Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Space Age Has Been the Time of My Life

When Grams was born in 1954 the space age was in it's infancy. I grew up with America's space program. I was seven years old when President Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon within the decade. I remember when Alan Shepherd became the first American in space and when John Glenn became the first American to actually orbit the earth.

The names Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo were synonymous with exploration, adventure, excitement, and the advancement of America. And while we soared with accomplishment there were hardships and sacrifices along the way.

I was amazed when Edward White of Gemini 4 walked in space. That was 1965 and I was 11 years old.

I remember coming home from school in 1967 to learn that Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee had died in a fire on the launchpad while rehearsing the launch of Apollo 1. I was 12 years old.

It was Christmas in 1968 when Apollo 8 became the first flight to actually break free of the earth's orbit. They sent beautiful pictures of planet earth along with Christmas greetings on the mission that orbited the moon for the first time. I was 14 that Christmas and was especially moved to hear the crew read the beginning of the book of Genesis from space. Go here to see and hear it yourself.

Just a year later, I sat on the living room floor with family and friends and watched a live television broadcast from the moon as President Kennedy's challenge was met. There were easily a dozen people crowded around that 19" television. We watched silently with anticipation and pride. We cheered when Neil Armstrong took that monumental first step. We heard him speak the words that still ring through history "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." That was July 20, 1969 and I was 15 years old. I distinctly remember walking outside that night and looking at the moon as it hung in the night sky. It has never seemed the same to me since Neil Armstrong took those steps.

For my generation, every single launch was an event worthy of celebration and national pride. There were only three television networks back then, but all three of them preempted programming for every launch and splashdown.

In 1970, the entire nation held it's collective breath when Apollo 13 was almost lost. The mission had to be aborted when the module was damaged by an explosion. Jack Swigert reported "Houston, we've had a problem." From April 14, when the problem was reported, until April 17, when the module splashed down, we watched and listened with morbid fascination, wondering if there was going to be yet another tragedy. Their safe return was a huge accomplishment and the nation was relieved. The crew of Apollo 13 received the Presidential Medal for Freedom from President Nixon in 1970.

The idea of space exploration has never lost it's mystique for me. If there was a television nearby, I watched every launch, splashdown, and landing. We got a close up view of the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Louisiana World Exposition in 1984. As of September 2010, only 518 people had flown in space. I actually got to meet and talk with one of them. I met Astronaut (and now NASA Administrator) Charles Bolden when he came to Corpus Christi to speak at a United Way luncheon.

When researching for this post, I realized that the first space shuttle flight took place six months before my son was born. He'll be thirty years old in November. For him, spacecraft have always landed like airplanes. He never saw astronauts emerge from a module that was floating in the ocean and then be lifted out to the deck of a U.S. Navy ship.

In 1983, I was 29 years old, when the space program reached two big milestones.  In June of that year, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. And in August of the same year, Guion Bluford became the first African-American in space. The flight of Sally Ride really struck home with me. She proved without question that women really could do anything men could do. The sky was NOT the limit! When these two joined the elite ranks of people who had been to space, in my opinion, the civil rights movement had succeeded and truly anything became possible.

I was watching when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated on liftoff. I saw the unusual smoke pattern or vapor trail and thought it was odd. But I didn't understand right away what I had seen. As the news coverage continued and it became clear what had happened, I was heartbroken. I knew my children were watching in school that day in anticipation of a lesson from space by teacher Christa McAuliffe. I knew I would have to explain this tragedy in words that my third grade daughter could understand. The year was 1986 and I was 33 years old.

I had just turned on the television on the morning of February 1, 2003 when I heard that Mission Control had not been able to re-establish communication with the Space Shuttle Columbia after their re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. Then I heard that the vehicle had broken up and the entire crew was lost. I was packing for our first cruise that morning. I was 49 years old. Later that week, we sailed from Galveston. In traveling to the ship, we drove right past the main entrance to NASA and witnessed the huge gathering of media there for a memorial service.

I've been wowed by photos taken by the Hubble Telescope. I've been amazed at the length of time individuals have remained aboard the International Space Station. By the way, the record for longest continuous stay in space is held by Russian Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 437 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes in orbit from January 8, 1994 till March 22, 1995.

Many items that we take for granted are by-products of the space program. Such everyday items as hand-held vacuums, smoke detectors, foam insulation, cordless power tools, water filters, and light emitting diodes (LED) are all items developed by or for the space program. Products like Tang and Velcro, which have long been associated with the space program, were not actually developed for the space program but were used by it.

Scratch resistant lenses are possible because NASA needed the technology for helmet visors. Memory foam and temper foam were developed to ease the impact of re-entry. Infrared ear thermometers that take baby's temperature in the ear are possible because of NASA's need to measure heat in space. Athletic shoes use NASA technology to put that spring in the insoles and provide shock absorption. Modern telecommunication is the direct result of NASA and their satellites. Smoke and gas detectors were developed for Skylab. NASA was the first to experiment with safety grooving of concrete to remove water from landing surfaces making it safer. We use it on highways for the same water removal.

The need for small computers was driven by the space program. That led to the development of micro-chips and laptops. Prior to that, computers took up entire rooms.

Many advancements in medical technology have resulted from the space program. CAT scanners and MRI technology are both results of technology that was developed for lunar imaging. Invisible braces are a by-product of NASA's ceramics research.
Mammograms are more precise and breast imaging is safer as a result of NASA video imaging. Solar cells (used on spacecraft) have been coupled with X-ray imaging to reduce radiation exposure for patients.

Robotic microsurgery and laparoscopic surgery resulted from micro-technology originally developed for the space program. Cardiac devices, telemetry, angioplasty, the use of catheters and lasers in heart surgery have all been improved and enhanced by space program technology.

So when I woke up this morning and tuned my television to The Today Show, I saw video of the Space Shuttle Atlantis landing for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center. I am 57 years old. Not only did I grow up with America's space program, I've grown old with it. The end of the American manned space program is sad. What will drive the development of important technology? What will fuel our need to explore and expand? I can't help but feel melancholy. The Space Age has truly been the time of my life.

Lunar and Planetary Institute
Hubble Site

All photos from NASA web site.


  1. Wow. I love this post. I have never taken the time to think about how my life has been impacted by the space program. You did a great job laying it all out. Thank you.

  2. You did some great research for this post. I too was the same age as you when these events happened. I remember the excitement when we watched Neil Armstrong take that first step on the moon and the shock when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated. It's sad that the program is over.
    I've learned a lot from this post.
    Have a great day.

  3. This is beautifully written.

    I don't remember the space walk, but I do remember my parents making me watch something space related because it was history. I remember wanting to go back outside. I have the same memory of Nixon resigning.

    I do not believe that this is the end of the manned space program.

    It will emerge like a phoenix from the ashes. When? I don't know. But America will get back on track. I believe this.

  4. This was very much a walk down memory lane. Thank you!

  5. Great stuff. I was 11 when Neil and Buzz stood on the moon and every time I look at the lunar surface I still wish it was me.
    The space age isn't over we've just reached the end of the internal combustion liftoff age. Once we find a cheaper and easier way to gain orbit and return, new ventures will be launched and new goals set.
    I firmly believe we need to establish a base on the moon to learn how to survive in zero oxygen atmospheres and build a launch to Mars from there.
    It may not be in our lifetimes, Grams, but the space age has just begun and we saw chapter one.

  6. Wow! This is fascinating and evocative work. I'm a wee bit younger and missed out on some of the milestones but do recall the warmth and intrigue of folks gathered together in a common fascination, a common goal as a nation. Something we'll miss and generations to come will never know. That saddens me. Thank you for this great post, Grams!