Monday, July 20, 2009

If you believe they put a man on the Moon

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too...Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked. – John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

I interviewed a man name of John Hirasaki about five years ago down in Texas. “Who the heck is John Hirasaki?” everyone is now asking and why are you writing about him today, July 20?

Well, Hirasaki is an interesting character. The son and grandson of immigrant rice farmers in Southeast Texas, he worked hard, graduated from high school and college and joined NASA after his graduation in 1963. Hirasaki was one of the young engineers who helped do the hard things to make President Kennedy’s dream of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the decade was out.

He’s also the fourth human to discover what the moon smells like.

“It smelled like after you strike two pieces of flint together, or like a firecracker,” Hirasaki told me during the interview in his Houston-area home in July 2004. Hirasaki was the maintenance engineer who, along with a doctor, William Carpentier, volunteered to spend 21 days with the crew of Apollo 11 after they returned from the moon. This is how I wrote it before:

John Hirasaki, center, Neil Armstrong, left, and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin Jr. peer through the window of the mobile quarantine facility during their journey from the USS Hornet to NASA's Houston Space Center.
“The National Academy of Sciences made it mandatory that we take precautions. There was a concern of potential contamination from another (space) body,” Hirasaki said.
Instead of handshakes from politicians and hugs from their families, the astronauts joined Hirasaki and Dr. William Carpentier inside a highly modified Airstream trailer that served as the mobile quarantine facility during their journey back to NASA's Houston space center.
“All throughout when we were being offloaded from the ship and being transported to Hickam (Air Force Base), there were people lining the route,” Hirasaki says of landing in Hawaii.
“It's intoxicating and you could feel the excitement on the outside of the mission and the event,” he said of the crowds who welcomed the crew home. “You could see it in their expressions and posture.”The 65 hours he spent with the astronauts in the trailer were not spent lying around. Throughout, the astronauts were debriefed, wrote reports and had medical exams. Along with being the facility's maintenance man, Hirasaki was busy unloading the priceless cargo of moon rocks and film the crew brought home to Earth. That work was done in a containment facility on the ship.
"One of the interesting things I noticed was that there was a unique scent I hadn't noticed on other Apollo capsules," Hirasaki said about opening up Columbia, Apollo 11's command module.
“I attributed it to the dust they picked up on the moon,” Hirasaki theorized.
Although most of the rocks were stored in specially made containers designed to protect them from Earth's atmosphere, there was one small bag of samples Armstrong collected and kept with him in case anything happened to the larger cache. “We looked at them, but we didn't touch them because that would mess up the sample,” Hirasaki said of seeing the moon rocks for the first time.
As anyone who reads this little space knows, I’m a big fan of spaceflight. I watch the space shuttle launches, follow the news and generally try to keep myself current on what’s going on when it comes to this subject. This may be because my very first memory is watching an Apollo mission take off from the Kennedy Space Center. It’s amazing the impression a rocket makes on a 2-year-old.
I’d like to think Hirasaki’s statement, “…[Y]ou could feel the excitement on the outside of the mission and the event. You could see it in their expressions and posture,” was still as true today as it was 40 years ago, but I don’t think this is the case. Interrogating the intern who sits near me last week, he seemed unimpressed the anniversary of the moon landing was nigh. I’d hate to think it’s a generation gap, but he’s 23 and unless my math is wrong (and I’m never wrong) he wasn’t even alive when the shuttle Challenger went down.

Two Americans landed on the moon 40 years ago today and 10 more followed in the next three years. The question I have is this: The next time Americans leave boot prints in the regolith of the lunar surface, will any of these men be alive to see those steps? Three moon walkers have died and Charles Duke, 74, (Apollo 16) and Harrison “Jack” Schmidt, 75 (Apollo 17) are the youngest. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin is 79 and his Apollo 11 commander, Neil Armstrong, turns 79 next month.
Spaceflight is important. There are many who believe NASA and all its work is a waste of money that could be better used elsewhere. I disagree. NASA’s budget is minuscule ($18.686 billion for 2010) compared to most other segments of the federal budget.
Simply put, when a nation stops exploring, it starts dying.


Liebchen said...

"I’d like to think Hirasaki’s statement, “…[Y]ou could feel the excitement on the outside of the mission and the event. You could see it in their expressions and posture,” was still as true today as it was 40 years ago, but I don’t think this is the case."

I think you're right (and I'm guilty of it, too), but that's what makes your posts like this even better. It's a good reminder - and draws you into the excitement again.

FoggyDew said...

Liebchen - Hey, thanks, it's always good to matter. I think it's a matter of having grown up with it around and still being relevant, ya know? Perhaps, when the Constellation Program really gets up and running folks will get excited about it again. We'll see.

Milton said...

As always, great post but I have to ask - Did you sneak a Princess Bride reference in there? Nice.

FoggyDew said...

Milton - Thanks, and you have a sharp eye.

Sebastian said...

A civilisation is only as great as its borders!

Look to any Empire and you'll see one recurring theme: EXPANSION. Exploration. Conquering.

I can't imagine the excitement of reaching a new horizon -- literally -- and gazing at a land people have never seen before.

Other than the indigenous people of course, who have been there all along. But no one talks from their point of view of course... :P