I’ve been a space junkie since leaping from “Mary Poppins” to “The Red Planet” with nary a nod to Nancy Drew. My interest, born of escapism, reawakened with NASA and the U.S.-Soviet space race.
That made the moon and Mars real, possible, not just a setting for B movies featuring little green men with antennae. So naturally, as a young mom of three, I watched the preamble, launch, landing and return of Apollo 11. Recently, I’ve seen “First Man” twice, once at the Sunrise, again on Netflix. As soon as the specials from PBS, CNN, Smithsonian and Discovery hit On Demand I watched each multiple times.
Fifty years downstream, archival footage chronicled not only “man’s” most audacious exploration, but life in the ’60s, when the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building, a windowless monolith on Merritt Island, Fla., was the largest building in the world.
Painfully obvious is the scene at Mission Control in Houston, proving that NASA was the ultimate old boys’ club. Women in senior engineering positions were scarcer than, uh, hen’s teeth. One, Judy Sullivan, served as a biomedical engineer. I recall no reference to her. Another, Poppy Northcutt, who planned flight trajectories that brought the astronauts home, was the only woman on the Mission Control engineering staff during the Apollo launch. The former beauty contestant was described as “highly visible … for her long blonde hair and fashionable mini-skirts.” The interviewer asked the now-old lady if she felt “out of place.”
About those Mission Control jockeys: the buzz cuts! The short-sleeved white shirts (with pocket protectors) and skinny dark ties! On the job smoking, even cigars! Their equipment included — just imagine — legal pads, pens, reams of printouts, analog everywhere.
We already know that the Apollo on-board computer carried less memory than a cellphone, but who knew that the Hasselblad cameras clicking inside and outside the lunar module employed film? Or that Buzz Aldrin played Ole’ Blue Eyes’ “Fly Me to the Moon” during his moonwalk?
For that matter, who recalls that the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick tragedy happened on July 18, as Apollo approached the moon? I pity the news editors responsible for picking the lead story that day.
Another timeline issue: People born after 1969 knew the outcome, therefore cannot appreciate the tension of watching the launch, landing, docking and splashdown in real time. On the 50th anniversary, little was said of the 18 astronauts/cosmonauts, including women, who died during space flight or training for space missions.
Wernher von Braun, designer of the rocket that propelled Apollo into space, was hardly mentioned or seen in contemporaneous coverage. Outrage still simmered over von Braun’s role in designing rocketry for Hitler. After World War II, he and more than a thousand German scientists were clandestinely brought to the U.S., where he became a citizen. He died at 65 of pancreatic cancer, for which there is still no cure.
Over the years, a number of African-American men and women have become astronauts but none has walked on the moon. I noticed only one male of color out of a hundred in Mission Control during the Apollo 11 flight.
Astronauts’ wives were carefully groomed and prepped before appearing on camera, where they wore headbands and mouthed confidence and calm even though their husbands had been informed of the 60-40 chance of returning safely to Earth. Pressure took its toll. Of the 30 astronauts recruited into the space program, the marriages of only seven survived. Neil Armstrong’s was not among them. The widow of Ed White, killed in the Apollo 1 fire, committed suicide. Frank Borman’s wife turned to alcohol.
Sad to realize that almost all the engineers, technicians, media personalities, politicians and NASA officials seen during last week’s retrospect have died, along with eight of the 12 moonwalkers.
The footage resurrected for the commemoratives confirmed tail fins, bouffant hairstyles, 25-cent coffee, “mod” dresses popular during Beatlemania. We see Richard Nixon smiling like a proud papa, Johnny Carson swaggering, Queen Elizabeth II as a slim, hatless monarch. So that’s what ticker tape looked like. (Shredded paper is now used for parades.) Color TV was in its infancy — but during the moonwalk Nixon was able to phone Armstrong from the Oval Office. Go figure.
I still can’t fathom that the next significant manned foray into space, perhaps colonization, will cost $30-$40 billion. But, after 50 years, man and womankind itch for a challenge, as do those little green Martians peering down from their red planet.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.