Sputnik fascinated us — a rocket blasted a satellite into space! Only it was the Russians who did it. As grade school kids, we worried about atomic war, but this was dreams and science in …
Sputnik fascinated us — a rocket blasted a satellite into space! Only it was the Russians who did it. As grade school kids, we worried about atomic war, but this was dreams and science in action. The space race was on.
At first U.S. rockets kept blowing up. We learned fast, though, and before long had our own satellites in orbit. The big news was Vietnam and NASA. Kennedy’s declaration to put a man on the moon “before this decade is out” had everyone excited and thinking positive. We knew about the Mercury and Gemini programs; every few months one, then two astronauts were launched into Earth orbit in preparation for the moon. Then the mighty Apollo program was to take us there.
One of the Gemini launches was scheduled for 7 a.m. on a school day. With great anticipation, we watched on black and white TV while munching our toast. But it was delayed. My mother, who never did this, said we could wait and be late for school. The launch went up successfully and we hurried off. Everyone was late. We all had watched — including the nuns. This was a teachable moment charged with discussions, blackboard diagrams and practice with our slide rules. That evening the pair of astronauts were still in orbit. CBS newsman Walter Cronkite interviewed a NASA official who said, “We are learning how to go to the moon.”
In the fall of ‘67 I was on the Chadron State Swim Team. We had a meet with the Air Force freshmen at the Academy. The team and our coach were swelling with pride as our little bus was waved through the main gate and taken to the locker rooms of the swim complex. It was huge! A 50 meter pool with a separate diving well, including 5- and 10-meter platforms. The cadets swamped us but it was an honor to see my time on the USAF scoreboard. Then we were allowed to go off the boards — including the 10 meter platform. At the top, an upperclassman advised, “Point your toes so you don’t break an ankle.”
I was using a third towel to dry off when a hush passed through the locker room. Word was spreading that there had been an accident at the Cape. During a practice exercise in the Apollo capsule, three astronauts had been burned to death. It was a tragedy, a set back, and the nation went into mourning. Suddenly the glorious race to the moon had dangerous consequences.
In 1968 I transferred to the University of Wyoming. The music of Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles filled McIntyre Hall. Demanding classes, long-haired professors, liberal speakers, philosophy talk over coffee, vets back from the war and guys going to school to be deferred from the draft all contributed to a feeling of great social change. In December, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. The three astronauts read from Genesis on Christmas Eve and sent back the famous Earth Rise photograph. Environmental awareness rose as people saw our delicate blue planet in the vast blackness of space.
That summer I got a job with the Forest Service. It was a dream job, living and working in the mountains. I was given a map, shown how to use it and sent into the woods to mark stands of timber for sale. One afternoon a roar ripped across the sky as a fighter jet streaked over my head, cleared the Snowy Range and disappeared. You tend to feel a reverence for things like that.
On July 19, 1969, I drove to Denver with two Forest Service buddies to see the city and buy new clothes. The next morning we knew that Apollo 11 was to land on the moon. We were hurrying back to watch it on TV when I came speeding around a corner and got pulled over. “You were dong 85 in a 65.” frowned the Colorado trooper. He had me. I explained that we were trying to get home to watch the moon landing. His face loosened and he gave me a $10 ticket for “indiscriminate change of lanes.” More cautiously, I hurried on.
We ran into the bunkhouse and plunked down with the rest of the crew to see a boot stick out of the lunar module and Neil Armstrong descending the ladder. We cheered and stomped around the old log cabin. Even Walter Cronkite had a tear in his eye. When Buzz Aldrin came down and hopped off his first words were, “It might have been a small step for you, Neil, but it was a big jump for me.” We laughed, carried on and drank 3.2 beer in celebration.
The next morning, I was getting in my Forest Service Jeep when the supervisor called me back to take a message from NASA to Dr. Morgan, who was staying at a nearby lodge. He was one of the physicians who would be attending the astronauts on their return. I was concerned something had gone wrong. The doctor said, “Thank you, young man” and I drove him back to headquarters to make the call. I went on to my assignment in the woods, excited that I had taken part in landing on the moon.
We watched the splash down and the astronauts waving as they were hurried from the helicopter and into an Airstream trailer — the “quarantine unit.” All was well. After a few days we learned that they didn’t bring back any “moon bugs” and the country rejoiced. The United States had landed on the moon before the ‘60s were out.
The last moon landing was in 1972, and no one has been back since. But NASA continues to explore space. At 1 percent of the cost of sending astronauts we are sending robots all over the solar system and beyond, driving around on Mars and before long will land on an asteroid.
Space is still a very exciting frontier.
(Geoff Baumann taught middle school science for 25 years in Seattle, Frankfurt, Germany, and Powell. He and his wife Mary are both retired on their small farm south of Powell and stay active in the community. Geoff is a member of the Park County Library Board and still watches the stars. He wrote this piece in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the moon.)