Here Thar Be Monsters!
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My mother says that even though I was still an infant, I was entranced by Glenn's orbital flight coverage. I watched every bleary-eyed moment of coverage of every mission. Whenever someone would ask what I wanted to be, my first and only answer was, "The first man on Mars."
I also had a priviledged position. My father was a Texas legislator from Houston. Houston, you may recall, was made the center of the US manned space program by President Lyndon Johnson. As a consequence, Dad got invited to NASA quite a bit.
On one occasion, I was toted along during one of his political stops there. I was in awe, as any 5-year-old would be in such a situation - especially one who idolized the space program.
Those were heady days at NASA. The Kennedy mandate to land a man on the Moon by 1970 had caused floods of money to pour into NASA. The government propaganda machine was in full gear cranking out heroes of demi-god status, called astronauts. The astronauts' egos were certainly up to the task. They were as boisterous and strutting as the NASA media machine would let them be.
It was August 1966, as I said. We had just toured Mission Control and the training facility. Dad and several other legislators were surrounded by a gaggle of bureaucrats all bowing and scraping to ensure political favor in Austin and beyond. I was one of three privileged kids who were being gently herded into a corner while the adults discussed sacred matters of global domination, national security and Cold War politics. I didn't care much for all that.
Instead, I was gawking and absorbing my surroundings. It was as if a devout Catholic were standing in the Pope's apartment waiting for an audience.
There was a commotion among the adults. Three of the astronauts had just come in to glad-hand and be seen. They were political props. I could identify with that. I was too. I was always trundled out when Dad needed to demonstrate his commitment to 'family values', even though that term had yet to gel in American politics.
I recognized Gus Grissom and Alan Shepherd, the first two Mercury astronauts. There was a third figure with his back to me. I could just see the buzz-cut strawberry blond hair. At one point, though, he seemed to be struck by something and he turned to us kids in the corner.
It was Neil Armstrong. I recognized him immediately, since he had just months before been all over the media after Gemini 8. At the time, we the American public weren't allowed to know it, but Armstrong had cooly saved his own life and that of his crewmate David Scott. Their mission was the first ever to attempt a docking between two craft on orbit. They had rendezvoused with the spent stage of an Agena satellite launcher.
Carefully hidden from us mere mortals by the government propaganda machine was that Armstrong's ship had had a major malfunction and had spun wildly out of control. They had to abort but couldn't re-enter the atmosphere until the capsule had stopped spinning. Armstrong had carefully brought the machine under control and was finally able to stabilize it enough to get home.
This same man now walked over to us kids with a soft smile on his face and he squatted down to our level. The other two kids were generally ignorant of who was now addressing us, but I knew...and I was dumb-struck.
He reached out and shook all our hands. The other two kids gave timid response, but I offered the best Texas arm-twister I could muster, given that my hand was engulfed in his.
Armstrong seemed to focus on me. Maybe it was my own focus on him, or maybe I had a look on my face that said I was more aware of my surroundings than the other two.
"So what do you guys think of all this," he asked, looking around at our little clique.
"This is really cool!", I blurted out. The other two kids made some half-hearted responses.
"Do you like the space program," Armstrong asked us.
"Oh yes, Mr. Armstrong!"
He cocked an eyebrow at me. "You know who I am?"
"I saw you on TeeVee. You were on Gemini 8. What's it like?"
"Wow, you sure know a lot, don't you? It's really strange up there. It makes your stomach tickle. Would you like to be an astronaut?"
"Yes! I want to be the first man on Mars," I gave my standard media response.
"Why is that," he asked with a smile.
"'Coz I think a red-head should be the first man on the Red Planet," again offering my standard media line.
Armstrong laughed and patted his head. "I wholly agree with you!" He tossled my hair just to emphasize our joint membership in that exclusive club.
"How do I become an astronaut," I asked with genuine desire.
"Work hard in school and learn everything you can. By the time you're old enough, they should be about ready to crew up for Mars," he offered. "I have to go now, but you kids enjoy yourselves."
"Thanks, Mr. Armstrong!" I enthused.
He stood and smiled again down at us rugrats, then he turned and walked back to the group of adults. He exchanged some words with Alan Shepherd, who turned and gave me a smile and a wink. I felt my knees nearly buckle.
Two years later, Gus Grissom died in the capsule of Apollo 1 on the launch pad. That was a devastating blow to my 7-year-old psyche. He was one of my heroes, too.
Three years later, Armstrong radioed back to Earth, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." I just knew when he said "Houston", he was thinking of that little red-headed kid at NASA headquarters that sweltering August afternoon. I felt chills run up my spine.
I still do, when I think about it.
Shepherd went on to land on the Moon with Apollo 14, and became the first man to play golf on another world. I had occasion to meet him several more times over the next couple of decades, until he died in 2007.
I remember at one point early in my career as a TeeVee cameraman running into Shepherd at a hoity-toity function at the River Oaks Country Club. I lowered my camera and reached out to shake his hand.
"Mr. Shepherd, you're one of my heroes," was the only intelligible thing I could manage.
He looked at me and said, "Well, you look like a fairly intelligent young man." He smiled and winked at me and moved on with the crowd.
I went on to a satisfying media career, since that was what I was immersed in, being a political brat. But, I did study several semesters in astrophysics at university. I never lost my awe of Space, the Universe and Everything.
Now the nice man who was the only one of the adults to come over and talk with us kids has gone on Life's greatest adventure. I can only imagine what he saw and felt in his life. But I know that both he and I, and Mankind for that matter, are no closer to walking on Mars than we were that day 46 years ago. In fact, we seem to be getting further and further from it.
I know that our future lies 'out there', and so did that nice man at NASA.
I was secretly hoping that Armstrong's death would trigger the release of some Great Secret about the Moon. Maybe that will come when the last Moonwalker passes on. Maybe never.
Nevertheless, Godspeed, Neil Armstrong. You left a lasting impression on this little red-headed political brat standing in the corner, out of the way of adult business.
I'll never forget.