"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Adventure - Continued

In which further attempts at attending launchings in person eventually led to a new career.

(This is a follow on to Adventure of a Lifetime, which should be read first.)

Oh, and special thanks to one of my favorite science and science-fiction writers, to whom I also sent that email notice of that post. He can be as verbose as necessary to get a point across, but with a sniper's precision, he emailed to me a single word, "Indeed", which told me that he actually read as far as the line it most applied to, and by sending it suggested that my writing may not be beyond redemption. I've not given the name here, as he sent it to me in an email instead of making the comment on my blog, so name-dropping just doesn't seem appropriate. Thank you, Sir, for giving my ego much-needed nourishment. :-)

That old Rambler of mine made it back to Houston after the Apollo 16 trip, but didn't survive the summer. After a certain age, some cars reach the stage on maintenance where the best thing to do is take it to an auto salvage yard and accept what they will give you for its' junk value ($50.00 in that case) and hope they will throw in a ride home (they did).

So, the rest of 1972 was spent without a car (except when I could borrow one from a friend) and otherwise I depended on a bike. Fortunately, most of the time I lived in Houston in apartments that weren't too far from my job. But this meant I wouldn't be driving to Florida for the night launch of Apollo 17, scheduled for the night of 06 Dec 1972.

I was able to borrow a car often enough to experiment some more with night shots of refineries, especially gas flares at some of them.

When Apollo 16 lifted off, there were huge plumes of water vapor (mentioned in the previous post) flaring out both sides for almost a couple of city blocks. White, of course, and very reflective. The exhaust from the rocket was brilliant white and I hoped that it would reflect off of those plumes enough to illuminate the vehicle as it was rising. That's why I was experimenting more with those exposures.

No longer possessing a car, I made arrangements to rent one at Orlando, Florida (I also planned on checking out Disney World after the launch), and took the bus from Houston to there.

Why a bus???

Partly, because I'm cheap.

But this was 1972.

We still had a few nutcases hijacking airplanes to be flown to Cuba. I had no idea of what the viewing conditions for the launch would be like at Havana airport, and had no wish to learn.

So, $59.00 bought a bus ticket from Houston to Orlando.

I'd made plenty of long distant bus trips when I was in the USAF a decade before, and they were usually pretty miserable and tiring affairs. This time, it was an express bus as far as Tallahassee, very comfortable and I thought "WOW. This is so GREAT".

From Tallahassee to Orlando, things reverted back to the "good old days" I remembered so well, changing buses about four times, even going up to Valdosta, Georgia before finally heading south to Orlando, and every bit as enjoyable as my Air Force experiences.

Another difference between bus travel and air travel. Car rental places don't cluster around bus stations. Needed a taxi to even find the place. Collected the car and headed out to Titusville, about 50 miles east.

Tighter schedule this time. Went straight to the space center for the tour again, but this was only ONE day before the launch, so the tour bus did NOT take us near the pad as they had already begun fueling the rocket (see what I said in the previous post).

Afterwards, went to the Titusville beach, cutting things really close, and dove into the first rental lot I saw that was still accepting cars. Absolutely EVERYBODY was here for this one. (And why not?!!! It's been almost 38 years now, and NO ONE has gone back yet. And God only knows when anyone ever will. Or if it will be an American when that happens.)

So, once again I'm set up at the beach, camping out again, just not in my car. No chess game this time; if those kids are back, they could be anywhere. Just a lot of waiting, as it was last time. It's now late at night, on 06 Dec 1972, and the rocket and pad are a gleaming jewel, even from 12 miles away. Managed to get a number of good exposures through the 300mm lens, bracketing my initial estimates a couple of stops either way.

Uh-oh! Clouds have been forming. The lift-off, scheduled for early evening, has been put on hold (countdown stopped) because of some rain and lightning aways off. This would really suck if the whole thing has to be rescheduled for the next launch window (by which time I would have to be on my way back). I cannot even imagine what the astronauts inside must feel.

We've now crept past midnight, into Pearl Harbor Day, and the countdown has resumed. A little over half an hour past midnight Apollo 17 fires up, and my head is bobbing between the viewfinder and looking with naked eye as this magnificent creature rises on a pillar of dazzling white fire that is NOT as bright as day (let's not get ridiculous here) but is bright enough for me read newspaper headlines from that source 12 miles away.

