Memorial Day 2012

By Phil Plait | May 28, 2012 7:00 am

[Note: Today is Memorial Day, a US tradition where we remember the contributions of those in the military who have fallen. Yesterday, I was thinking about what to write about it. My dad was in the Navy just after World War II, but I wasn’t sure what to write about that. I decided to put the idea aside for a time, since I have a deadline for an article I’m writing about space exploration. While looking up old blog posts for that, I happened by coincidence on something I wrote three years ago, on July 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. I am reposting it below. For reasons that will be clear if you read the whole thing, I don’t think there’s more I could say on this day.]

On July 20, 1969, at 20:17:40 GMT, human beings landed on an alien world.

That was the moment that the Eagle lander touched down on the surface of the Moon, 40 years ago today. Nearly five hours later, at 02:56:15 GMT on July 21, Neil Armstrong placed his boot in the lunar regolith, planting it firmly into history as well.

You can read all about this event and its global and historical impacts all over the web, so I won’t belabor the point here. But the Apollo missions mean something special to me, so forgive me this small indulgence. While the overall significance of the missions is interesting and fun to think about and discuss, the real stories, the ones that sink in, are the personal ones.

I was four when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins approached the Moon. That’s old enough to form memories of the event, but young enough that those memories are malleable; I have a hard time distinguishing what I actually saw with what I may have seen years later on TV. I seem to vaguely remember sitting on the couch with my family watching the events unfold; even at that age I was in love with science fiction and all things spacey. It’s possible my parents let me stay up late to watch that first step. It would’ve been 11:00 p.m. at our old home. But honestly, I don’t remember.

However, just a wee bit over two years later that changed. In July 1971, my parents rented a Winnebago — a monstrous recreational vehicle — and the whole family piled in so we could road trip down to Cape Canaveral. If all went according to plan, we would be there in time to watch Apollo 15 launch and make its way to the Moon.

I was six, so I remember this much better. The bathroom on the RV smelled overwhelmingly like fruit. My sister taught me that it’s OK to lie when you say something if you cross your fingers while saying it. We stopped to visit friends of my mom’s in South Carolina, and again in Georgia so my oldest brother could check out the Georgia Tech campus before applying there the next year.

I have lots of other memories that are trivial to others but which I cherish. But still and all, we finally reached Kennedy Space Center. I remember touring the area, and I also remember being on the tour bus and getting up pretty close to the Saturn V. I wonder now if that’s a distorted memory; it’s hard to imagine they let tourists get as close as my semi-fuzzy recollection indicates.

And then the day arrived. We parked on the banks of the Banana River and waited for the moment. I wandered off a bit to play on my own (times were different then), and I distinctly remember finding a blue plastic kiddie pool upside down on the river bank. I flipped it over, and a billion mosquitoes exploded out of it! Not too surprisingly, that’s one of the stronger memories I have from that day.

And then the moment finally arrived. I remember nothing of the countdown, but boy oh boy do I remember the launch. A man next to me had a camera that he was frantically snapping away with; I remember the noise of the shutter and him winding it, trying to keep up with the rocket lifting off into the sky miles away.

I can still picture the mighty Saturn V as it punched upward. It was magnificent, and even at the age of six I had some idea of what this all meant. I stood there, clutching the little scale model rocket my parents bought me on the KSC tour in one hand, and the blue plastic figurine of an Apollo astronaut standing on the Moon I had in the other. I still remember bringing that plastic model to school for show-and-tell when we got back home.

That memory of the launch is a powerful one for me even today, all these years later. I asked my dad years later what motivated him and mom to pack the whole family up into that RV and take us down there. He replied that it was something he thought we should all see. It was history being made in front of us, and not something you get a chance to see very often.

I asked him that for another reason. My father was a quality control engineer, and did a lot of government contract work. In fact — and this makes me proud, let me tell ya — he worked on the quality control for the astronauts’ food program. I don’t know what precisely he did for the program, to be honest, but he was involved for some time. I know he did some work on the packaging, including the freeze-dried food and the spaghetti the astronauts took with them. That’s why I asked him why we went to see the launch; I wondered if it was because the trip was work-related for him. But it wasn’t. He and mom wanted to share with us the sheer joy and wonder of humanity’s first tentative journey away from Earth.

