon’s console because I was a paramedic at the time and thought the “upgrade” would be fun.

Speaking of Apollo 13, it was again through Mikey that I got to meet Fred Haise and Sy Liebergot. This was an event honoring the crew and flight directors of Apollo 13. After meeting Mr. Haise, what was one of my first thoughts? My “Bacon number” was now two! Yeah, I know, I’m not an actor, so technically I wouldn’t qualify. Hey, I don’t care, my number is still two!

In just a few days, another anniversary will be here, that of the Columbia accident. On that day, 2/1/03, I was working a weekend shift in a pathology lab when my mom called. She was crying and said she had to tell me some bad news. Of course, when a family member calls, crying, with bad news, you immediately think of another family member. I’m sure my heart skipped a few beats initially, but when she explained what the news was, I was relieved that it wasn’t family. I was, of course, sad for the crew and their families. Once again, as soon as I got home, I stayed glued to the TV, watching coverage of the aftermath.

Now that the shuttle program is officially over, and the Orion Program is just getting started, I often wonder where our space program is ultimately going to go. Are we going back to the moon? What about Mars? I can only imagine what the future holds, and the optimist in me still thinks there are great things in store for our space program in the future.

One can only hope and dream.

Until next time…

Carpe cerevisi

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