A NASA theme runs through my post this week, and my picture is from our 1999 holiday in Washington. My husband is admiring the Gemini spacecraft in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
This week has been memorable for a number of reasons, and it has been all too easy to lose sight of a milestone, such as the last space shuttle flight, as it is consigned to a few column inches on the back page. Atlantis left the International Space Station for the last time on Wednesday and completed its final mission on July 21st, bringing to an end thirty years of service by the space shuttle.
This week’s Sepia Saturday picture prompt is from Flickr Commons and shows a NASA spacesuit prototype of 1964.At this time it was early days in the ‘Space Race’. Russia had gained the first strike by putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit aound the Earth on 12th April 1961 in Vostok 1. A year later John Glenn circled the Earth three times in Friendship7.
The brilliant 1983 film ‘The Right Stuff’, based on the Tom Wolfe's book of the same name, told the story of the Mercury Program, beginning with Chuck Yeager breaking the Sound Barrier in 1958 and ending with Gordon Cooper’s launch in May 1963; the last time in which an American flew alone into Space. The 'Right Stuff’ of the title is defined, by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, as:
“The essential abilities or qualities, such as self-confidence, dependability and knowledge, necessary for success in a given field or situation”
Those early space pioneers certainly had bags of it!
It would be another seven years before the first man stepped on the Moon, when Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins landed Eagle in The Sea of Tranquility. Ony three years later Gene Cernan, of Apollo 17 became the last man, so far, to do so. As he ascended the lunar ladder, he expressed the wish that it would not be too long before Man would again step on the Moon’s surface. I heard a soundbite on the radio yesterday, in which he apparently said that he hadn’t then expected to be the last man ever to walk on the Moon. However, further missions were deemed underfunded and unsustainable, and only last year Armstrong and Cernan testified to Congress in opposition to cancellation of further space projects. Following Glenn’s space shuttle flight in 1998 Cernan wrote in Aviation Week:
“ Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage, who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders, and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.
But if we can send a 77 year-old into space, why not a 17 year-old? The teenagers of today are the ones who will become our leaders of tomorrow. Let’s give their generation some ownership of space, and ultimately their own destiny. Theirs is the one that will determine how and when mankind will return to the Moon and one day set foot on Mars. All too often I hear that teenagers need heroes. Let’s give them heroes, heroes of their own generation. Give them a reason to dream and reach for their own star - to make the impossible happen.”
Well, it hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps more of ‘The Right Stuff’ is needed. Except in this century the right stuff all too often means money!
The prompt picture also reminded me of Nick Park’s wonderful creation in the animation, 'The Wrong Trousers’, where Wallace’s birthday gift to Gromit, of ex-NASA techno-trousers, is intended to alleviate the boredom of walks. After many adventures, involving a criminal penguin , the trousers end the film by walking off by themselves into the sunset.
Searching my own hoard of memorabilia and yellowing newspaper cuttings, I fell upon a complete ‘Daily Telegraph’ from the day following the Solar Eclipse on August 11th 1999. I was immediately transported back more than a decade and reminded of the mounting excitement in the build-up to the event. we were living in Wiltshire at that time and had a pretty reasonable view of it I seem to recall.The newspaper reported with the headline, ‘Two minutes to last a lifetime - millions marvel at heavenly sight most will never see again’. Of course, the next hour was lost as I found myself diverted from my original quest and getting caught up in the headlines and stories. Teachers were being accused of helping children to cheat, the NHS waiting lists were provoking comment and the paper stated that, ‘The prospects for the health service next summer look pretty bleak.” - so no change there then. A neo-Nazi gunman had given himself up to the FBI and Danii Minogue was playing Lady Macbeth (sort of) at the Edinburgh Festival - a newsday like any other! However, there was one link which fitted the theme perfectly; the headline read, “Allergy boys shed spacesuits and revel in the dark”. Two brothers who suffered from Polymorphic Light Reaction, an allergy to sunlight which caused their skin to crack and blister, had special spacesuits designed for them by NASA scientists. The eclipse allowed them a few precious moments play in the garden without their spacesuits. They wished there could be an eclipse every day. Of course they did.
On page 24, a wonderfully thought-provoking piece by the Science Editor, Roger Highfield concluded:
“The reality is that the mechanical view of the universe that originated with Sir Isaac Newton is the exception, not the rule. Eclipses and the clockwork beats of the heavens are not typical of nature. The apparent certainties of science can easily be humbled by real-world complexity. This, as much as yesterday’s black sun, should prompt us all to question our place in the cosmos.”
To see the excellent cartoon by Steve Fricker which accompanied the piece click here, as copyright restrictions mean I am unable to reproduce it in this post.
And just to lighten the serious mood, here’s another ‘space' picture from nearly thirty years ago, when my son’s birthday cake was an excuse to surprise him with some Playmobil spacemen. I’ve no idea what prompted this; I don’t remember him wanting to be an astronaut. Anyway it went down well with his friends and seemed to be made of the right stuff!