We should all strive to be such people.

Years later, when my father died, my mom asked all us kids if we wanted any of his books or other items. I stood in front of his bookshelf, admiring the many texts on codebreaking, mathematics, the history of cryptography. He was fascinated by these topics, and was something of a dabbler in math; a formula he invented is published in the CRC handbook used by grad students across the planet.

My eyes fell on a magazine I hadn’t seen before; it was a 25th anniversary retrospective of Apollo. I opened it up, and to my surprise, found this picture:

That’s Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the Moon. Clearly, dad must’ve met him and talked about the food program. Conrad had a great sense of humor, and signed the picture appropriately.

My dad was a major reason I’m a scientist now, and helped instill in me and all my siblings a love of science and space. My memories of Apollo are inextricably entangled with memories of my father from back then too. So to me, Apollo is personal.

I can take a mental step back and look at the whole picture: what that one small step meant, how it inspired a planet, what NASA did that day, and even how its faltered in many ways since then. But sometimes the real story, the human story, is the first-person account of events.

That’s how it plays in my head when I picture that hot July day in 1971, and that mental film is always running when I write about Apollo. It may not be at the forefront of my mind, but it’s there. Even without it I might still be inspired to write what I do. And though I strongly doubt it, I suppose it’s remotely possible that I’d still be where I am today without having had my parents expose me directly to space travel.

But they did. And I’m a better man for having it as a part of me.


Comments (28)

  1. Steve

    THANKS! to your dad for his fine work, and to you for sharing the story.

  2. Guy

    Great essay, Phil. Loved it.

  3. Das Boese

    Thanks for the great story.
    Unfortunately there are many who, instead of seeing the past as an inspiration for the future, are stuck in it. Who think the only way to recapture the spirit of Apollo is to, essentially, repeat it with a slightly bigger rocket.

    I was born 11 years after the last human walked on the moon. I can admire Apollo as a technical feat and the determination of the people that made it work, but I simply can’t get into the hero worship. Apollo wasn’t really about discovery, it was about beating the Russians. With unlimited money and manpower, failure was never an option.

    That’s why I despise people whining about the end of the Shuttle and attacking SpaceX for “achieving something NASA did in the 60s” while thinking that the Apollo-style big monster rocket (Ares V/SLS) will magically make America great again.

    What SpaceX and some of their competitors are doing now is far more impressive to me than Apollo, because these people are putting their fortune on the line and failure is an option.

  4. DanO

    Gotta wonder why “Great” is in parenthesis? I’ve read Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars” so I think I may know why.

    GREAT memory Phil. The Universe (or Multiverse?) is proud of you, so so’s your Dad.

  5. Peter Davey

    With regard to Das Boese, failure was an indeed option. Suppose that Apollo 11 had ended up the way Apollo 13 did?

    The Soviets were able to concentrate their resources without having to worry about losing the next election.

    The 19th century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his study of the new American republic, expressed his concern as to whether any countryn governed by the “popular will” could maintain a necessary continuity in its affairs – domestic and foreign.

    The Chinese are now aiming for the Moon. We will have to see whether their attempts do better than the Russians did (mind you, the Russians now seem to be preparing for a second try).

    I wonder how “obvious” the outcome of this new race will be?

  6. Robin Byron

    At the moment we first landed on the Moon, I was in the central highland jungles of south east Asia. The dichotomy of our monumental scientific achievement and our killing people who were trying to unite their country was breathtaking.

  7. scibuff

    Wow! I remember reading this 3 years ago and it was as good now as it was then. Thank you for sharing (again).

  8. Another Phil

    Cool story and great parents.
    I was 7 1/2 (the 1/2 is important at that age!). In the UK it was an hour or two after my bedime so I was allowed to stay up and watch the landing. I’ve still got the front page of the newspaper with the photo of Neil Armstrong stood on the Moon.
    People nowadays forget what a momentous occasion it was, and even now I get a sense of wonder watching the ISS pass overhead.

    I suspect you remember the landing rather than the first step as originally they were going to sleep before stepping out, so I had to go to bed after the landing.

