Coming of Age in the Space Age

In the spring of 2005, it became obvious that my frail, elderly parents could no longer live independently in their home. My father was hospitalized and near death, struggling with a weak heart and complications from surgery after a fall that broke his hip. My mother moved into assisted living, while I spent the most strenuous weeks of my life cleaning out the family home, getting it ready for sale. The biggest chore was the attic: cramped, unbearably hot, dusty, and choked with boxes from decades of accumulation that some might call hoarding.

An image from the attic and my distant past.

There were, however, a few sentimental treasures amid the cardboard strata, like the July 1960 issue of National Geographic. Seeing it for the first time in decades brought a flood of memories. This was one of my favorite things in early childhood. The dramatic illustration on the cover captured my six-year-old imagination, as did the other photos in the article. I doubt I could have gleaned much from the text as a first grader, but Dad explained the pictures for me.

One of Dad’s Favorites

My fascination with space had begun a few years earlier. I have no memory of Sputnik from 1957, but I vividly remember two Walt Disney shows about space from that time—probably because they were reinforced by subsequent reruns. These were Man and the Moon (1955) and Mars and Beyond (1957). After fanciful animated introductions, both shows depicted Werner von Braun’s vision of how humans would travel to the moon and Mars. Disney and von Braun triggered my obsession with space flight, but my father sustained it. He was equally fascinated. I remember seeing on his night stand a paperback book with the simple title, Satellite! I never found it in the attic, but its intriguing cover is as deeply burned into my memory as the red-hot Mercury capsule on National Geographic. A few years ago I tracked down Satellite! in the public library and read it, just to learn what visions of space flight Dad had been pondering back then.  Written before Sputnik, it was mostly about the role of satellites in the coming International Geophysical Year. I was impressed by how technically substantive it was, yet stunned and amused to read a speculative passage near the end that seemed to imbue the flying saucer craze with scientific credibility.

Ed White revels in taking a walk outside Gemini 4.

A year after that memorable National Geographic issue, Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth. Six weeks after that, president Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the moon. From that time on, space exploration was real. What a time to be alive! By age ten I had a four-inch reflecting telescope, and Dad and I would brave cold, clear winter nights to marvel at Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s ring, and the mountains and craters of the Moon. Meanwhile, projects Mercury and Gemini put Americans into space, and like many other kids of that time, I imagined I was just about the right age to become an astronaut when NASA began recruiting for missions to Mars.

Honeybee and Ranger 7: Marvelous but not miraculous.

In addition to cold, clear nights, Dad and I shared Sunday mornings. He was Presbyterian and my Mom Catholic, and the Catholic Church only sanctioned mixed marriages if the couple agreed to raise all children as Catholics. My parents bent this rule by agreeing to raise their firstborn son a Presbyterian, so that Dad need not go to church alone. I was that son, and my Christian indoctrination began right about the time of Sputnik. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, but these two forces—religious dogma and scientific discovery—were already fomenting conflict in my young brain. To Dad, science and religion were perfectly compatible and complementary, but the sermons to which he brought me said otherwise. I first noticed this with one preacher in particular. I remember only two of his pronouncements on science, though there were surely more. One was the specious claim that, because science cannot explain the flight of a bee, God must exist. The other was not a God-of-the-gaps argument but more along the lines of the mythical tower of Babel. The preacher was railing against one of NASA’s unmanned Ranger spacecraft, which was hurtling out of control toward the moon as he spoke. He mentioned the great cost of the program and decried the profligate waste, but his implied message was that God didn’t want uppity scientists invading His heavenly realm. I can’t remember which Ranger failed that day—all of the first six failed—but I vividly remember Ranger 7.

A: Final image from Ranger 7, including its own grave site. B: Same area as seen from Apollo 16. The bright spot in the middle of the white rectangle is the Ranger 7 impact crater. C: Enlargement of area in rectangle from B. D: Same area imaged by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The sharp crater at center, 13 meters across, was made by Ranger 7.

The Ranger program was the work of the Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech. Its formal goal was to get high-resolution images of potential Apollo landing sites, images that would reveal hazards large enough to destroy a lunar lander, yet small enough to evade detection by earth-based telescopes. There were also broader and more important goals: learn how to navigate a spacecraft to the moon by doing it; learn how to miniaturize the electronics; and above all, learn how to make robotic spacecraft that could explore the rest of the solar system at a tiny fraction of the cost of manned missions. For Ranger, the mission plan was simple and suicidal: return video images of the moon while following a collision course. Beginning in August 1961, the first two and half years of the program yielded nothing but failure, embarrassment, and criticism. Vindication came on July 31, 1964, when Ranger 7 worked flawlessly. I remember watching the successive still images on TV, each several seconds apart, yet close enough in time  to give the impression of approach, acceleration, and impending doom for the intrepid robot.

Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad visits Surveyor 3, which had arrived 2 years earlier.

For me, however, Ranger 7 made another kind of impact. It was a beautiful demonstration of how science works: trial and error, ruthless honesty, rejection of bad ideas, refinement of models, and successive approximation as the only meaningful path to truth. And although I would need a few more years to make the mental connection, Ranger had proved the preacher wrong.  A year later, a spacecraft derived from the basic Ranger design, Mariner 4,  returned stunningly detailed images of Mars from less than 10,000 km above the Martian surface. Meanwhile, Ranger’s successor at the moon, the soft-landing robotic Surveyor, made footprints in the lunar dust three years before Neil Armstrong made his. It was mathematics, chemistry, and physics that got us to the moon, not religion. It was not blind faith, but open eyes, imagination, meticulous reasoning, willingness to admit error, persistence, and hard work that advanced human knowledge and understanding.

Two photos were not enough to comprehend the Vehicle Assembly Building from its parking lot. For scale, the top half of a tour bus is visible at lower right.

I sometimes regret that I never witnessed the launch of a Saturn V in person, but I did get to visit Launch Complex 39 in its glory days. In May of 1967, my thoughtful parents bought me a ticket to join a student tour of the Kennedy Space Center. The climax was seeing the gargantuan Vehicle Assembly Building, where the Saturn V was built. My Instamatic camera could not capture it, and even now I cannot find words that adequately convey the immensity of this structure, the largest in the world by volume at the time. But I witnessed the energy and optimism of that time and place. It epitomized a nation that confidently rode converging waves of postwar prosperity and Cold War competition to the moon.

By the time I was cleaning out my parents’ attic, those waves had long since dissipated, but a robust program of robotic space exploration had continued, and Dad had followed it in the pages of National Geographic. He would survive his hip replacement surgery and live another three years, though the ordeal left him mentally diminished. For me the most striking evidence of this came in January of 2006, as we watched the launch of New Horizons to Pluto on TV. I explained the details of the planned mission, much as he had long ago explained the fascinating images in National Geographic. I told him how special and exciting this was: the first good look at the most distant and mysterious planet in the solar system. I said, “Now you must live another nine years, just to see those pictures of Pluto!” In striking contrast to his former self, he was utterly uninterested and dismissive. Nine years later, as I reveled in the stunning images of Pluto from New Horizons, I wistfully imagined how much Dad, in his prime, would have loved this.

Pluto as seen by New Horizons, July 2015.

Part two of this two-part series is available here.

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Posted July 12, 2019; Filed under: Ideas, Technology Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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