I was two years old when NASA was born. Growing up in the era of serious “We Interrupt This Program” news bulletins, a space launch was a major event. Sitting in front of the television with fingers crossed as the famous “10-9-8” countdown began, my stomach churned in three stages, just like NASA: liftoff, “throttle up” and kicking that last fuel tank goodbye. All you could see on camera was a huge, puffy white contrail with the occasional bright flash signaling the next stage. I had to rely on Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director, and his crew to tell me what happened after the first 30 seconds as the ship passed out of camera range. I probably held my breath just like those NASA employees when astronauts reached that point of inability to communicate. That radio silence seemed to stretch on forever until the crackly voice of an astronaut called out to see if anyone was home at NASA. I breathed out when Kranz did. I trusted him and his team to keep us apprised of every step. And to advise each step was successful.
No matter what happened in the world after a launch for the next few days, what was happening out-of-this-world commanded the headlines. The only thing more nerve wracking than launch was re-entry. Fingers crossed, I’d wait for the sight of that parachute floating down with the tiny capsule beneath it. I wondered if astronauts got seasick bobbing in the water until a Navy diver helped put their feet back on solid ground. Well, at least on a sturdy naval ship. I can still see those brave men staring into a camera and waving, grinning like kids just back from an adventure.
Maybe that’s why I have such a sentimental attachment to the space program. We were kids at the same time.
At age 11, courtesy of a grainy, black and white t.v. picture, I watched Apollo 11 and man’s first walk on the moon. Although I didn’t see John Glenn’s first orbit of the moon, years later I witnessed his second stint in space…as a senior citizen. Ironically no one at my senior citizens center was interested in watching the launch. No, the folks his age were in the next room busy playing Bingo. So the kid in me watched, spellbound, as Glenn continued to boldly go where none of us had gone before. Bet he didn’t even own a rocking chair for his front porch.
I’ve been reading Gene Kranz’s autobiography, “Failure Is Not An Option”. The more I read, the more I realize that Kranz’s personal motto was one he helped NASA embrace in it’s infancy. After all, they literally wrote the How To book. From scratch. Today I sat at my work computer and watched the last Space Shuttle of that 30 year program take off. In living color….complete with a camera viewpoint which had me seated on the last fuel tank to be jettisoned. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that what I couldn't see from the ground looking up, I would one day be able to see at the moment it occurred. The kid in me jumped up and down at the sight of watching that first booster fall DOWN instead of just away.
Yet with as far as technology has come, it didn't silence the butterflies in my stomach which came out of childhood hibernation at the sound of “10-9-8”. The only thing missing was Kranz’s voice. The one wonderfully new thing was hearing the traditional, “Godspeed!” greeted with a reply of, “Thank you Roberta.”
Today as I watched the Earth grow smaller, ringed with electric blue atmosphere as the sky grew black, I was flooded with emotions. Awe. Wonder. Pride. Inspiration. A touch of stomach flipping fear as “we” rolled over into position to separate the Shuttle from our fuel tank perch. I shook my head in child like amazement as the Shuttle lifted up and away. As the last of it’s kind went into space successfully for one final journey, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I don’t know who would’ve been prouder of this vision: me or John F. Kennedy.
As today’s NASA team walked around Mission Control shaking each other’s hands as the successful launch concluded, I glanced down to turn off the show.
Only then did I realize the last two fingers on my right hand were crossed.
"Houston, Apollo 13. We may have a problem."
Kranz listens to advice from the troops as they work to fix problems. Astronaut Jim Lovell's face appears on the large screen in the background.
For all you movie buffs, Ed Harris played Kranz in "Apollo 13".