Sunday, October 4, 2015

NASA & Apollo 11 by Katherine Pym

The Eagle has landed

 In 1965, my dad started work at NASA in Houston. Of course, the area wasn’t Houston at the start of the space program, just a flat plain with a few trees loaded with Spanish moss. It was a backwater near Clear Lake almost on the Galveston County line. Most of the streets weren’t even paved.

My dad said the site was constructed like a college campus. If the space program failed, it would rise from the ashes as an accredited university.

I don’t know the politics behind the selection of the site for NASA (Some say the land was owned by Lady Bird Johnson & her husband was vice president at the time.) but it transformed the area into a bustling group of suburbs where everyone was smart, even the children—brain wise and street wise. I learned a lot when there. My parents would be shocked.

My family is not Texan. We are from Milwaukee. The most south I’d ever been was St. Louis. While still in grade school, a friend informed me she and her family were going to Texas on vacation. I stood on the playground and envisioned a flat landscape with steer skulls and Saguaro cacti all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. When she returned from her vacation, I asked her how it was. She said, “It was hot and the tops of my feet got sunburned. I didn’t see any water or lakes, but everyone has a boat in their driveway." She couldn't have been near Houston where there is a lot of water.

When the airplane door opened at Hobby Airport, the heat and humidity rushed in, taking my breath away. Once in the car, the top and trunk loaded with our luggage, all the windows opened because we didn’t have air conditioning, we headed to our new home in Clear Lake City. While driving down the freeway lined with palm trees, I knew my life would never be the same. I was in a new land and had entered a new culture.

Back in Wisconsin I had watched John Glenn’s earth orbits but that was nothing compared to meeting the astronauts in the grocery store or lunching in the school cafeteria with their kids.

The LEM on the moon's surface
My dad was an electrical engineer who worked on a couple of panels (Nos 16 & 32, I think) in the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). It was the unit that released from the Service Module and landed on the moon. It’s the same unit where the Apollo 13 astronauts took refuge after the explosion that compromised their Service Module.

At the time of Apollo 11, the toggle switches in the LEM were not protected by metal bracings. When Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were fitted into their spacesuits ready to drop down to the lunar surface, one of their backpacks swiped along some panels and knocked off several toggle switches. Some of them came off my dad’s panels.

Toggle Switch
While everyone sat before their TV’s glued to the drama of the lunar landing, my dad got a phone call to come in immediately to the space center. Sitting around a table, the engineers and scientists conferred on what to do. Those toggles were important for the LEM to reignite and take the guys off the moon. 

Several looked at my dad. The astronauts had pencils up there because they had to follow the instructions, make notes in the procedures. They needed pencils to calculate numbers for processes. My dad said, “Have them insert a pencil tip into the hole and use it as the toggle.”

Problem solved. It was after this, though, that metal braces were installed on each side of the toggle switches.

Up until the space program, no one really knew what our world looked like from space. I mean, have you ever seen those 1950's Sci-Fi B-movies? Producers and directors had no idea. They never consulted aeronautical scientists, either.

Apollo 11
After the Command Module splashdown in the Pacific, the astronauts were shuttled off to a quarantine chamber. For everyone else it was time to party. After tense days and nights, people of all ages, the news media, and anyone else who could, descended onto an area only a few square miles. NASA Boulevard was gridlocked, everyone cheering, honking their horns. Every motel and hotel was packed. Alcohol flowed freely. No one checked ID. Minors got all they could drink. In one hotel, women threw their room keys into the pool. Men dived in and whichever key they got, they also got that woman.

There was a newsmen duo who appeared on NBC every week night at 5:30 PM. Apparently they enjoyed the splashdown parties to the fullest. Within a year, they were both retired. Now, I am not suggesting the splashdown parties brought this on, but I found it peculiar they were gone from the news scene so quickly.

As everyone rode high on the success of Apollo 11; 12 proceeded forward and was also successful, but by 13 fanfare had waned. We were deeper into the Vietnam War, and a tired President Johnson refused to run for another term. People looked elsewhere for excitement. I was in high school and had a boyfriend. Life moved on. 

Here are some links for better viewing, but more than like copyrighted. Check this one out. And this one.