Holy Moly! We Went to the Moon!

John W. Pinkerton


The democratic “we,” was never stronger, never more united, never more flag-flying pleased with ourselves than when we landed on the moon.  It wasn’t just Neal Armstrong’s footprint on the moon; it was our shoes placed in the same imprint.    We were one nation, one people.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, October 4, 1957, and consequently helped put me through college.  Our congress, in reaction to the Soviets’ accomplishment, created the National Defense Student Loan program.  It was an effort to help potential students go to college in an attempt to catch up with the Soviets in space.  I suspect Congress didn’t really have me in mind when they developed the program, but, nevertheless, I benefited.

I don’t recall how much money I borrowed from the Federal government my first semester at LSUA, but I recall borrowing each semester I went to school at the branch and later the main campus of LSU.  After graduating from LSU and putting in a couple of years in the Army, the bill came due.  Although I was teaching at the time, I was flat broke and unable to start repaying the loan.  I wrote them a letter explaining my situation and asking if the repayment could be delayed.  As I recall, they responded with a very kind letter asking if I could possibly pay the interest on the loan.  Yeah, I could do that.  A year later, I got an even nicer letter from these folks;  apparently they had discovered that I was teaching in an economically deprived school district and was eligible for forgiveness of one year of my loan repayment.  Each year for four more years, I received the same forgiveness of my loan from the Federal government.  I’m as much against government giveaway programs as the next guy, but to say I was grateful would be an understatement. 

I guess the day that the space race really got my full attention was August 19, 1960, as I was about to begin my first semester at LSUA.  The Soviets, after killing several poor animals in previous attempts, finally put the pups Belka and Strelka into orbit and were able to bring them home safely.  This meant that men in space could not be far behind.  The Soviets’ Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, became the first human in space.  I remember hearing the news of the great event as I was walking across campus where I noticed several fellow students gathered around a portable radio quietly listening to the astonishing news.

The U. S. got its first satellite, Explorer 1, into space January 31, 1958.  It remained in space for four months.  It was the first  spacecraft to detect the Van Allen Belt which poses a hazard to satellites.  Well, I thought, we’re on our way now.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced to the world as he addressed a joint session of Congress that the U. S. would send men to the moon safely before the end of the decade.  Holy moly, I don’t know if others believed this bold prediction would come true in such a short time, but I definitely doubted it.  In spite of my doubts, Neal Armstrong took, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” on July 20, 1969.

Linda and I were newly married and temporarily housed in an apartment in College Station to make it convenient for me to begin working on a masters degree in education.  The apartment was furnished with a color television, thank the Lord.  Like many other Americans, with beer in hand, we watched as Neal Armstrong, on behalf of all mankind, took the first step upon the moon.  The moon! Holy moly!  All things seemed possible.

1969 was an interesting year: 250,000 marched on Washington in protest of the Vietnam War, the first U. S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, PBS was established, the Chappaquiddick Affair occurred, the Charles Manson cult killed five, Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast, Woodstock was attended by 350,000 rock-n-roll fans, the U. S. Air Force closed Project Blue Book, the Concorde had its first test flight, the first ATM was installed, the Boeing 747 made its debut, the microprocessor was invented, the battery powered smoke detector was introduced, Sesame Street debuted, the Beatles gave their last performance, Easy Rider and True Grit were leading folks to the theatres, the average cost of a new home was a little over $15,000, the average income was $8,550, the average new car cost $3,270, and gas was 35 cents per gallon.  Yes, an interesting year, but the one event which overshadowed all others was that we had gone to the moon and back, probably the most important event of the 20th Century.

Of course, in short order there were those among us who claimed it was all a Hollywood hoax.  To all of you who harbor such beliefs, may I just say, “Kiss my butt!”  You’re probably the same folks who believe aliens built the pyramids and Stonehenge.

