My first experience with NASA was thru my good friend John Fakan (now PhD) who, with his wife Helene, rented an apartment next to Fran and me in Ohio. John had just graduated from Case-Western with a degree in math, and was working for NASA, at the time with super magnets. He took me to his workplace several times. On one trip he dunked a rose in a vat of liquid nitrogen and then smashed it to smithereens. Once I got to go into and see (but not in action) their wind tunnel. I never realized how a piece of metal could be bent before!.
My first visit with a computer was when John introduced me to one. It was about a 14 inch CRT screen in a box that would be 8 ft tall and maybe 3-4 ft on a side. He showed me how the cursor could be moved around the screen by a keyboard. That’s all I remember about that one, but later, he showed me what looked like a large typewriter into which one inserted a one side magnetic coated business sized card…that had the whole program on it. It was years later that I got my first Commodore 64 when they first came out.
My next memorable experience with NASA was in 1976 when, to celebrate our 200 years of independence, it was open to the public. The VAB (Vehicular Assembly Building) was open and we got to see a carbon copy of the Mars rover, doing there what it was doing at the same time on Mars. There was also a life size version of the Russian Soyez module that we hooked up with in our first space venture together. I was totally awed at the size of the Saturn V motor. Just hard to imagine something that size. I was so into NASA and space that when we were on the moon, I stayed up and watched it on TV for the entire time they were on.
Then came the Shuttle. A friend of mine who’s dad owned a dive shop in Pinellas Park (Tackle Shak) showed me some VIP passes to the first launch and invited me to go along. I couldn’t believe the request even. I was totally floored. We drove over from Tampa in plenty of time but sure weren’t expecting the hubub. A1 was So crowded with people in busses and trailers and bicycles and motorcycles and on foot. People selling t-shirts commemorating the first space launch were surrounded. Food and souvenir stands and hats and flags…4 lanes of traffic in ONE direction and when we crossed the bridge onto the Cape, it changed to 6 lanes. And then we were all lined up on pieces of land that places us west of the launchpad and about 4 miles from it. It was still dark and then the countdown came. NASA had speakers placed all over the “VIP” area so we could hear what was going on. Screaming kids and parents all around us. I simply was dumbstruck by the sight and sound. When the watertank dumped it’s 400,000 gallons of water into the flame pit just as the shuttle motors started and all that steam…that we thought was smoke flew up higher than the shuttle, obscuring it, and then the solid rockets lit up…Wow. Wow just doesn’t deliver the impact. I don’t think there is a word that delivers the impact. That steam lit up like a flash bulb and at 1100 ft per secoond, the sound finally reached us as the rocket lifted off the pad the noise was awe inspiring like nothing else.
The cape is arranged with a lot of waterways and canals. I think, hope, mostly for the animals, but the arrangement certainly would be an obstruction to improper visitors. There are a lot of alligators there. In fact, on more than one launch, the gators that just happened to be in the vicinity of people, had their own private guard, to keep children and some stupid drunk people from getting grabbed.
On two of the launches I had a press pass. I remember number 5 was special but I don’t remember what the other launch number was. With a press pass, we were allowed to place out near the shuttle, a camera that could be triggered by some means, but not by radio as that might interfere with the shuttle operation. Security was very high, and with a press pass, we all had badges. When we got on the bus for what came to be known as the “Sunset Cruise”, we placed our badge on a large board and took one from that board that was a different color. That way one could easily tell if someone wasn’t were they were supposed to be. That wasn’t my first ride however. The first one when we took our camera that we would leave out in the swamp, that was to go off when the launch took place was a painful experience for me because the trigger (sound) that was so well designed by Doug (?) didn’t work. I saw triggers that were absolute works of art, in plexiglass and no doubt designed by big time engineers…and in the thousands of dollars. Then I saw one that actually worked (as he excitedly screamed when we picked them up), that was a simple flap door that the pressure wave of the sound, knocked the door from its up position to the down and against the shutter release. I saw guys coming out of the swamp in tears and I know how they felt when mine didn’t work either.
The day we were taken out to scout and place our cameras was unique. There was muck and water and occasional hard ground and then water as much as 2-3 ft deep. 2 busloads of guys wandering around in swamp was pretty funny. Now, I’ve already told of my first close experience with a small gator about a foot or so long. We were wandering around when suddenly I saw a gator about 3 ft long in a big puddle. It went underwater and made an elevated mound where it had gone under the mud. So, I decided it needed to be caught. Not Real sure of the exact head position, I made a quick grab that turned out to be accurate and I quickly had the gator under control. Then I was surrounded by guys from all over the world snapping photos. Finally they wore out and walked away and I turned the gator loose in the puddle. It quickly dove under the mud and made another long mound. Then a man came up to me from London England and said, “I didn’t get to take a photo of the gator, would you catch it again for me”. Ha, those things are quick and I could easily imagine the damage to my hand a 3 ft gator could provide, but I took a chance and luckily had judged where the head would be, and which hump/tunnel mound it was in…and came up with the gator again. He took some shots and then a guard came over and told me the big wigs might not like it so I best let it go. 🙂 At least I have that photo. I doubt if many surgeons catch gators by hand.