Once a space geek, always a space geek.
I realized that statement applies to me while I was surfing the Web a couple of weeks ago.
I was looking at a site that sells diecast models of cars, planes and motorcycles, when I came across the section for spacecraft.
I scrolled down, and there it was — a 1/72 scale model of the two-man Gemini spacecraft that NASA sent into space in the mid-’60s. I broke into a huge grin. I just had to buy it.
Seeing that highly detailed model took me back to my childhood, when I first got hooked on all things space.
I was 10 years old when the first Gemini mission was launched. On the second manned mission, astronaut Ed White took America’s first spacewalk. Later missions perfected docking maneuvers, both with an unmanned Agena rocket and with a second Gemini capsule.
For a fifth-grader, these were heady days. It was the height of the space race, and every launch was big news. During those early days of the space program, all three TV networks (yes, that’s right) went on the air several hours before each launch and provided live coverage of the countdown. They often stayed on the air for more than hour after liftoff, as well.
I remember getting up at 7 a.m. to watch Walter Cronkite count down the time until launch. When the countdown reached T-minus 5 minutes (I still remember the lingo), I would lean in toward the TV and start getting excited. No matter how many times I watched a launch, it never got old.
From the time I watched my first liftoff on TV until the last Apollo astronaut returned from the moon in 1972, I was a serious space junkie. I had several plastic spacecraft models, including a huge model of the upper portion of the Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. I still remember the distinctive smell of the modelers glue and the look of the high-gloss paint.
Nearly 15 years after the last moon landing, I visited the Johnson Space Center facility near Houston. The 10-year-old in me came back to life as I took in all the great exhibits and displays — and of course, the visit to Mission Control was a treat. But nothing excited me as much as peering into the Gemini 5 capsule on display at the Visitors Center. I had watched on TV as this capsule was launched into space so many years earlier, and here it was, just a few feet away.
As the years went by and the Space Shuttle program took center stage, I still followed each flight, although I didn’t always get up early in the morning to watch a liftoff. Like so many other Americans, I became a bit jaded by manned space travel — until the Challenger explosion in 1986. That tragic event, along with the Columbia disaster in 2003, made me realize that no matter how routine space travel may seem, it still involves tremendous risk and potential danger.
The early astronauts — the original Mercury 7 and those who flew the Gemini missions — were among the biggest risk-takers. The spacecraft in which they flew were primitive by today’s standards. The rockets that propelled them into orbit were largely military-issue boosters that were adapted to carry the capsules. Most of the astronauts were test pilots — ready for a new challenge and willing to take risks. And millions of school-age kids, like myself, admired them as the true heroes they were.
Sadly, times have changed. The shuttle is in mothballs, and no new manned space projects are on the horizon anytime soon. It’s a difficult time for space junkies like me.
But sometimes, all it takes is a little reminder of the glory days of our childhood — like that shiny Gemini model — to make us smile like a kid once again.
Dave Miller is deputy managing editor of the Killeen Daily Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7543.