Governmental endeavors usually are looked upon with doubts and suspicions, but I don’t think I ever looked forward to such an endeavor as much as I did the Hubble Space Telescope which would have ten times the resolution of a ground-based telescope and fifty times the sensitivity.  It would and has brought us greater knowledge of the universe and wonderful images of other worlds.  I remembered that I was traveling the day, April 24, 1990, that word came over the car radio that the Hubble launch had been successful.  Fantastic!  We were doing something right.  A few weeks later, word came that a mistake had been made in the creation of the main mirror of the telescope, and the image obtainable was far less than optimal.  Holy crap!   Can’t we do anything right?  Three years later, the telescope was given corrective glasses, and it did and still does function perfectly.  Nice save.

Speaking of nice saves,  the proudest moment for me in regard to our space program wasn’t the landing on the moon: it was the Apollo 13 mission.  On April 13, 1970, there was an explosion aboard the service module of the lunar mission on its way to the moon.  Astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Hayes seemed doomed.  American ingenuity, genius, and spirit were in full display in the six days required to get them safely back to earth.   To me this was NASA’s finest moment.

Of course there have been many other accomplishments by NASA: The Space Shuttle (1972-present), Pioneer 10 flight to Jupiter (1972-1997), Mars Pathfinder (1996-1997), the International Space Station (1998-present), and Chandra X-ray Observatory (1999-present).  These are all major accomplishments, but none have captured our imagination like John Glenn’s flight into orbit, Neal Armstrong’s stepping onto the Moon, and Apollo 13.

Of course not everything was triumphs and brilliance: folks died.

On January 27, 1967, a fire in the cabin caused the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee as they rehearsed for the Apollo 1 mission.

On January 28, 1986, we were all reminded of the dangers of space flight by the disintegration shortly after liftoff of Space Shuttle Challenger which caused the deaths of Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee.  They were gone in an instant before our eyes as we watched on television.  We all soon learned what O-rings are.

February 1, 2003, perhaps the most horrifying deaths were those of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s crew: Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.  It played out over hours as the shuttle’s thermal protection system failed upon the shuttle’s reentry into earth’s atmosphere.  We helplessly watched from earth as the disaster slowly played out with the debris falling in Texas and Louisiana.

My closest encounter with NASA occurred shortly after returning home from two years in the Army.  I had an interview for a technical writing job and visited the main headquarters of NASA in Houston.  Of course, wisely NASA rejected me and went on to success after success.

My closest connection to the U. S. space program is a math major friend of mine, Gene, whom I went to school with at LSU.  While  I was trying to understand Shakespeare and Hemingway and Twain, he was preparing for a useful career.  He was a fellow reared in an even smaller town than the one I was reared in.  I recently tracked him down, and it turns out he made a career working at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.  In an LSU alumni book, with tongue in cheek, he listed himself as a “rocket scientist.”   He started working there in 1964 on the trajectory design for the Apollo missions.  He became head of the Lunar Mission Design Section.  After ten years with NASA, he momentarily burned out in ‘74.  Like many others at NASA, he had extended himself to exhaustion.  He took a year’s sabbatical to sail down to Florida and the Bahamas.  As he said, beer was expensive, and after a year, he had run out of funds, so he returned to NASA refreshed.  He worked in the Shuttle mission design area managing the flight design process for three planetary missions that flew on the Shuttle.  Always modest, he commented that the Peter Principle cut in when NASA made him head of the Flight Design Manager's Office in the Flight Dynamics division of the Flight Ops Directorate.  He finished his career  as Shuttle/Space Station Integration Manager.  After 34 years with NASA, he retired in ‘98.  “It was a great ride and I was lucky to get into the program before it became a huge bureaucracy...no regrets.”  I’m proud to be his friend.

For most of us, the space program was the background music of the latter part of the 20th Century.  Occasionally it would rise to a crescendo, but it was always there.  Something that made us feel better about our lives, about our country, about our possibilities.  Holy moly, we went to the moon!


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