By ART CHANCE
I’m a product of the “pay any price, bear any burden” generation. I watched President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on the black-and-white television at the front of my classroom on what was then called “educational TV.”
I can’t remember if I watched Alan Shepard’s first flight or just heard about it on the radio or saw it on “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” but I saw every launch thereafter.
Suzanne wanted me to write something about Saturday’s Space X launch of Dragon Endeavor in advance of the big event, but I couldn’t find it in myself to do it; I’ve seen too many of them fail. Rocket-powered flight is inherently and horrendously dangerous.
The first rocket-powered manned flight was the German Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-powered interceptor in World War II. It probably killed more pilots than Allied bomber crews ever did, but it was a fearsome weapon as it used rocket power to get above Allied bombers and then glide through their formations at near supersonic speed and bang away with its 30 mm cannons. If the pilot made it through the flight and attack, the landing was its own hazard as the Me-163 didn’t have landing gear but rather landed on a skid. If the pilot didn’t “stick” the landing, he got dissolved in a pool of the hydrogen peroxide oxidizer that powered it. It didn’t get much safer in the ensuing years.
The US hauled all the German “rocket scientists” the Russians didn’t capture back to the US after the war, and we weren’t too scrupulous about their bona fides or Nazi backgrounds. Throughout the 1950s, the Russian’s German rocket scientists and the American’s German rocket scientists competed to produce bigger and better rockets.
Through most of the 1950s, the Russians seemed to have the better of it, and in 1957 crystallized America’s perceptions with the successful launch of Sputnik, the first orbital satellite. I remember seeing it in the night skies.
The United States government threw money into education and science and math classes became interesting. These were the days when the closest thing anyone other than the government had to a computer was a slide rule. Kids, I among them, built rockets. If you’ve seen the movie, “October Sky,” it is a pretty real depiction of those times.
Time stopped for the “rocket launches” in the 1960s. Not all of them were successful; more than a few U.S. rockets blew up on the launch pad or early in flight. Probably lots of Soviet ones did too, but they didn’t put their failures on television. The U.S. was a lot more careful with our men, so if we lost any, we didn’t talk about it.
The U.S. designated the “Mercury” astronauts, the first seven men chosen for space flight. They were on the cover of every magazine and the front page of every paper. They were fighter pilots, test pilots, and war heroes, the best of the best; to this day I still remember a lot of their names: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton
Then the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space and into orbital flight when the US hadn’t even launched a man into space. Alan Shepard got the nod for a 15 minute sub-orbital flight that was successful and the U.S. rejoiced.
The U.S. did a couple more one-man Mercury flights and moved to the two-man Gemini flights of increasingly longer duration.
Then came the Apollo program and the race to the Moon was on. The Soviets beat us to the Moon with an unmanned probe. That was the last time they beat us. We lost an Apollo crew in a training accident on the launch pad. The original Apollo capsule had a pure oxygen environment; what could go wrong? An incidental spark incinerated the capsule and its crew. It took a couple of years of redesign before the Apollo was back in service.
Then it came quickly; we orbited the Earth with an Apollo, we orbited the Moon with an Apollo and for the first time the World saw images of planet Earth from the Moon, and in something unthinkable today, an American astronaut read Biblical verses to the Earth from lunar orbit.
Then finally in July of 1969, we launched Apollo 11 towards the Moon. By that time, I wasn’t building rockets, but was more of a long-haired, dope- smoking, FM-radio-listening college student. Most of us gathered around televisions for that. I watched the moon landing on snowy black-and-white television set, but it was the coolest thing in the history of the world.
Then, it became rather routine. Apollo 13 generated the same kind of interest that a big wreck generates in a NASCAR race; nobody paid any attention to the other moon shots. The ratings tanked and the show got cancelled. The shuttle missions were only interesting for throwing a woman on them or if something bad happened, and something bad happened a couple of times as we lost whole crews.
And then we stopped in 2011. We kept some U.S. crew on the “International” space station, but we hitched rides with the Russians to get there. For a decade, the people who pioneered space flight were having to bum rides into space; thank you Comrade Obama.
On Saturday we went back! We went on an American rocket, from an American launch pad, the legendary Pad 39 from which Apollo 13 was launched. The rocket and capsule are all private sector construction and the best technology that can be had.
It was flawless, and I had to fight back the tears.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.