Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zooming through space center triggers many memories

When someone mentions the space program to me, I think of NASA. I think of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Mission Control, and the phrase, "Houston, we have a problem."

Until recently, I never thought of Huntsville, Alabama.

Stage 3 of a Saturn 5 rocket: not a mock-up.
Oh, I'd heard of Huntsville. But until I visited the northern Alabama city, I really had no clue what a huge role it played in the development and success of the U.S. space program.

That changed after spending an evening at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was Huntsville, Alabama that Wernher von Braun moved to after leaving Germany following the end of World War II. And that was where he actually worked on the rockets that eventually helped the U.S. win the race to the moon.

I found out all about this - and more - at this wonderful museum, that includes a world-renowned, hands-on Space Camp for both youngsters and adults.

Apollo 16 space capsule.
My schedule would not allow me to spend more than a few hours touring the facility, although I could easily have spent more time there. 

As it was, I got to see Stage 3 of a real Saturn V rocket (one of only three still in existence), I got to pretend I was John Glenn and sit in a mock-up of a Mercury 7 space capsule, I played a simulation game that saw me crash-land a space shuttle, and - this is the piece de resistance - I saw the actual Apollo16 space capsule that landed on the moon.

While wandering around, viewing the exhibits, snapping photos, talking with the docents that were there to answer any questions visitors had, I couldn't help but think of my dad.

Although we're Canadian, Dad was a huge believer in the space program. I remember when I was in Grade 1, my dad chose to keep me home from school to watch the launch of Friendship 7, to see John Glenn become the first astronaut to orbit the earth in a space capsule.

My dad reasoned that this event was to become a monumental part of our history, and he wanted me to recognize that and see it - "see it" both in terms of watching history happen on live TV as well as in terms of seeing what it meant in the bigger picture of our existence on this planet.

Of course, when the Apollo space capsule finally touched down on the moon and we saw a live broadcast from the moon that summer night in July, 1969, it was just as big an event - maybe bigger. 
Memorial bust: July 20, 1969.

We pulled the portable black and white TV out onto the patio and ran an extension cable into the house and cable hook-up in the wall. We sat out late that Sunday night, eating sandwiches, sipping drinks, and soaking up history.

It was more than just history for my dad, too.

When he was a kid back in the 1930s and '40s, reading Buck Rogers comics and Tom Swift sci-fi adventure books and watching Flash Gordon at the movie theatre every Saturday, he told anyone who would listen that our future was in the stars - one day, we would actually be able to fly off to other planets.

Of course, everyone pooh-poohed that and he took a lot of ribbing, even into the 1950s. None of his friends believed it could happen.

So it was certainly a huge day for him, when man landed on the moon.

It was a giant step for mankind - and an important milestone for my father, that day, too.

He didn't rub it in to anyone, didn't say, "I told you so." He just enjoyed the moment.

And he would have enjoyed the moments I spent at the Space and Rocket Center, too.

In fact, he probably was.

Hey, Mr. Spaceman...

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