  9. Das Boese

    4. Peter Davey Says:

    There is no “new space race”, it’s an excuse invented by the very people I was criticizing, who cannot let go of the cold war, Apollo era thinking. China is not the Soviet Union, neither is Putin’s Russia.

    The Chinese “plans” about landing people on the moon are extremely vague, and their current speed of development would place that event sometime in the late 2020s to 2030s. The Russian plans were all in response to the Constellation program which has now been cancelled and their ongoing attempts to modernize their vehicle fleet are suffering from lack of funding.

    The decision made by your congress to effectively shut China out of the ISS was idiotic, and if the Chinese were indeed gunning for the moon, the right thing to do would be to cheer them on and wish them the best of luck.

  10. Thanks for a great personal account. I envy your experience of watching the Saturn V launch. I was ten when Sputnik was launched and in College when Apollo 11 landed so my growing up encompassed the most exciting part of the Space Race. Our entire family would get up early on the morning (West coast time zone) for every launch and watch together. I was fascinated by it all and I still am.

    “Death From the Skies” has been my bathroom book for a month now. One could say that it has scared the s*** out of me.

  11. Chris Winter

    “And though I strongly doubt it, I suppose it’s remotely possible that I’d still be where I am today without having had my parents expose me directly to space travel.”

    “But they did. And I’m a better man for having it as a part of me.”

    Indeed; in children the dream is always there, but the wrong kind of parenting can kill it. And without the dream there is no progress. To quote a Russian rocket scientist, “Nado mechtat” (Надо мечтать) — One must dream.

    Quite by coincidence, I’m just finishing the memoir of astronaut Mike Mullane: Riding Rockets (Scribner, 2006). As a kid in Albuquerque, Mullane was heavily into home-built rockets, and his parents encouraged this — to an incredible degree. He became a fighter “back-seater” (vision problems prevented him from being a pilot) and flew on three shuttle missions as a Mission Specialist.

    I recommend this book to you and to everyone who follows this blog — with the proviso that those who can’t take scatological humor and male-chauvinist attitudes should stay away. The book takes us deep inside the shuttle program as well as showing us Mullane’s growth as a human being. I found it inspiring.

  12. RobinMD

    Real nice, Phil. Your story is almost like “tribal memory” in that so many of us (of a certain age!) had the exact same experience. I was nine years old when Apollo 11 landed…I remember being allowed to stay up late…the whole thing you wrote about. We were all there together in that same moment. We went to the Apollo 17 launch in 1972…no mosquito stories…but that night launch was just incredible. My dad worked for NASA in the heyday…crossed paths and worked with Von Braun a couple of times (imagine!)…He and my son and I went to see the last launch of Atlantis (third from last overall) and I had my hand on his shoulder while we watched it go…the things we can do. Before the launch he sat in his wheelchair in the Saturn V museum explaining how the F-1 engines worked to my son. This is the real stuff of life…he’s 80 years old now and has so many stories – and is frustrated at the lack of progress…and got up in the middle of the night to follow the SpaceX events. I went into Mechanical Engineering because of him…and I couldn’t be prouder of my dad. Thanks again for the memory, Phil.

  13. vince charles

    12. RobinMD Said:
    May 28th, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    “he’s 80 years old now and has so many stories – and is frustrated at the lack of progress”

    No, Das Boese has it right- your dad is thinking linearly and qualitatively, not technologically and “transformatively.” Share this with your dad, very timely for tomorrow’s conference:

    Progress is a probe resembling my smartphone in more ways than just the “smart.” Let your dad’s next story be “in my day, the probes were the size of phone booths, not phones.”

  14. Wzrd1

    @Das Boese, “Failure was not an option”, tell that to the families of the Apollo 1 crew.
    Apollo 13 was a success only in terms that the crew wasn’t lost, only the mission and quite a lot of money.
    You confuse monetary things with what a failure REALLY would be, loss of life.
    As for the PRC or Russian confederation going to the moon, good for them, if they manage it. WE ALL should pool together to go to the moon to establish at least a scientific base. For, indeed, you are correct, the US lunar landings were about the cold war, hence the sparsity of scientists that were astronauts for the majority of the program.
    Of course, I also recall the Russian rovers that lasted far longer than any US equipment sent to the moon during the “space race” too.
    But then, I clearly remember Apollo 1 burning on the pad, roasting three astronauts alive.
    I remember an entire planet holding its breath over Apollo 13.
    I also clearly remember the sense of loss when the Apollo program was cancelled.

