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Threads: Apollo on the Moon

Letters written by me, updated June 2002
to include the period 1969-1975

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Background:  Knowing that we had been born too late to make the first trip to the moon, one of my correspondents had come up with an alternate ambition:  she wanted to be the first woman on Mars.  Like the rest of America, we were watching when Apollo 11 set out for the moon in the summer of 1969.


Tuesday, July 8, 1969

Speaking of astronauts, I surely hope they succeed in landing on the moon next week as planned.  There has been more advance publicity on this flight than on any other I can recall, and it would look bad after such a big build-up if they never got out of earth orbit.  Whether this particular flight succeeds or not, we'll land on the moon eventually, of course.  But national pride requires that this one succeed.


The landing took place on Sunday, July 20.


Wednesday, July 23, 1969

Well, what's left to say about the moon flight?  I have a feeling that you and I and the rest of the world have been sharing it all along.  (It's estimated that half a billion people saw Neil and Buzz romping around out there — far more than have witnessed any event which has ever taken place here on earth.)

I really wonder whether we, who have grown up in the space age, would have believed ten years ago that all this could happen now.  Who knows what's ahead, provided Congress appropriates the money?

A lot of average people who aren't normally interested in space seem to be following this flight closely.  The salesmen at the garage have been talking about the details of the landing, and they haven't missed much.

On Sunday afternoon our cousins were having another get-together at Columbus, a larger one this time, and I had thought I'd have to listen to Eagle's touchdown on my transistor since the adults wouldn't want to stop their visiting for something like that; but they had the TV on all afternoon and watched those last twelve minutes intently.  One of them [Cecil Gibson, seen here] had tears in his eyes after the Eagle was safely down.

At that "cousin reunion," as it was called (it's an annual affair), I saw one of my uncles for the first time since he fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a brain injury.  He's had brain surgery and has made an unexpectedly good recovery, but he's still not anything like he was before the accident.  He walks like a man of eighty; his voice has changed; he has tunnel vision, and hearing only in one ear and that very weak.  His memory is poor:  he can't remember incidents from the past, and he can't put together a conversation of more than a couple of sentences because he forgets what he was talking about.

He realizes what's wrong with him, and he seems to feel very insecure; he wants to be as much as possible a part of what's going on, but because of his limitations all he can do is listen with a very intent expression, agree with some of the things that are said, comment on what's going on right at the moment ("That's a nice corn field over there"), or ask simple questions  ("How far is it to where we're going?").  At times, though, he seems to be quite aware of what's going on and makes surprisingly appropriate comments.  Any further improvement is expected to be slow.


Thursday, July 31, 1969

The space age is wonderful, but it's beginning to make some unwelcome intrusions, too.  Last Friday night, Johnny Carson opened by showing a whole series of ads clipped from that day's paper which tried in one way or another to capitalize on the moon landing.

Then, about an hour later, a comedian had just started his monologue when suddenly the scene shifted to an airport with a 707 pulling up to a gate.  Flashed on the screen was "Live from Manila," and we were soon informed that the jet was Air Force One and we were being treated to a view of President Nixon's arrival in the Philippines, live and in color.  The President and his wife got off the plane, national anthems were played, and President Marcos and then Nixon made speeches, all while we watched.

Now in the days before satellites, they never would have interrupted an entertainment show in the middle of the night for something like this.  But now that they can show it live, they figure they have to show it live and in its entirety, so they do.


Thursday, August 21, 1969

About a week ago, I was temporarily out of things to do at my job at the garage, so I wandered around outside for a while.

Behind the garage building there's a sort of unpaved alley curving between some storage buildings; it leads back to a grain elevator half a block away.  This area is mostly bare dirt, though from time to time through the years it's been graveled to keep down the dust; there are a few depressions in it, ruts actually, about six feet by three with rounded edges and not very deep.

I wandered around there for a while, imagining what I would do if I were an astronaut and this were the moon.  Which rocks would I pick up, where would I stand to take the best pictures of the surface, what almost-flat area would I pick to deploy the seismometer?

Then I actually did something worthwhile, I think.  At least it helped my understanding of one point.

You remember from Apollo 11 some talk about the "zero-phase point," the place on the surface which to the observer is exactly 180 degrees away from the position of the sun.  When you look at the zero-phase point, you see no shadows, because the sun's rays are coming from directly behind you.  That seems reasonable enough.

But on television they told us, and showed us Surveyor pictures to prove it, that in this no-shadow area it's impossible to see any detail at all "because of the unique reflective qualities of the surface."  What exotic surface did the moon have, I wondered, which could cause this very unusual effect?

