At Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral (then named Cape Kennedy), Florida a giant Saturn V rocket sat on the launch pad. Inside waited three men: Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. At 9:32 AM the rocket left the pad and began the journey that would lead to the most momentous event in human history: the first time, ever, that humans from Planet Earth set foot on another world.
I grew up with the space program. While early flights weren’t something I was consciously aware of at the time. After all, if it wasn’t discussed at school or at home, how would I know about it? But in First Grade, one of the books that my mother got for me was “You Will Go to the Moon” by Mae and Ira Freeman. The first edition with illustrations based on von Braun’s Colliers series, rather than the later (of course, the later wasn’t out yet) based on drawings of Apollo hardware. The book captivated me. I was still reading it well into 2nd grade (book was lost in a move, sadly). For a long time my favorite color was black because that was the color of the rocket in the book. Who knows, maybe my current tastes still derive from that starting point.
But then, early in 1969 I happened to catch on TV the splashdown of the Apollo 9 mission. Somewhere in the same period the school I attended had it’s science lesson presented on television. In the segment on the planets, the conceit that they used was the presenter was in a “flying saucer” and traveling among the planets, talking about what we knew about each of them.
Then Apollo 10 flew almost but not quite to a lunar landing. I was hooked. From that day forward I went after anything in the least space related. (Goodbye dinosaurs. My new best friend is space.) I wore out the section of our encyclopedia (1964 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia and Book of Facts) on space. And as each new mission went up, I followed it avidly, even if the press didn’t. (Oh, how I would have loved to have had the Internet back then.)
And the one thing I wanted more than anything was to go. “You will go to the moon” after all.
Sadly, that was not to be. At the time, the only way to go was to be a world class scientist in some field of interest to NASA and to be a test pilot of high performance aircraft. And the only way to do that was to become a military pilot.
The problem was, that required perfect, uncorrected vision. And along about the time I was in 5th or 6th grade my vision changed. Earlier I had 20:20 vision but not any more. I became very nearsighted–blind as a bat (a metaphorical bat because, unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I know that real bats aren’t blind) without my glasses.
I hated those glasses with a passion because they meant that my dreams of becoming an astronaut were gone. Oh, since then we got “scientist astronauts”, “mission specialists” and “payload specialists” on the Shuttle, which relaxed the pilot requirement and with it the vision requirements were also relaxed. But by that time it was too late for me in other ways. Kind of like D. D. Harriman, by the time he was free to go he was no longer physically up to the journey.
And Apollo ended. No one has been back to the moon since. People have occasionally floated an idea for a return but nothing ever comes of it. More than that, for decades there was no serious effort to open up space to people. Skylab came and went. Various Salyut stations, and then Mir. And finally the ISS. But the underlying assumption of all of them was that space would remain the purview of a handful of people, agents of their government.
There was no room for me.
And so it has remained until recent years. And Ansari X Prize seems to have triggered a Renaissance of private spaceflight. There’s Virgin Galactic. They’ve had some teething problems, including the tragic lost of a test spacecraft, but they continue to move forward. There’s SpaceX and their work on reusable space launch vehicles. There are others. The chances are that I’ll probably never have a chance to go. It will be too rare, and too expensive for the remainder of my life expectancy.
But perhaps things will be different for my daughter, should she ever desire to see the world from space or to walk upon another world.
I can hope anyway.