Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Space Race.

Memories can be fuzzy things.  Especially, when the event happened so long ago.  There are those certain things that are as clear as the day they happened.  I have tracked my early memories based on the events of history.  One of these early memories took place when I was 4 years old.

It is significant because I shared that moment with my Dad. His excitement was a key to the memory..the event added to it.  A man, Alan B. Shepard, was about to be launched into space.  I remember the blurry image on a small black and white T.V.  I was bitten by the space bug.

I didn't just watch it on television, I played with it in the backyard.  My Dad helped me launch our first rocket.  It was a baking soda and vinegar rocket. I marveled as it buzzed to untold heights.  In fact, it probably only flew 20 feet, but it was amazing.

I remember listening to the beeps and tweets of passing satellites on a radio my Dad had built. I had no idea what it was saying, I just knew it was talking to me from space.  I watched every flight of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.  I hung on every update, and imagined myself up there with them.

My Dad had a Ford Ltd Station Wagon. The one with the flip up seat in the back.  I would climb into that seat and imagine I was docking to the Lunar Excursion Module, as my Dad hooked up the old Cox tent camper.

I drank Tang because that is what Astronauts drank. I ate those disgusting breakfast sticks, because that is what Astronauts ate.

When I got older my Dad, Brother, and I would build better models using solid fuel engines.  These rockets would take off quickly and fly as high as a few thousand feet.  We worked at making our recovery systems better by cutting holes in the parachutes. We built our own launch pads with plywood, wire coat hangers, and 6 volt flashlight batteries. Each of us would build our own rockets then fire them as a family.

There were four rockets that I was most proud of.  The first was my attempt at multi stage rockets...the Black Widow was a two stage rocket that could reach 2000 feet.  It took me several attempts to get the second stage to light correctly...when it finally did it was attacked by a crow and destroyed during the recovery stage.

The second was a glider recovered rocket.  I painted it a super ugly dark blue.  During its maiden flight it disintegrated shortly after clearing the launch pad...too much engine...not enough rocket was to blame.  After some technical adjustments it flew well, sadly during recovery it landed high in an elm tree.  The tree, with the help of the wind destroyed it beyond recognition.

The third was the Eggscrambler. It had a clear payload area that could take and egg or other small creatures for a flight.  Its also introduced multiple engines in a single stage.  The trick was getting all three engines to fire at the same time.  We tried connecting them in parallel and in series circuits...upping the power to a 12 volt car battery.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.  As you might imagine we were happy when it worked, often amazed at the outcome when it didn't.

The fourth was the greatest challenge of all.  The Saturn V. This was a three foot tall, multi-engine, multi-stage rocket.  The First Stage consisted of 5 engines and the second stage consisted of 3 engines.  The rocket was a very detailed model, and because it was so heavy would only reach just a few hundred feet.

It took my Dad, Brother, and I weeks to complete the model.  Many of our early launch attempts were complete failures with only 1 or 2 of the engines lighting. We had tried launching that rocket so many times, that my brother and I never expected it to fly.

One day my Dad said he had an idea to get it off the ground.  Unfortunately, I had a very bad cold and my Mom would not allow me outside.  So I watched as my Dad set the rocket up in the field across the road.  We always followed the same launch procedure.

10.  Check to see that there are no low flying aircraft in the area.
9. Check the to insure that all batteries are connected and working.
8. Check the wind to make sure you are not down range of the rocket when it clears the guide wire.
7. Check for people down range.
6. Check for birds
5. Check again for aircraft.
2. Energize the batteries.
1. Ignite the engines.

The engines lit..all of them..and the white smoke they generated quickly became a huge cloud.  The rocket began to move!

At first it was very slow..too slow from what I could tell.  It cleared the guide wire and hovered for a moment..then...the second stage ignited..just a bit early. The shock of the second stage igniting blew the the recovery system out and the parachutes deployed.

For the next few seconds my Dad and that rocket were locked in a death dance.  It chasing him..and in the confusion...him chasing it. When it was all done, the second stage had suffered severe damage.  The rocket sat as a nice looking charred model for a few months, before being relegated to the bone yard.

When I was about 12 or so we took the trip of a lifetime..for me anyway.  My uncle was stationed at MacDill  Air Force Base...and we were going to take a trip to visit him. Along the way we visited my other Uncle who worked at Warner Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia.  That is where I saw my first C-130.  An aircraft I would become familiar with in another post.

The trip to Florida would not be wasted..we saw St. Augustine, Daytona, and my nirvana...Kennedy Space Center.  I know I must have walked around with my mouth agape...seeing the Saturn V transporter, the building where everything was put together, the history, and the sadness of the pad in which Grissom, White, and Chaffe died. We would later visit Disney Land, but I barely remember that.  Kennedy Space could you beat that?

I have followed every space mission since I was a child...As an Adult stationed at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico I was fascinated by the stories that a physicist there told me about his contribution to space flight.  Later, after receiving my degree in computers, one of my first customers was a classmate of the Rocket Boys in West Virginia.  He had to force me to take his money.  His stories were always fascinating.

The space program has contributed untold advancements in engineering, medicine, energy, and management.  I am very saddened at the possible loss of this marvelous addition to the education of America. I am hopeful that this is but a brief pause. Our space program is a National Treasure that must be preserved.

I would like to say thanks to Space Coast Conservative[dot]com for inspiring me to tell this story.

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