Saturday, March 5, 2011

NASA has me, again.

Things I wish that I'd saved: Everything in my mid-70s closet. My baseball cards. And, most of all, my carefully-glued model of the Lunar Lander.

I was a moonshot kid. When I was ten years old, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin perched on top of a 363-foot cylinder of explosive fuel and were shot into the void of space, pointing toward a rendezvous a quarter of a million miles away. Most people of my vintage can easily recall the memory of standing, transfixed, as the grainy black and white images flickered across the TV screen. My family was assembled in our southern Oregon living room, holding our collective breath as Neil Armstrong descended the flimsy LEM ladder. 30 feet away, in my bedroom, the walls were covered with space posters. My models of the Saturn V, the command module, the LEM crowded my desk.

Armstrong later recalled that he really wasn't sure what was waiting for him on the surface. There was some speculation that his boot would sink much farther into the powdery gray lunar surface than it actually did.

As I write this, four decades later, I seem to be cycling back into a fascination with that time. The more complicated things get here on earth, the more I yearn for tales of simple heroism. Somewhere above our heads, people are living in earth orbit in the International Space Station. We can load a shuttle with astronauts and their cargo and, like an everyday commercial airline flight, they can guide their craft to any destination. Amazing, in its own right, but somehow the Gemini-Mercury-Apollo period has me in a much tighter grip. Something about the shuttle program and the space station seems vaguely soulless to me - a triumph of technology, maybe, a bloodless version of the white-knuckle bravado that propelled men into space in the first place.

When the Apollo 13 astronauts were returning to earth after a wire shorted out in an oxygen tank and nearly killed them on the spot, they were hoarding electrical power to keep their crippled ship limping home. Trajectory was critical - had they misjudged and gone in too shallow, they'd skip off the earth's atmosphere and be inexorably pulled into the sun, long after the stranded astronauts had perished from lack of air. Too deep, and they'd plunge toward earth like a runaway roller coaster car, burning up on reentry and making true the predictions of many who waited on the ground. How lonely and final, death in space.

The computers were shut off, as they drew power that was needed for later. All they had to rely on were optical sighting instruments, not much more advanced than those Copernicus would have used. They kept their ship intact and themselves alive by lining up the edge of the earth with a cross-hatch in the sight... and by calculating the exact time that the moon swung out of view behind their beautiful blue home planet.

The Apollo astronauts are in their 70s now. I've thought, so many times, of trying to express my admiration for them in letters - to tell them what it meant to me to see them venture into the void and return. But, really, there's nothing I could say to them that they didn't already know, and that they haven't already heard over and over again ever since they came home.

This will have to do.

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