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Privilege of a lifetime

A panel discussion at EAA AirVenture in July included seven Apollo-era astronauts and flight controller Gene Kranz. (credit: E. Hedman)

I feel sorry for every person on the planet who was not at the Apollo reunion at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture event last month (see “I’ve died and gone to Oshkosh”, The Space Review, August 7, 2017). It was the most entertaining two-hour presentation I have ever been to. Hosted by David Hartman, formerly of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” seven legendary astronauts plus Gene Kranz went through the history of the Mercury program through Apollo. It was informative, it was surprisingly funny, and it was extremely well done. The astronauts who took part were Al Worden (Apollo 15), Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7), Buzz Aldrin (Gemini 12, Apollo 11), Frank Borman (Apollo 8), Jim Lovell (Gemini 12, Apollo 8, Apollo 13), Fred Haise (Apollo 13), and Joe Engle (16 X-15 flights, bumped from Apollo 17 for Harrison Schmitt, STS-2, STS-51-I). In addition, three more were scheduled to be there but were unable to attend for one reason or another: Dick Gordon (Gemini 11, Apollo 12), Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (Apollo 17), and James McDivitt (Gemini 4, Apollo 9).

The opening act for the Apollo reunion was an hour-long presentation by the pilots of the Navy’s Blue Angels. These immensely skilled aviators did an excellent job in their presentation mostly answering questions from the audience. They also acknowledged the honor they had of meeting the Apollo legends backstage. The audience, full of aviators and aviation enthusiasts was fully engaged with this presentation. It was an excellent opening act.

During the short gap between the Blue Angels and the Apollo astronauts, I chatted with the people seated around me. One person told me that he had been an air traffic controller aboard the USS Wasp during the recovery of Gemini 7. He had directed the helicopter traffic for the recovery of the capsule. He showed me first day cover stamps that had been canceled aboard the ship that day. He said there was no way he was going to miss that evening.

I arrived nearly two hours before the Apollo reunion was about to begin. Several thousand people were already there, so I wasn’t able to get up close. At first, I was a little disappointed, but then once the program got started I realized I was in one of the few spots where you could look up and see the Moon. I couldn’t help but occasionally glance up to my left and think about where the people I was listening to had been on that beautiful night.

David Hartman started the event with a short movie about the Apollo program that he had written and produced. It was extremely well done. Shortly after that he introduced the group and they came out on stage to a very appreciative audience. David Hartman asked questions and directed the conversation in a way that followed in a chronological order of how events had happened from the early days of Mercury through Apollo 17. The evening flowed smoothly with the audience at full attention until the end.

The first to speak extensively was Gene Kranz. He had started as a procedures trainer in the Mercury program. He emphasized just how rudimentary the flight plans and procedures were compared to how they advanced through Gemini and Apollo. They were learning what to do as they moved forward. Later in the program he said there was risk in everything they did and through their experiences learned how to manage it.

When David Hartman turned his attention to Walter Cunningham to ask about how he had become an astronaut and he started with, “You were a Marine.” To which Walter Cunningham immediately corrected him, as he should have, with, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” Walter Cunningham continued with the story of how when in college he had pulled to the side of the road to listen to Alan Shepard’s countdown. He said someone yelled, “You lucky SOB” and then realized he had said it. He decided he wanted to be an astronaut and two and a half years later he was sharing an office with Alan Shepard.

There have been great comedy teams in showbiz history: Abbot and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. The great team missing from this list is Borman and Lovell. There was an exchange that had the crowd laughing heartily. I may not have remembered it word for word, but it started with a question from David Harman to Frank Borman about the Gemini 7 mission and went something like this:

David Hartman: What was it like to fly a long mission in Earth orbit?
Frank Borman: I would like to know how many people in the audience would like to spend fourteen days in a volume as small as the front seat of a VW Beetle with a sailor?
Jim Lovell: At the end of the mission we were announcing our engagement.
Frank Borman: I didn’t know you were transgender!
Jim Lovell: Now you know.

At another point in the presentation Jim Lovell paused to remember something and Frank Borman cut in and said, “Jim, you’re getting old.” Jim Lovell responded with, “Frank, we’re the same age.” The comedic timing and tone was perfect. The audience was loving the exchange.

In addition to the lighter moments, there was a serious discussion of the things they went through. During one of the early attempts at an EVA Gene Cernan was seriously overheated. They needed to figure out how to do them better. Buzz Aldrin had experience with scuba diving and thought that underwater training might prepare them for zero-g. It culminated with the Gemini 12 flight made by Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, where Buzz Aldrin made a successful spacewalk. It is how the use of neutral buoyancy tanks for training got started. After Jim Lovell had started the explanation of the EVA on the mission, Buzz Aldrin took over in another lighthearted moment when he said, “Jim, this is how you should have told the story.”

Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, who flew on Gemini 12, visit the Blue Origin exhibit at EAA AirVenture. (credit: E. Hedman)

The discussion turned to the Apollo 1 fire. Gene Kranz talked about what a tough experience it was to go through. Frank Borman said the Apollo 1 fire investigation team did a no-holds-barred investigation that got to the bottom of the problem. He continued to say that if not for the fire they may have had an inflight tragedy that would have ended the program. Fred Haise said that, because of the fire, he spent seven months out of a nine-month stretch at Grumman to make sure that they had good lunar modules. Frank Borman said that, after the fire, NASA was the best-managed federal agency ever. Walter Cunningham notes that, as a result of the investigation, there were 1,040 changes from the block 1 to the block 2 capsule.

Apollo 8 was not initially supposed to go out to the Moon. When the CIA thought that the Soviets were going to try to circumnavigate the Moon in the near future the plans were changed. Jim Lovell said that the navigation system had to be changed to go to the Moon. One of the great accomplishments from this mission was Bill Anders photo of the Earthrise over the lunar horizon. Frank Borman quoted Bill Anders, “We went to the Moon to explore the Moon and discovered the Earth.” David Hartman said to Frank Borman, “So you finally admit Bill Anders took the picture.”

Another historical event aboard Apollo 8 was when the crew took turns reading from the book of Genesis on Christmas Day 1968, watched by millions of people around the globe. Frank Borman said that six weeks before the mission, when he found out that they would be making a broadcast on Christmas Day, he asked the public affairs people for guidance. He was just told to do something appropriate for the broadcast (I can imagine the teams of speechwriters and lawyers that would be involved in vetting something like that today). He asked a number of people for advice. The wife of a friend of a person he asked why they didn’t just start at the beginning, and suggested the reading from Genesis. He didn’t clear this with anyone and they just did it. They were sued afterwards by Madeleine Murray O’Hare and her Freedom from Religion Foundation. While the suit was advancing he was at an event with some Supreme Court justices who told him not to worry.

When the evening reached the point where they started talking about the Apollo 11 mission, I couldn’t help but glance up at the half Moon that was visible up to my left. It put in perspective what these people had accomplished with the help of a nation behind them. It felt like the ultimate privilege to be sitting in that audience. I could imagine a similar discussion between Christopher Columbus, Leif Erickson, Henry Hudson, and Ferdinand Magellan about their voyages of exploration being on the same order of magnitude of historical importance.

This part of the evening was a discussion between Buzz Aldrin and David Hartman. Buzz Aldrin said that he felt that they had a 60 percent chance of landing and a 95 percent chance of coming home. During the landing, alarms 1201 and 1202 were going off. He said that these were the same alarms that were going off during the final training runs so they knew how to handle them and continued until they were down. Buzz Aldrin went through a number of things that happened on the mission explaining their significance.

There were many other interesting moments. Al Worden talked about his EVA to retrieve film from the Service Module while orbiting the Moon. At one point in the EVA, he was in the shadow of the Moon and couldn’t see Earth either. He looked at the stars. He said you couldn’t make out any individual start because there were so many millions of them in every direction that they blended together. His eyes couldn’t resolve individual stars in a sea of stars. He didn’t say this, but I could imagine it as being similar to the milky wisps you can see on a moonless night away from urban light sources of the millions of stars in the Milky Way, but in ever direction. I’ll never look at the views of interstellar space in science fiction space operas the same way again.

Joe Engle, who was supposed to fly on Apollo 17, spoke about being bumped from the flight so Harrison Schmitt could go. When it was determined that Apollo 17 was to be the last flight, the science community was insistent about having a trained field geologist aboard. He understood the decision and said going through the training with his colleagues was just such a tremendous experience that it was worth it. He did eventually get to fly two shuttle missions.

At a point near the end of the evening, Walter Cunningham said that he thinks in 500 years when people look back to this era the most important thing they’ll remember is the Moon landing. Buzz Aldrin disagreed, saying that he thinks it will be when we as a species land on Mars. I kind of think they are both right. If, in 500 years, we have settled in across the solar system, both those steps will be considered huge. The Moon landings will be remembered because we had the audacity to try. Going to Mars will show that we had the fortitude to continue. Both steps will have been of great importance.

Jim Lovell had an interesting thought about our place in the universe when he said, “We all think about, I hope to go to heaven when I die. Ladies and gentlemen, you go to heaven when you’re born. You arrive on a planet with the positive mass that provides the gravity that contains the water and an atmosphere and the essentials of life. God has given mankind a stage that we saw out there for us to perform on. How that play turns out is up to us.”

These special people still have plenty to teach us. Everyone is still bright and articulate. Nobody else yet has these kinds of experiences. These are the shoulders we are standing upon as we move out there. Events like this give you a glimpse of what kind of people it takes to accomplish great things. If you ever have a chance to go to an event to hear what these people have to say, I recommend that you drop what you’re doing and just go. It was the privilege of a lifetime for me to attend this event. NASA picked the right people with the right stuff for Apollo.


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