Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Snowcone and Haystack

I didn’t remember it until this morning, but today is the anniversary of the first moon landing.  It’s hard to imagine it was 42 years ago (mostly because I was -1 years old at the time) but it’s also hard to fathom that it’s been something like 33 years since Skylab fell back to Earth, and I actually remember that one happening.

Space exploration in general is a huge k-hole for me, and I can burn up unlimited amounts of time by googling the Apollo missions or the Mir space station or the Space Shuttle.  I got knocked back into this last weekend, because we saw Apollo 13 at the Paramount Theater, and that got me thinking and reading Wikipedia and researching how exactly that tank explosion happened and who was originally supposed to fly that mission and all that.

A great lull in manned space flight, at least from the US perspective, happened when I was a child.  The last Apollo mission happened in 1975, with the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I was four then, and shortly after was when I got into space exploration trivia and started poring over encyclopedias and searching every garage sale for one of those GI Joe Mercury capsules.  The US didn’t fly into space again for six years, and it seemed like back then, the Soviets were sending up guys every other week, and keeping them in orbit for weeks and months at a time.  I couldn’t confirm this though, with a lack of internet connectivity and an impenetrable Iron Curtain preventing the free flow of information on the Russian space program.  There were those Mars probes, and Voyager and other unmanned stuff, but aside from an occasional reference on a PBS program, this stuff got almost no mention in our Indiana newspaper.

That meant that before they sent up the first Space Shuttle, I memorized everything I could find on Apollo.  I knew about Apollo 13 before there was a Tom Hanks movie on it; I could tell you about the 1967 pad fire, and explain translunar injection, and tell you all about lunar landers and lunar rovers and lunar life support backpacks and lunar samples and how Wally Schirra was a lunar asshole when he got sick on Apollo 7.

The technology of the Apollo program amazed me as a kid, because it seemed like the future, like we’d be going back to the moon any time now, that the Space Shuttle program would flourish, and they’d start cranking those things out like Boeing puts out 737s, until pretty much everyone hitched a ride into space like most of us have flown an MD-80 from one regional airport to another.  In the 70s, computers were rapidly getting smaller, and it only seemed logical that we’d all be astronauts in a couple of decades.

Now, Apollo seems astounding to me because it was so low-tech.  The computer they carried in the command module and lunar module had roughly the same amount of processing power and memory as an Atari 400.  (Luckily, it had a better keyboard.)  The command module talked to the Earth at a fast rate of about 50 kilobits/second.  And not only were all of those checklists analog printed material (this was long before the iPad could have made them obsolete), a lot of the calculations done by the crew were made with an analog computer, aka a slide rule.  I’ve seen a couple of the command modules at museums, and the interiors resemble a low-end Volkswagen from the 70s more than a high-tech interplanetary space vehicle.  It’s simply amazing that people would climb into these tin buckets, strap on a million horsepower of explosive rocket power, and aim for the moon.

It’s also odd to me that thirty years after sitting on the floor of my grade-school library poring over every book about space, I’m now just a couple of miles from Alameda, which is now home to the USS Hornet.  When Apollo 11 returned and splashed down in the Pacific, the Hornet picked up the crew and capsule, and then quickly ushered them off into a converted Airstream trailer, where they sat in quarantine for 21 days, to make sure they weren’t carrying any moon viruses.  I’ve been to the Hornet a few times; the trailer is still there, as is an early test capsule and lots of patches, photos, and other assorted stuff from the program.

Now we’re back in one of those lulls.  There’s no Space Shuttle, and I guess there’s people going up to the ISS on Russian rockets.  There’s also China’s space program, which has been successful as of late. But it feels like it did back when America didn’t really have a space program, except this time, there’s no Shuttle plans in the future to look forward to. There’s a lot of talk about privatized space travel, and maybe that will be the future, but I probably won’t be driving out to SFO and buying a ticket on Delta to go into low earth orbit.

Oh well.  Maybe I can scrape together my cash and try to build a working rocket for one of those GI Joe capsules, like this guy did.  I see much eBay sniping in my future.