Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Space Junkie's Space Junk

I have been an avid space fanatic as long as I can remember. Among my first memories was a hot night in August 1960, a month shy of my fourth birthday. My Dad took us outside that evening to watch the recently-launched satellite Echo 1 pass overhead. I had seen pictures of the mammoth balloon before its launch, and now, it was incredible to see it as a dot moving silently across the sky. Perhaps what made the memory of that night indelible was that it had been so hot that day that the freshly laid asphalt on our street was till gooey; it stuck to our bare feet when we were outside, and our Mom had quite a hard time scrubbing the tar off of our feet once we went back inside.

I clearly remember watching the launch of Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 on TV a year later, and John Glenn’s flight the following year. I was probably as enamored with science fiction at this point as I was with science fact. My TV regimen in the early 1960's included "Scott McCloud: Space Angel" and "Fireball XL-5."

As Project Gemini began in 1965, I was finally old enough to truly appreciate the US manned spaceflight program, and I followed it avidly. Our family was stationed on Okinawa when Gemini XIII was forced to make its emergency landing nearby. The local Japanese TV channel carried Lost in Space, with a Japanese soundtrack. AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) simulcast the English soundtrack on the radio. We were also on Okinawa when we heard about the Apollo 1 fire.

I remember the first episode of Star Trek I ever saw (“I, Mudd,” on November 3, 1967). I instantly became a Trekker. I was spellbound by the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," when it came out in April 1968. I saw it in Cinerama more than a dozen times that summer at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, DC. It was truly a golden age of space, as we were just on the verge of Apollo.

Like most Americans of our time, we watched the “Genesis” broadcast from Apollo 8, as it orbited the Earth on Christmas Eve 1968. Astronaut Bill Anders was a friend of one of my friend’s father, and it was in February 1969 that he gave me my first astronaut autograph, of his famous "Earthrise" photo from Apollo 8.

Of course, we were glued to the TV on July 20, 1969 as Apollo 11 landed and men first walked on the Moon. My Dad’s office designed the camera that was used to broadcast the moon walk, and he was given a VIP tour of Kennedy Space Center in August, less than a month after Apollo 11’s return. The souvenirs he collected on that trip, plus others I had been accumulating with my allowance, became the start of my collection.

In 1970, my 8th grade shop teacher took us on a tour of the Smithsonian's Silver Hill facility (now the Paul E. Garber Restoration Facility). He introduced me to one of the curators and told him that I knew more about space than any other student he had met. The curator asked if I could help him identify five framed Lunar Orbiter photographs that he had recieved from someone. I volunteered to find out for him. I learned of a book, "The Moon as Viewed by Lunar Orbiter," which at $10 was more than I had in my possession. I convinced my dad to pay me for sawing up a felled tree in our back yard. Tree sawn and book purchased, I made some educated guesses at the photos the gentleman had. When I gave him my findings, I brazenly asked him for a job. He looked surprised, until I clarified that I wanted to be a tour guide at the National Air and Space Museum. He agreed to put in a word for me, even though I was younger than the usual requirement that the docents be high school juniors or seniors. It was a volunteer job, which threw me a bit, but I really didn't mind.

I started at the NASM in June 1971 and it was a fabulous summer. The highlights included going to Neil Armstrong's office and getting his autograph, driving a lunar rover mockup around the Mall (I wasn't even old enough to drive a car yet). Perhpas the biggest thrill was cutting out of leading tours to go up to the NASM library to watch the TV broadcast of Al Worden's Apollo 15 spacewalk on a black and white TV, to be joined unexpectedly by Mike Collins, then the NASM Director. I worked at the NASM again the next summer.

I didn't become a professional astronomer, as I once had planned. I watched with horror as Challenger exploded in January 1986. Several months later, I tracked Halley's Comet as it made its swing through the inner Solar System. I did have a brief professional encounter with the space program, as a Contract Manager for Boeing on the Space Station Freedom program from 1987-1989. As a management consultant, I designed a mentoring program at NASA Headquarters in 2004.

All of these stories will be told in more depth, and illustrated with pictures of objects in my collection. For now, this is my introductory entry.