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America’s Fascination With Space Won’t End

I remember where I was when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. I remember where I was when the Challenger disaster happened on that fateful morning in 1986.

I would bet we were all a little melancholy Thursday when the Atlantis space shuttle’s landing marked an historic end of NASA’s 30-year-long space shuttle program. Seems Americans have a fascination with space, and rightly so.

NASA’s Apollo program ran from 1961 until 1975. The shuttle program ran from 1981 to 2011.

President Obama has now ordered NASA to focus its resources on sending people to an asteroid by 2013 and to Mars by 2030. Onward and upward we go.

The shuttle program milestone this week was a good excuse for me to dig out the column I wrote two years ago marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, and which I submit in honor of the closing of another chapter in NASA’s book.

Where were you when you watched Armstrong’s boot touch the lunar surface? I was sitting with my mother on our couch in the living room. I still remember to this day feeling so nervous for the astronauts wondering if they were going to sink into a quicksand-like surface or land safely on hard ground. But that’s an 8-year-old girl for you; a mother in the making even then.

Landing on the moon made us one with the world, and it was like magic. But watching the space geeks at Mission Control in Houston riding an emotional roller coaster had to have been one of the high points. These young baby boomers brought home the human element. When they looked worried, we were worried. When they threw their arms up in the air in victory, we cried.

Apollo 11: The Untold Story, an article on www.popularmechanics.com, is filled with quotes from the young men who were part of history; sleepless news correspondents and operations engineers, flight directors and even astronauts themselves telling their personal tales of those historical days in the summer of ’69.

Robert Sieck, spacecraft test and launch operations engineer, Kennedy Space Center: “Since I was the backup engineer, I was not out at the Cape. I could watch the launch with my wife and my 1-year-old daughter. The highway was absolute gridlock, and the cars and trucks weren’t trying to move. Everyone was there to watch history. The vendors were sold out of everything — no more T-shirts, caps, buttons or pins. People were pulling plugs of grass from the side of the road and stuffing them in zip-lock bags as souvenirs,” Sieck said.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong announces, breaking the tension in the control room as a controller tells the crew, “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again.”

Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would spend two hours on the moon July 19, collecting souvenirs and leaving a few of their own; an American flag and a plaque that reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

I would be fortunate enough to see two of the souvenirs in my lifetime: a moon rock at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the actual space capsule at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Much smaller than I expected, I might add.

Quote of the Week: “There is a photograph that shows splashdown inside the control room. There’s a guy standing by the console with a huge piece of paper. That’s me. I got the signatures of everybody in that room and in the back room. Every time I did that I would ask them their age. Well, I sat down and ran it out. The average age the night we had splashdown was 28. When Space Shuttle Atlantis left Earth on May 11, 2009, the average NASA civil servant’s age was 47.” — H. David Reed, a flight dynamics officer during Apollo 11.

Jennifer Huard’s column appears each Saturday. She welcomes your emails at jhuard@abqjournal.com. Visit her blog at www.jenniferhuard.blogspot.com.

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