October 16, 2013
Remembering The Early Years Of Space Flight
The death of Scott Carpenter a few days ago got me to reminiscing about my memories of the first days of the space program. I was in first grade when Alan Shepard became the first American man in space, so my memories reflect my age at the time. I remember that they brought television sets into all of our classrooms so that we could watch. Getting that many sets into classrooms was quite an undertaking in 1961. We saw the whole thing, all 15 minutes of it, as well as the time leading up to lift-off and the time finding and securing the capsule in the ocean. Of course it was in black and white, and the image quality wasn’t very good, but we didn’t care. It was something totally new that hadn’t been done before. I don’t think I had any idea that Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut had beat us by a few days.
We continued to follow the missions closely, watching each take-off and landing as school schedules permitted. Even at age seven, I could name all of the Mercury astronauts, and later the Gemini and Apollo astronauts. These days we don’t pay much attention to space flights or who is on them unless something goes awry.
Shepard’s and Grissom’s sub-orbital flights seemed to fade from the spotlight after John Glenn orbited the earth in February, 1962. I think that Glenn was always seen as the quintessential astronaut, certainly the most charismatic.
I think that the person in my family who was most excited about the space program was my grandmother. She was alive when the Wright brothers flew, and she could hardly believe that she was now also able to witness our first outings into space.
She made a lot of my clothes, and she was working on a dress for me while watching one of the early space shots. It had a white V inset down the front of a red-checked dress. Because, to me, the V resembled a nose cone, and she was making it during a space flight, I called it my “rocket dress.” She was tickled that I named it that.
We lived in Pasadena, Texs. which was just a few miles down the road from the Manned Spacecraft Center (NASA). It was such a big deal that we were right there in the middle of things. A lot of the astronauts lived in the area. We knew people who worked at NASA (still do). Houston was already becoming Space City. It was only natural that our new domed stadium would be called the Astrodome and that the grounds keepers would wear space suits when they tended to the field.
We watched Ed White take the first spacewalk, and I was completely horrified and saddened when he, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee died in a fire during a pre-launch test of Apollo 1on January 27, 1967. That just wasn’t supposed to happen to these heroes of ours.
And of course, I, like everyone else, was glued to the TV set when Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July 1969. We stayed up late and watched at my grandparent’s house. I always felt kind of sorry for Michael Collins for having to stay on board the space craft while those two hopped around on the moon.
In a decade when so many scary things were happening, with assassinations and riots making the news on a regular basis, the space program was something I felt proud of and excited about, especially since so much of it happened right in my own back yard.
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