Apollo in transit
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
I am a practical man and a problem-solver by nature. Some say I lack emotional intelligence. Perhaps I do. It's an attribute I find hard to take seriously. When someone claims it, in my experience, it can often be translated as "Hey! I'm dumb but I'm nice".
That's not to say that I don't have emotions. In the months since last November, I've had too many of them – or perhaps just too much of the same one. Either way, it hurts and doesn't achieve much.
I made a new friend online in recent months. We volunteer together on a trivial pastime project entirely unworthy of our skills and experience. We are both widowers, both retired and of the same generation. He was an engineer. I was a lawyer. We have nothing much in common but get along well. I was excited when he told me his name appears in the NASA Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Like me, he was a boy at the time, so didn't work on Apollo itself. His credit is for a later technical contribution.
Those who worked on the Apollo Program are among the few government employees I have ever admired. The astronauts were (and still are) my heroes. My new friend gave me access to the operating manual for the Saturn V rocket and other such wonderful documents. It's hard to explain how much pleasure I took in looking through them. Suddenly it was Christmas 1968 again and I was an 11 year old boy waiting anxiously for AOS (acquisition of signal) from Apollo 8 to confirm that the SPS (service propulsion system) had ignited to achieve TEI (trans-Earth injection).
NASA alway did the best TLAs (three letter acronyms).
My new friend also recommended From the Earth to the Moon, a late-nineties TV series (currently available on Amazon Prime). At the time of its original release on HBO, I was working crazy hours in a demanding career. Any TV I saw was chosen by a wife and daughters with no interest in such stuff. When I organised a trip to Cape Canaveral during a Florida family holiday, they ganged up on me as we were about to set off and told me I was going alone. I was upset but, hey, I had one of the best days of my life.
I'm enjoying the show – including the appearance in the story of my namesake Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator who oversaw the first seven Apollo missions. It's pre-woke and tells the story straight. Yes it portrays the society of the time in which an astronaut could say affectionately to his worried wife (without her flying off the handle, or even looking miffed);
You take care of the custard. I'll take care of the flying
But it doesn't use the phrase "toxic masculinity" once.
The costs of this epic endeavour were not just the billions extorted from American taxpayers or the strains put on the astronauts' families. Three men: Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee laid down their lives in grisly fashion on the launchpad during a routine test. As so often in such epic tales, it's not the fallen heroes who are remembered. The glory goes to the ones who come home in triumph. In my book, those men are among the greatest heroes Mankind has ever known.
One particular scene in the show may (time will tell) help me to gain some perspective on my woes. Two characters – Harrison Storms, an executive at North American Aviation and Joseph Shea from NASA – walk in a park and discuss their fates. Both had been scapegoated for the Apollo 1 tragedy. The script puts these words into Storm's mouth;
You know in my years in flight tests I saw a number of crews slam into the desert floor. Too many. I loved those guys and each time that happened I wanted to die. But I’ve learned that you’ve got to let go of the "what ifs". They’re meaningless and they’ll kill you
In the next episode the script attributes these words to Wally Schirra, commander of Apollo 7, when asked by a documentary-maker how he felt about the Apollo 1 disaster;
You mourn the loss but you don't wear the black armband for ever.
Maybe Captain Schirra lacked emotional intelligence too. Or maybe he was just wise enough to play the cards life dealt him and not waste it on regret.
By the standards of most humans, let alone real heroes, I don't have a problem worthy of the name. Someone I love stopped loving me. It happens. It seems to have happened to me a lot, so perhaps there's something wrong with me. If there is, I can't identify it and – at 65 – it's unlikely I can change it. So it may be time to let go of of the "what ifs" and stop wearing the black armband.
I'm not sure the Apollo 1 story would have given me that insight if it were not for the fact that it also woke memories of my young self – a boy full of hopes and dreams – quite a few of which came true.