    @Robin Byron, scientific and technological achievements atypically accompany social progress. More often, technology and science advances and society lags behind, as evidenced by the beginning of the nuclear age.

    Phil, thanks for an excellent story. It lightened my mood by quite a bit, during, what is for me, a somber day of recalling friends lost in war.
    I’d protect that photograph as a family heirloom, to be passed down with pride.

  15. Keith Bowden

    Hi, Phil. We’re the same age, and I, and I too vaguely remember the first moon landing. I remember my mom watched it as well (which fairly establishes that it was Apollo 11 as neither of my parents were interested otherwise). I recall being excited and fascinated, but honestly didn’t realize that we didn’t do this all the time. :)

  16. HP

    Whoa. My memories of the moon landing are strangely parallel to yours. There was a Winnebago involved, and my Dad also contracted for NASA during the 60s. (likewise, I’m not sure what he did, but I think it involved optimizing Assembler code for the IBM 360.)

    We were camping up in the North Woods of Wisconsin during the actual landing. I think it was Kettle Morraine National Park, but it might have been at Devil’s Lake. There was a rumor going around that someone in the trailer park area had a TV, and we showed up the day of the landing to find a lone trailer swamped by campers from all over the park. I was five years old, and my Dad picked me up and shoved me inside a trailer filled beyond capacity with strangers. “He’s small!,” shouted Dad. “He’ll fit!” I watched the moon landing wedged between the legs of a bunch of long-haired hippies. (Real hippies, not the fictional ones you see in movies and on TV.) I actually remember being separated from my parents and being surrounded by strangers more than I remember the landing itself.

  17. Brian Too

    I’m a bit younger than Phil I suspect. I have fuzzy memories of getting special permission to stay up late one night. It must have been one of the last, if not the last, Apollo flights.

    The launch was delayed as I recall and, being so young, the night and the sandman claimed me. I seem to recall that my parents woke me up for the exciting bit but I was so zonked I barely remember any of it.

    All of this would have been on our old Black & White TV, beautifully encased in a wooden cabinet. It was one of those old ones where, when you turned it off, the picture collapsed into a very bright horizontal line, then the horizontal line collapsed into a single bright point in the middle of the screen. Then faded away.

    The details are a mess and confusing. What I remember the most was the excitement and the feeling that “important things are happening”.

  18. Das Boese

    13. vince charles

    That’s a really interesting link, thanks for sharing.

  19. Paul in Sweden

    Phil, I look forward to the day when you open up and tell us of the eulogy you gave for a close friend or family member where you describe your personal experience and reflections on the launching of SkyLab instead of offering words of solace to those that remain and respect to your departed friend or family member.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great blog post here. Thankyou. :-)

    Personally I was too young for the Apollo flights but I very fondly and strongly remember staying up late as a boy to watch the first launch attempt for the Space Shuttle Columbia back in the days when it was the next big thing and all-white even the external tank. Yeah, that had an effect on my life too – as did the 1989 Voyager II fly-by of Neptune which had an even bigger impact in sparking me to learn and do astronomy.

    I just really wish we had a rocket like the Saturn V and a program like Apollo today. Sigh.

  21. That’s a great story Phil – did your Dad ever bring some freeze-dried spaghetti home for the family to try? And if so, how was it?

    Speaking of Apollo 15, my Dad flew that crew up and down … and up and down a bit:
    It’s possible those “great” spaghetti packages were “tested” on those zero-G parabola flights! 😉

  22. DennyMo

    BA said: I remember touring the area, and I also remember being on the tour bus and getting up pretty close to the Saturn V. I wonder now if that’s a distorted memory; it’s hard to imagine they let tourists get as close as my semi-fuzzy recollection indicates.