In my little alley I found the zero-phase point, the area immediately around the shadow of my head.  There were no shadows there, but I could still see detail.  I could readily make out the rocks as opposed to the dirt, and I could stereoscopically judge the depth of a crater.  So I asked myself how I was doing this, and then I got my answer.  The rocks were of a different (lighter) color than the dirt, so even without shadows I could see them.

Now if you remember, when the scientists at Houston first opened the first rock box from the moon, they were disappointed at not being able to see the rocks themselves because they were all completely covered with moon dust.  The reason one can't see detail at the zero-phase point on the moon is that all objects are almost exactly the same color — moon-dust color!  And there's the explanation.


Saturday, November 15, 1969

Re Apollo 12:  Hopefully in the future they will not try to take off in the rain into an approaching cold front.  Getting zapped by lightning and having all your circuit breakers break your circuits is not the most reassuring way to start a flight.  (But had they waited for better weather, they would have had to have waited thirty days for the moon to get back into position, and they didn't want to do that if they didn't have to.)


Sunday, April 12, 1970

I just noticed, while reading the Sunday paper, that all three Apollo 13 astronauts were named after their fathers.  We've got James L. Lovell Jr., Fred W. Haise Jr., and John L. Swigert Jr.  Not only that, but the man Swigert is replacing is Thomas K. Mattingly II.  There have been a surprisingly large number of "Juniors" among the astronauts; I know that Shepard, Glenn, and Schirra were, and I'm almost sure that there have been others in the Gemini and Apollo crews.

What does this mean?  Are you more likely to become an astronaut if your father is either egotistical or unimaginative?  Or does the large number of "Juniors" merely indicate that astronauts tend to come from close-knit, traditional families?

Washington was another interesting trip, with a lot of activity packed into those few days.

I did play tourist for a little while just before leaving, however.  Went over to take a look at the Smithsonian's moon rock, which is in the same building as the Wright Brothers' plane, inside a glass case on a turntable out in the middle of the floor with a guard standing by.

It's impossible to imagine a more uninteresting color for a rock.  Put a chunk of concrete beside it, and the concrete would look vivid in comparison.  The moon rock's neither gray nor tan, just blah.  But there it is, in a place of honor in the nation's most prestigious museum.

The flight back from Cleveland to Syracuse had no delay at all, since the controllers at Oberlin had by then gone back to work.  It was the first time I'd flown at night when there were no clouds.  As we flew south of Batavia, New York, I was surprised to notice that I could see both Buffalo and Rochester out of my window on the left side of the plane, and on the horizon were the lights of Toronto.  Three large cities at once.  The airplane really does shrink distance.

The Apollo 13 mission was routinely on its way to the moon on the day that I wrote the above letter.  The next morning, I walked to campus for breakfast.  When I stopped to buy the morning newspaper, the headline seemed like it couldn't be true:  the spaceship had been crippled, the landing called off, the crew's safe return put in jeopardy.

But, as we know from the movies, NASA was able to work out a way to get the crew home.

It happened that on Thursday of that week, the day before Apollo 13 would return to earth, I was scheduled as part of my TV course to work on a pretend newscast.  I created a graphic for the story which would used the crude technology available to animate the plan for re-entry.  Here's the rough sketch that I made at the time.  

To a black card, I attached white cutout shapes and dry-transfer lettering, showing the re-entering Command Module and the time on Friday when it was expected to land.  This was the basic graphic.

Two smaller pieces of black card depicted the parts of Apollo 13 that would be jettisoned before re-entry:  on the left the crippled Service Module, and on the right the Lunar Module which had served as a "lifeboat" for the astronauts' return from the moon.

The smaller cards were laid on top of the large one, and the whole was superimposed over our anchorman.  At the proper points in his story, the cards were each slid off the screen horizontally, revealing just the basic graphic.


Wednesday, August 4, 1971

It's fascinating looking.  And, incidentally, so was the TV coverage of Apollo 15.  With that camera on the Rover, for the first time we could really watch the astronauts gathering samples, digging trenches, falling down, and all that sort of thing.  It was at least 30% as much fun as being there.


In the fall of 1973, I visited the Apollo launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.  Click here for pictures.


Sunday, June 1, 1975

I talked with Bob Warner, one of our physics professors.  There are fewer jobs now for physicists.  He said that many of the graduates are going on to other fields of graduate study.

We pretty much agreed that the physics major at a liberal-arts college can be a good foundation for other endeavors mainly because of the way of thinking which it teaches.


Friday, July 25, 1975

I've been following the Apollo-Soyuz public relations flight.  I wish I remembered more of my college Russian.  Hello, yes, no, good, very, please, thank you, Soviet Union — those words I could understand.  Cognates I could understand.  But the rest of the Russian being spoken might as well have been Arapaho.  Oh, well.


Finally, a year later, I visited the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.  Click here for that.



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