Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Farewell to a Giant Leaper

When I was a boy, a nearly annual occurrence was a trip to Kentucky to my maternal grandparents' house.  My biological grandmother died when I was quite young, but there would be many visits to see my grandfather.  I enjoyed them greatly, but of course he is now long gone.  So I have a few regrets, and mostly I wish I had thought to ask him a few questions.
In particular, I wish I had asked him what it was like to look up in a sky and see only birds and clouds.  Now, I have once been in a situation when there were nothing but birds and clouds in the sky, but that was after the terrible events of September 2001 and I knew it was only a temporary pause.  But my grandfather was born in the early 1890s, and so as a boy he would have known skies which had never seen heavier-than-air craft.  What was it like to hear of such amazing machines?  

My grandfather would do much more than see such wonders; he would one day fly on them.  And while he did not have the fascination with technology that a number of his grandsons had (we get that from Dad), I wonder what he thought of going from skies free of humans to men walking on the moon.

Even more so, I wish I could ask him about the night that men first set foot on the moon, because maybe he could tell me where I was.  We were apparently visiting that week, and I was just a wee lad of a year, a month and a week.  I've tried interrogating the other living persons in that house that night, but neither my brothers nor my parents can remember.  

My memories of moon landings hence are terribly intertwined with the endless documentaries I've seen since, but I do distinctly remember watching some of the last moon excursions on live TV.  Those, along with watching swimming at the Munich Games (my parents would have never let me see the horrible events that happened later there), are among my first memories.  I remember, because I remember being unable to understand how those big moon rovers could have fit in that little lunar lander, and only partially believing my father's explanation that the rovers folded.  Who ever heard of a car folding?

It's not uncommon that I think about these things, but of course this weekend these thoughts have often been front-and-center due to the death of Neil Armstrong.  Moonwalkers are in short supply and none of the remaining ones are spring chickents, but Armstrong's death was still a shock.  

It's heartening that many of the public media outlets have not simply dropped the story after a few blurbs, but of course as a fan I haven't been fully satisfied with any of the coverage.  I won't claim special expertise, but only a bit of ability to amalgamate over many sources.  And, as a fan, of course, I want everyone else to revel in some of the details. 

I recently got to make one of my all-too-infrequent pilgrimages to the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington D.C., though we could not fit a trip to the Udvar-Hazy center in (there is a distinct lack of good public transit options).  No matter how many times I go, it still fills me with wonder, and I always come out knowing something I didn't before.  It's still magical to touch a bit of the moon and gaze on Armstrong's command module.

One of the other exhibits there made a point that is all to often missed.  In the general sense, it is that we too often remember famous individuals for single achievements, and not for the richness of their successes.  The point was made specifically about Amelia Earhart: that the mystery of her disappearance has so grossly overshadowed her amazing achievements.  From winning races to executing very long solo over-water flights, she pushed flying forward in a way that both transcended gender but also gave the lie to gender role myths.

We lost another pioneering astronaut this summer, and while Sally Ride perhaps did not set new records she did blaze a trail.  We can look back now on the inanity of the questions she faced from the press and with disapproval on the dumb jock reception of the prior astronauts, but of course then it took a lot more fortitude to actually do it.  Like Jackie Robinson, she shouldn't have had to deal with what she dealt with, but she did so in a way that destroyed the excuses for such bad behavior.

Obituaries for Armstrong did cover a bit of the breadth of his achievements, but very few really underlined his grit and determination and, to be honest, bit of luck.  The Apollo 11 landing could well have not happened, as he would have been quite justified in aborting the landing with no clear landing field and fuel dwindling.  During his training for the mission, it was only because he aborted at the right time that he survived the destruction of a flying lunar lander trainer (a more successful flight can be seen on YouTube).   Many outlets mentioned that he had piloted the first successful docking of two space vehicles in orbit; they generally omitted that the docking was cut short when a stuck thruster put the two craft into a spin that nearly blacked out Armstrong and his co-pilot David Scott; such a blackout in such a setting would have certainly been lethal.

Armstrong's national service went far wider, serving as a combat pilot in Korea and a civilian test pilot for the X-15 and other craft.  After Apollo, he retired from the spotlight, but later served a number of important advisory roles to NASA.  Indeed, even recently he was critical of the current policy of shifting manned flight to private companies.  I didn't agree with him on that point, but he certainly made a clear and calm argument.

I did learn one thing from one of his obituaries, which made me wonder how close I had gotten to the great man.  Late in life, he remarried and moved to Indian Hill, which is just outside Cincinnati.  My uncle taught for many years at Indian Hills' high school and was long the adviser to the school newspaper.  As a result of this and his wonderful personality and conversational abilities, my uncle knew much of the upper crust of Cincinnati society.  I visited that area twice in the time Armstrong lived there; once for my Aunt & Uncle's 50th anniversary party and then on the sadder occasion of my Uncle's memorial service.  Now I need to ask my aunt: did they ever meet the Armstrongs?  I'd like to say I'd conduct myself properly in such as situation, but being a fawning fan might be understandable in that situation.

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