    Nothing wrong with your memory. When I visited KSC in 1983, the tour buses took you out to the launch pad and drove around the ring road. One of the shuttles was on the pad the day I was there. Now the closest you get is a “gantry” about halfway out to pads 39A and 39B.

    I was too young to remember the moon shots, but remember listening to the Apollo/Soyuz mission on the radio. My dad spoke passable Russian, so he translated what the Americans were saying for me.

  23. I was 8 at the time of the Apollo 11 landing, so my memories are a bit clearer than Phil’s. I remember listening to the landing itself on the radio, having dropped off my older brother at camp. I remember staying up late (and complaining “what’s taking them so long”) to watch the little black-and-white TV someone had propped up on the top of a cabinet or something, so that everyone could get a good view. I never did get to see a Saturn V launch in person, but I did get to watch a Shuttle launch. (STS-26, the first post-Challenger flight.) I heard that the vibrations we felt were nothing in comparison to a Saturn V launch.

    My 12-year-old daughter is interested in science enough to watch the videos of things like the Dragon approach to the ISS the other day. The other kids seem less interested in such things, but they did all watch the last Shuttle launch with me. I just hope that new things will come along that will help inspire “the next generation” to work in the sciences.

  24. Captn Tommy

    My Friend,

    Yes indeed you got that close. I “Road Triped with six friends in a very dangerous very early Dodge (I think) camper van for I think the Apollo 16 or 14, and we took the tour and I have (Somewhere) pictures of that awesome rocket from the bottom of the approach ramp. (1000 ft?) . 15 years later, the closest we got was 1.5 miles, a point directly between pads 34A and 34B. Two shuttles on the pads but not nearly as awesome.

    I often wonder if there had been no Vietnam War would we be on Mars today?

    Captn Tommy

  25. lqd

    Great post, Phil. This Memorial Day post is better than anything most politicians can come up with.

    This is slightly OT, but I felt I needed to post this somewhere: my history teacher began peddling Moon landing hoax theories to the entire class today, as part of a lesson on the space race. He found a cheap YouTube video that looked like it was made by a twelve year old, which was filled with ridiculous piffle that anyone with an ounce of common sense and a little bit of astronomy knowledge could easily debunk. Stupid things like “there are no stars in the pictures” and “the landing pads didn’t make any large dents in the soil” were included. Luckily, he gave me a couple minutes of class time to debunk the myths, but I was still very disturbed that a teacher wouldn’t just show such mindless babble to a class full of students but openly endorse it as well.

    Anyway, your book “Bad Astronomy” helped me debunk most of the conspiracy babble. Thanks, Dr. Plait.

    And as an added bonus, he thought Mike Collins walked on the moon with Neil and Buzz. When I asked him about it, he said “Why should I know this? I’m a history teacher, not a science teacher”. Facepalm.

    Here’s the moronic video he showed the class: Facepalm, headdesk, bodyfloor.

  26. Matt B.

    I think some people are misunderstanding the saying “Failure is not an option.” It doesn’t mean failure is impossible, it means you can’t opt for failure–you can’t give up. And we didn’t. The setbacks of Apollos 1 and 13 were not allowed to prevent later acheivements.

  27. Isaac

    Why does Pete Conrad’s signature appear to read, “Charles Conrad”? Or is it just me?

  28. We must be about the same age. I turned 4 when we lived at Cape Canaveral. Before that, and for a short time after, we lived in Huntsville. We used to go to the beach and watch the launches from the distance. My father worked for Chrysler at the time (yes, the car company, but they did other things and were a contractor to NASA), doing static testing of Saturn rockets; the move to the Cape (for 3 months) was part of his job. Until she became pregnant with me (after several years of marriage; once I was there, the older of my two younger brothers came 13 months later), my mother used to work for Wernher von Braun. (More accurately, she worked for Ed Riddick, who was sort of von Braun’s non-science assistant while Eberhard Rees was his scientific assistant, but had an office next to von Braun and knew him well.)

    Not all historical movies are historically accurate, but Apollo 13 really captures the look and feel of the times. There is a scene where there are some toys on the floor, one is a grandfather clock which one can wind up with a knob at the front. I had the same clock, at the same time and just a couple of miles from where the action in the movie was taking palce. That’s detail!


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