Villagers With Pitchforks

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

How I Missed the Moonwalk

Thirty-five years ago today:

In the entire city of Pittsburgh, there was no bigger space enthusiast than me.

Eight years old, a voracious reader, I could quote chapter and verse on the entire Apollo Project, the astronauts, mission control, the mission to the moon - even the benefits that we would see from the space program.

While most of the advanced engineering was a little hazy - what was this 'specific impulse' stuff anyway? - I knew the basics of how We Were Going To The Moon.

So here it was: July 20, 1969. The Day.

They were up there on the moon, I was in my living room surrounded by press clippings, PR, technical specs, models - you name it; if it was about Apollo 11, I was reviewing it.

And in the plans for getting off the moon, I found it. The Fatal Flaw.

The Lunar Module only had one engine. One small engine to get my heroes off the moon. If that engine failed, the astronauts would be Marooned Forever.

Marooned Forever. Pretty scary, for an eight-year-old.

But surely they tested the engine. I mean, I knew about the early unmanned Apollo missions, the expensive full-scale tests of the Saturn V and the spacecraft. Surely they tested everything.

Marooned Forever. I dug through all my Apollo materials.

Making sure.

I couldn't find anything about the ascent engine. But it worked on Apollo 10. Their ascent engine worked. Surely it'd be okay.

Marooned Forever. It kept echoing through my head, all day and into the evening.

So there they were, my heroes, on the moon. On the Moon! And all I could worry about was them getting off the moon. It would be years before I learned about hypergolic fuels and high-pressure nitrogen. When I did, I marvelled at the sheer elegant simplicity of the Lunar Module's engines.

Marooned Forever. No TV from the surface yet. There was Walter Cronkite, even then the God of the News. Amazed and reassuring. The mission was going perfectly. The astronauts were too keyed up to sleep, so they'd be walking on the moon sooner than they planned. They'd sleep later, but they were getting ready now.

Marooned Forever.

Marooned Forever. The enormity of it frightened this eight-year-old.

Marooned Forever. I couldn't bear it any more. I said a prayer for the astronauts and went to bed. I was too afraid for them.

So I missed the moon walk.

Me, the biggest, youngest space supporter in Pittsburgh.


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