As I'd hoped, that light reflecting off of those water vapor plumes lights up the entire 30-story vehicle beautifully. The worrisome clouds have gone and the rocket can be followed unimaginably far, a brilliant star just going on forever. (Speaking metaphorically, of course; by the time it went to the second stage, it was effectively out of sight to the naked eye.)

Leaving the site, I wondered wistfully if I would ever get a chance to witness something like that again. At that time, I never thought to wonder if I would even live long enough to see another man go to the moon.

After returning the car, I flew back to Houston ($79.00 for Delta from Orlando; only $20.00 more than the bus); I've got my wish and seen it, so who cares if I make an unscheduled visit to Havana? :-)

In 1975, I revisited the Cape and Titusville, to watch the liftoff of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Not nearly as spectacular; it using the far smaller Saturn 1B launcher instead of the mighty Saturn V.

The career changer mentioned in the first line finally happened as result of the next launch I wanted to witness, and came about in this random way.

I left the Air Force early, but honorably, and had no contact with any of my former buddies there until 1975 (I think) when, in a department store here in Houston, a man stepping off the escalator behind me asked, "Excuse me.  Aren't you Paul *******?".

I was trying to remember if he was an architect client of ours when it hit me that he had addressed me by a last name I hadn't used in nine years (another story, probably never to be revealed). He was one of the bunch I had been with, and was now living just north of Houston and working as an exploration geophysicist for Shell Oil Company.

I got back together with him and his family. That was a bit of a miracle. Have you ever run into someone that you knew from long ago, only to find so much has changed that you no longer have anything in common anymore?

A couple of years later he and his family moved up to central Michigan, where he joined a seismic exploration company there. Another couple of years and he's broken off from them and started his own company (also seismic exploration).

In the meantime, several things have been going on. I'd been an electrical draftsman, evolved into an electrical designer (almost an engineer, but sans license and seal) and had been doing the same thing for almost two decades.

Into our engineering world arrived a micro-computer, in 1981, primarily for use by our secretary as a word-processor (A lot of her work was typing up engineering specifications, usually from existing boiler-plates; this made her job enormously easier.) and an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) program in Basic, that never worked properly.

But, it had a professional grade level of Basic included, and I had found me a new plaything. Soon I was teaching myself programming on it, and making programs to handle some of the calculations required in my work.

Hang on. we're really getting there. I promise.

I had made several trips to Michigan, to visit my friend, and we had talked several times about the possibility of me moving up there to join him. After nearly 20 years of drawing circles and home runs, one gets ready for something new. (Any reader who has done electrical drafting, design and/or engineering knows what I'm speaking of. As for the rest: Nyah, nan nan nan nyah! :-)

In September of 1983, one of the Space Shuttles was scheduled to go up at night. I could afford it, had plenty of vacation time available, and decided, "Let's do it!".

This time, it didn't go so well. When it was time to get rolling, I was asked to not go; our sometimes crazy work schedules had piled up too much (and this wasn't the first time by a long shot. Their recurrences was one of the reasons I had so much vacation time built up; I'd had several vacations aborted this way). So, I didn't go.

Watching the lift-off, on TV at home instead of the Titusville beach, I'd HAD it! I was feeling "G*D D*MM*T! I'm not the only one there!". After the lift-off, I made a long distance call to my friend in Michigan and told him that if he still thought I could do something up there, I was definitely interested.

As I noted above, he had started his own company. He was farming out the data to a data-processing company, was not real impressed with the results, and decided to set up his own data-processing center.

In early 1984, he called back and asked me if I would come up and manage it for him.

And so, because of what amounts to a hissy fit over not being able to go to that night shuttle launch, I was soon on my way to Michigan, a new career, and a whole new future.

(Damn little of my life has ever been carefully planned; most of the time I seem to drift up on whatever shoals the current takes me to and I go on from there. The career change noted above is the closest thing to careful planning, and it resulted from an impulse; the only planning involved was that, when I left the engineering company, at least I knew where I was going and what I would be trying to do. Most of my odyssey has been far more random and capricious. I'm seriously considering a post on the utterly random and unpredictable events that have led me to where I am today.)


1 comment:

gcotharn said...

Wish I'd been able to see that launch framed against the clouds.


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