I dove into our town library's summer reading program and checked out every book I could find about flying. "God is my Co-Pilot," by Robert L. Scott, was one of the first. I remember absorbing, soaking up every detail of what it was like in the cockpit of an airplane.
Before long America's space program was up and running, trying to catch the Russians in "the space race" of the Cold War era. I remember the grainy black-and-white film footage of the first American to orbit the earth, John Glenn, in his tiny "Friendship 7" Mercury program capsule. Glenn, one of the nation's first group of seven astronauts with "the right stuff," made that orbital flight in February 1962, less than a year after JFK's galvanizing challenge.
The Mercury program took one man at a time into space, testing systems in sequential order. Next came the Gemini program, carrying two crewmen at a time and expanding the tests. Ed White became the first American to "space walk" by exiting the Gemini capsule; his "walk" covered 6,500 miles as he floated weightlessly in space, carefully observed by his crew mate, James McDivitt. It was 1965, I was 14, and the television pictures of White's spacewalk were now broadcast in living color.
The three-man Apollo program represented America's final evolutionary step in the quest for the moon. As "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee and White ran tests in the Apollo 1 capsule on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., a flash fire erupted in the 100-percent oxygen cabin atmosphere. The men perished, and America's manned space program halted for nearly two years as the systems were redesigned. The tragedy on Pad 34 occurred Jan. 27, 1967. I was not quite 16, anxiously anticipating obtaining a driver's license and maybe, somehow, a pilot's license.
But my little hometown of Greensboro didn't have an airport back then. The only folks who would teach me wanted me to fly Huey helicopters into landing zones in Vietnam, where a report I'd seen fixed the life expectancy of a Huey pilot in an LZ at approximately six seconds. So flying became a dream deferred, and my quest for a pilot's license was put on hold.
Then came the magical night of July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong, America's only civilian astronaut, said "that's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind." The second man on the moon, "Buzz" Aldrin, awash with awe, uttered "magnificent desolation." The lunar module, Eagle, sat in the Sea of Tranquility just over 21 hours. Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon for 156 minutes and brought home some 47 pounds of moon rocks for study on earth. Along with the rest of the entire world, I held my breath when it was time for the men to blast off from the moon. Their engine lit, of course, and they rejoined crew mate Michael Collins in the command module which had, by that time, completed 30 orbits of the moon.
I was 18, my dad had died, I was about to drive off to college instead of fly choppers in Vietnam, and I wondered if Mike Collins felt any lonelier than I did when he was all by himself in that command module on the far side of the moon.
Throughout my adult life, teaching social studies and working for various airlines, my love affair with flying has never diminished. I look back and wonder what might have been had I chosen differently at that place where two roads diverged in Robert Frost's yellow wood.
The civilian portion of Cape Canaveral was renamed the Kennedy Space Center in JFK's honor, but the military part is still Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, off limits to the public. Out by the beach, a massive formation of rusting iron pylons still stands on a thick concrete slab. It's Pad 34, and the pylons - the legs of Apollo 1 - offer mute testimony to the sacrifice made by three heroes who sought to take us to the moon.
America was at war when manned space flight was birthed and is still at war as the effort draws to a close. How in the world can we abandon manned space flight when the spinoffs from the quest have benefited so many, so obviously?
It seems to me that we've got this whole thing backward: we need to be about eliminating wars, and continue reaching for the stars.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.