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