Watching the Space Race: Some (School) Assembly Necessary

By Walt Staples

Recently, I read about an presentation that packed in well over 3,000 in the the small town of Wise, Virginia. Considering Wise has an official population of 3,286, this isn't that shabby a house. I can think of a number of reasonably successful bands that would cheerfully sacrifice their lead singer—on stage—for those kind of numbers. So who were the headliners who brought people from five rural mountain counties to over-fill the University of Virginia at Wise's Convocation Center? One gentleman who was there, and two who weren't.

The draw in this case was astronaut Leland Melvin in the flesh, and astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit, who happened to be about 250 miles (400 km) overhead. They were taking part in something NASA does right--outreach to students. While Melvin hosted, Burbank and Pettit aboard the International Space Station fielded questions on camera from the kids.

Somehow, these talks seem to make more of an impression on country folk. Perhaps, it's because they're less distracted than city dwellers, or they're less into “cool” for coolness sake. Either way, the citizenry comes away with the feeling that this view of their tax dollars in action is very acceptable.

Being a hick, I remember these shots of rural and small town excitement very well. The first one I experienced occurred when I was in third grade in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. I was more than pleased when Mrs. Whitlock announced that we were going to go to an assembly that afternoon. I don't remember her saying exactly why we were going to it, but it would short-circuit my bete noir, spelling—a very good thing. We trooped into the cafetorium (a combination cafeteria and auditorium that did neither function well) along with the other eleven grades and seated ourselves with some expectation. Standing down front behind a table was a man who looked remarkably like Don Herbert, the host of NBC's Saturday science show for kids, “Watch Mr. Wizard.” On the long table before him were a number of drop cloth-covered objects. He raised his hands, and magic happened—we all fell silent. You might say he had presence. He announced that he was a scientist for the new Federal agency, NASA, and he was there to talk to us about spaceflight. He began sweeping the drop cloths from their hidden treasures with a flourish very like a stage magician. It worked beautifully, we were his. Among the items disclosed were a number of models of rockets such as the Explorer-Jupiter C and Vanguard and full size models of the two satellites. He explained why satellites didn't fall from orbit and that rockets operated using Newton's Third Law of Motion—reaction--and that they worked just fine in a vacuum as they didn't need to push against anything to move forward. To close his talk, he drew our attention to what appeared to be a three foot long piece of pipe resting horizontally on a wooden stand. He said it was a working jet engine that he would start, and warned us that it might be a bit loud. The man was a Jedi master of understatement. He touched it off and our eardrums met in the center of our heads (nowadays, such an action would result in six or eight Federal, state, and local agencies being all over him like a cheap suit and Lord only knows how many non-cheap lawsuits would be launched). Ears ringing as we walked back to our classrooms, I made a decision: to heck with the Flying Tiger P-40 model I'd planned to blow my one dollar allowance on that Friday, I was getting a rocket!

Nine years later, I was sitting in the bleachers of the county's only high school. We now lived on the south bank of the Potomac River. And standing down on the floor of the gym was another man from NASA. He was an astronaut in training for the follow up to the Apollo program and had the look and air of an aviator--unfashionable crewcut and all. He too had a number of models, only this time, they were of the Saturn V booster and Apollo spacecraft, the Apollo capsule with its Service Module, the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), and a model of a moon-suited astronaut. One other model looked a whole lot like a truncated trumpet. He explained that it was a model of one of the five rocket engine nozzles on the first stage of the Saturn booster. He told us about the gazillion pounds of thrust it produced and asked the guys in the audience to consider how something like that might improve the performance of the Camaros, Furys, and Mustangs some of us were lucky enough to drive. He produced a model of a Mustang Fastback and remarked that there might be just one sticking point. He explained that the car and the nozzle were the same scale. He then demonstrated the problem by completely covering the car with the nozzle. Yep, a modification or three might be in order. He sent us off with one last word; in three months time, we would be the only people ever to witness the first time a man set his foot on soil that was not the Earth's.

He was very right. We few, we lucky few...

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