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Growing up with America’s manned space program

Ned Jilton • Apr 29, 2020 at 10:00 PM

Before I was interested in photography or history, I was highly interested in space and the space program.

I hadn’t been on the planet very long when Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961 or John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962, so I don’t have any memories of those flights. By the time NASA’s Gemini program started, I was old enough to get interested.

I had a lot of strep throat and ear infections when I was young and spent a lot of time sick at home. During this time, I would watch the Gemini flights on our black & white TV and listen while Walter Cronkite described what was going on. Later I would play sick just to get out of school to watch the flights on TV.

Everyone was fired-up about the space program in the ’60s. I remember going to the drive-in movie, and you could get orange drink in either a plastic orange or a plastic space capsule. If you didn’t hustle to the concession stand when you first arrived, the space capsules would sell out before you got one.

I wish I still had one. It would probably be worth a bundle on eBay today.

After my mother passed away, my father and I moved in with my grandparents for a while. It was there I watched the Apollo flights on their color TV. I was always sitting in the floor to the right of the TV so as not to block everyone else’s view.

I remember how moved we all were, especially my grandparents, as we listening to the astronauts of Apollo 8 read from the book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

Six months later, we were all gathered in front of the TV again — grandparents, dad, uncle, and there was me in my spot on the floor as Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the lunar module. We watched as he took the first step on the moon followed by those now famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

By the time I was in high school, the Apollo program was over and Skylab had flown. But I was still a bit of a space nerd. I built model rockets and even won the Kiwanis Science Fair scholarship by building a fully functional weather satellite.

I also stole my parents dinner guests one night.

Let me back up here a moment. My dad remarried when I was in high school and my stepmother was a school teacher. One night they invited some of my stepmom’s school teacher friends over for a little dinner party. I was into several school activities, but on this night I had nothing to do. To stay out of the way, I set up my telescope behind the house.

As I looked around the night sky, Saturn sprang into focus. My delighted “Oh wow” drew the attention of one of the guest standing near the sliding glass door who asked what I was looking at. I responded “the rings around Saturn.”

“No way,” he said. “You can see Saturn through that telescope?”

“You can look for yourself,” I said.

The man looked through the scope and then called his wife to look. Other guests, wondering what was going on, also came out. When my parents came out of the kitchen with the food, everyone was gone. They were all outside taking turns looking at Saturn.

Space and the space program have always had this ability to bring people together.

In 1975, Cold War relations between the United States and Russia began to thaw with the Apollo-Soyuz project. The docking of an American spacecraft with a Russian spacecraft and the conducting of joint scientific experiments marked the end of the space race that had started in 1957. A few years later, the American space shuttles flew missions to the Russian space station MIR.

Today the space program is bringing the world together in grand fashion with the International Space Station.

After the missions to the moon, both the United States and Russia put space stations into orbit. Those stations operated for a few years and both have since fallen back to Earth.

With the ISS, we have 15 nations working together, building and maintaining the largest manmade structure ever put into space.

Think about it. We now have American astronauts flying into space on Russian rockets and docking with a station that was built in several European countries, Japan, the United States and Russia. And it was put together using robotic arms designed and built in Canada.

One of the astronauts’ favorite sections of the station is the cupola. It’s a section that gives the station’s crew a 360 degree view of the Earth below. The cupola was designed by an American engineer, but was built by the Italians. It was put in place on the station with the help of a Canadian robotic arm.

The ISS was launched in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since Nov. 2, 2000. It has hosted almost 250 travelers from 19 countries.

If all these countries can put aside their differences and work together in space, imagine what could be done if we did the same thing on Earth. Perhaps looking at our planet from above could bring us all together again. Just as when everyone came together for a moment in 1968 when Apollo 8 gave us our first view of the Earth rising over the moon.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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