Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One giant leap... forty years ago

Forty years ago last night, we stayed up late to witness history being made on the grandest of scales. I was with my family on vacation at my grandparents' home in South Tamworth, New Hampshire. My grandparents were born in the horse and buggy days when the novelty of motorized vehicles was still just that--a novelty. And now we sat with them watching three men fly to the moon nearly seventy years later. We were staying up late to witness two of those men actually walk on the moon.

A few months shy of 13, I must have struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what was taking place. Having traveled by commercial jet all the way from Houston, where the astronauts lived and trained for this mission, I might have taken it somewhat for granted, having "grown up" with the space program in my back yard, so to speak. I had no perspective of life without cars, airplanes, or rockets. But I knew my grandparents did and that became part of the story for me. Metaphorically, 1969 was a coming of age for both the space program and me.

Twenty years later, I went to work at NASA, for one of their many contractors, reporting for duty at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), Building 17. From 1989 to the late 1990s, I enjoyed working in an environment steeped in a young, but vibrant, history and scientific innovation. The opportunity arose from time-to-time to see some of the pioneers of manned space flight through presentations to our branch and signings at area bookstores.

I wanted to share some of those books here. I started to include biographical information about the astronauts and a synopsis of each book, but have decided to just share the evidence of my brush with these heroic men--their handwriting in my books.

This is far from being a great collection, nowhere near complete. No signed Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, or Neil Armstrong. And Buzz Aldrin's latest book, Magnificent Desolation, along with his 1973 autobiography, Return to Earth, are waiting patiently for signatures (hopefully!) at a signing later this week.

But this little collection has a great deal of meaning to me, not only for the signatures I obtained in person, but for the memories they evoke for a period in my professional life as well as a period in my childhood when the heroes were baseball players and astronauts.

For reviews, thoughts and opinions on these and other books about space exploration, I recommend the blog, A Space about Books about Space. In no particular order, the books are listed below.

Here’s Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Slayton died in 1993, a year before the book was published, but I did get the signature of the first American in space, co-author Alan Shepard. That's pretty special.

Jim Lovell’s book is Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, and I got to meet him and get his autograph on this book a year before the Apollo 13 movie reintroduced the drama of his failed flight to the moon, but successful return home against great odds. Tom Hanks played Lovell in the film.

John Glenn may have been the most special because I returned to the neighborhood where I spent my childhood between 1960 and 1967 to meet Glenn and his wife at a book signing just blocks away from my old house.

Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, having accomplished that feat in 1963. In 1998, at the age of 77, he flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95).

His book, John Glenn: A Memoir was published the following year. He and his wife were both very gracious and kind at the signing, as I got to shake his hand and exchange a few words.

Preparation for lunar orbital and subsequent lunar landing missions was accomplished by Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo flight. Walter Cunningham was one of the astronauts flying that mission and wrote The All American Boys in 1977 and updated it in 2003 (my copy below), as a review of the manned space program from his days to present.

Michael Collins was the third, and often overlooked, member of the Apollo 11 historic mission to the moon. While Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, Collins circled, as the command module pilot, amid fears that he would return alone to earth. There were reservations about the reliability of the lunar landing module being able to get Armstrong and Aldrin off the moon. They all thought the chances were 50-50. I have Collins' 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, that covers his Apollo 11 mission and the rest of his astronaut career that preceded the mission (he retired in January 1970), but it's his 1990 book, Mission to Mars, that I have signed. Actually, he signed a bookplate for this one.

Scott Carpenter, another of the Mercury Seven astronauts, signed my copy of his 1991 novel, Steel Albatross--the only fictional work in this collection.

The Flight Director during the Gemini and Apollo programs was Gene Kranz, best remembered for his work with the Mission Control team in guiding Apollo 13 back to earth safely (see Lovell's Lost Moon above). He was portrayed by Ed Harris in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 movie of 1995. Harris also played John Glenn in The Right Stuff (1983), making him the only actor I know of that has played both an astronaut and a flight director.

I did not get to meet Kranz in person for this signature, but I did have the pleasure of hearing him speak at a branch meeting one year and recount his days at Mission Control. His book came out in 2000 and I was lucky enough to find a signed copy a few years ago on a bookscouting trip.

There are other books in my collection by astronauts of the era represented by those above, such as Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon and Chris Kraft, the first flight director, who was instrumental in establishing the Mission Control Center. They are not signed, nor have I had the opportunity to meet the authors.

And that brings me back to my small collection that looms large among my other collections. It's the personal touch associated with the books and the special memories associated with the space program, particularly those of my family sitting around a black and white television with poor reception, in a small New England village, to watch a man walk on the moon--the same moon we could see from the front lawn. How fantastic and magical it all seemed. Forty years ago.

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