I knew the moon landing was going to happen, and then it happened, pretty much as planned. To me, it seemed as stately as a coronation. I was happy about the event, and you couldn’t have dragged me away from the television while it was going on, but it wasn’t an illumination. It was more a vote of confidence: science works like this. People worked like that: Neil Armstrong fluffed his big quote. Poor Mike Collins had to stay in the orbiting Command Module and keep an eye on things. And poor us: there were only a few tv channels back then, so we had to listen to play-by-play commentary aimed at people who didn’t know anything about space flight, or lunar gravity, or what a big deal this was.
Apollo 13 (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”) was the mission that caught my heart. Onboard explosion, loss of electrical power, failure of both oxygen tanks? The network talking heads made soothing noises for the benefit of people who didn’t know anything, but I wasn’t fooled. I knew there was no guarantee that Lovell, Swigert, and Haise would get home alive. (Years later, the Challenger exploded during takeoff. I heard the news from a fellow editor at Chelsea House shortly after it happened. “They don’t know yet whether there are any survivors,” she said. I remember staring at her a few seconds, feeling hollow-eyed and solemn and sad, then saying “There aren’t any.”)
If Apollo 13 scared the bejezus out of me, it also gave me a moment of pure joy, when I heard that the bodged apparatus that let the crew in the Lunar Module use the Command Module’s incompatible lithium hydroxide canisters to scrub CO2 out of the air supply was built using, among other things, the laminated cover of the mission handbook. The principle hit twelve-year-old me like a blinding flash of light: Always look around and see what components are really available.
When the Apollo 13 movie came out a quarter-century later, the scene where they dump out a duplicate collection of everything the astronauts have to work with, and say “Figure out how to mate these components,” brought its own flash of light. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie depict a mindset I knew so intimately well. Finally! Mission commentary that wasn’t geared for ignoramuses!
Boom-di-yada. The world is awesome, and getting more so all the time.