hacker emblem
jaegerfesting
Search | Tags | Photos | Flights | Gas Mileage | Log in

Hail Columbia

Started: 2019-09-21 21:08:50

Submitted: 2019-09-21 23:32:29

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator sees the spacecraft that carried the first human crew to land on the moon

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first crewed moon landing, I watched with Calvin several dramatizations of the first decade of the American space program: the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon; Apollo 13; Hidden Figures; and The Right Stuff. As historian and professor Dr. William Logan* notes in his essay Collective memory and space movies, these movies and miniseries say as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they were set. Hidden Figures is made in an era when we are looking back on our historical narratives to be more inclusive of the people who were ignored at the time; but we are reinterpreting that history in other ways by erasing smoking from the setting -- and doing so to a degree that is out of place even for 2019. Cigarettes and smoking were nearly ubiquitous in From the Earth to the Moon, but completely absent in Hidden Figures, to the point where it took me half-way through the movie to realize one of the character's compulsive chewing gum must be a stand-in for tobacco, or possibly noteworthy because it was completely out-of-place in an era of pervasive indoor smoking.

Almost as much time has passed since the movie Apollo 13 was made in the 1990s as the twenty-five years that elapsed between the Apollo 13 mission to the movie Apollo 13. The last moon landing was eight years before I was born; the entire Space Shuttle program, as well as Mir and the International Space Station, took place during my lifetime.

[* Also my brother. After watching Gus Grissom splash down in the Atlantic Ocean and lose his spacecraft in The Right Stuff, I dug up my old pictures of Liberty Bell 7 on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2000, shortly after it was recovered from the bottom of the ocean, including this picture of a teenage Willy in front of the spacecraft.]

(While watching the From the Earth to the Moon episode "Spider", focusing on the engineers who built the lunar module, I realized that, as an engineer myself, I want to build things that matter, and that I'm not doing that in my current job. I want to use that realization to focus my search as I make my next career move.)

As part of the moon landing anniversary, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia went on a tour that included a lengthy stop at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle. I've seen Columbia before, at the National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington, DC, but this was my opportunity to see the spacecraft again, and to take Calvin along with me. We went to the museum on Labor Day, the last day the exhibit was open in Seattle.

Calvin with a Lego Saturn V model
Calvin with a Lego Saturn V model

The special exhibit was set up on the side of the main hall, starting with a -- including a lunar rover engineering mock-up, in honor of Boeing's role as prime contractor for the lunar rover. Various exhibits and artifacts set up the space race in the context of the Cold War.

The exhibit guided us into a darkened room where two F1 rocket motor pieces had been recovered from the bottom of the ocean from the Saturn V rockets that launched Apollo 12 and 16. The pieces were mangled by their uncontrolled descent into the ocean and decades at the bottom of the ocean, but they were still impressive pieces of equipment.

Apollo F1 rocket motor components recovered from the ocean
Apollo F1 rocket motor components recovered from the ocean

Another complete F1 rocket motor stood nearby, towering over the people walking around it. This motor had been removed and replaced from a Saturn V before launch, giving us the chance to compare the complete motor with the fragments recovered from the ocean. This gave us the chance to grok the massive scale of the Saturn V rocket: the motor occupied only the very bottom of the towering rocket (and the only part of the rocket that was intended to survive for the duration of the mission was the tiny spacecraft at the top).

Apollo F1 rocket motor
Apollo F1 rocket motor

The gallery had several other random artifacts, including Buzz Aldrin's moon helmet and gloves. The helmet was positioned in the room in front of the iconic picture of Buzz Aldrin on the moon -- wearing the very helmet and gloves that I was looking at in front of me.

Calvin reflected in Buzz Aldrin's moon helmet
Calvin reflected in Buzz Aldrin's moon helmet

Finally, in the last room, was the spacecraft we'd come to see: Columbia, still charred from its reentry into Earth's atmosphere, sitting in the middle of an otherwise-darkened room, lit by spotlights so we could see every detail on the outer hull.

Columbia
Columbia

On the side of the room was a small-scale model of the spacecraft intended to be touched and handled, especially by those with visual impairments who may not be able to see the full-sized spacecraft in detail. On the side of the spacecraft, 90 degrees counter-clockwise from the main hatch, Calvin saw a vertical slot that looked like a flat-head screw. I didn't immediately know what it was, but as we studied the real spacecraft in detail, I spotted a label that identified it as the sextant. Calvin wasn't sure what a sextant was, so he pulled out his phone and Googled "sextant" and got a picture of the traditional age-of-sail nautical sextant. I pointed out that the sextant in the spacecraft operated on the same principle -- letting the astronauts measure angles between stars to use in celestial navigation -- though it didn't quite look the same. And I was bemused that Calvin has figured out how to search for things on Google to expand his knowledge, because clearly it's the twenty-first century and everyone does that.

Main hatch on Columbia
Main hatch on Columbia

This was the spacecraft that took three people to the moon fifty years ago, and it was thrilling to see it in person.

Calvin with Columbia
Calvin with Columbia
[Mountain Dew:] the perfect thought beverage
- Neelix, 15 October 2000