The Final Frontier

Most boomers recall the dawning of the U.S. space program with national pride and patriotic aplomb. Yet many of us were too young to be fully aware that we had entered a Space Race with the Soviet Union. The facts were, we weren’t the first into space, and we were getting further behind.

The Soviets had a great deal of success in the late 50s and early 60s. They were the first to launch a satellite into orbit (Sputnik 1, in 1957). That prompted a response from the newly-minted National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in the form of Explorer 1 in 1958 — and the Space Race was on.

NASA had announced an ambitious program of launching a man into space and ultimately orbiting the Earth. Thus, the Mercury Program was established (1958-63). Seven “astronauts,” as the U.S. spacemen were to be called, were chosen from among military pilots to participate in the program.

But the Soviets beat them to it, launching Yuri Gagarin (the Soviets named their spacemen “cosmonauts”) into orbit and safely back to Earth on April 12, 1961 (Vostok 1). One month later, Alan Shephard became the first American into space (on board Freedom 7). His mission, however, amounted to little more than a slingshot into space and a fall back to Earth — there was no attempt at an orbit yet.

The U.S., feeling the growing embarrassment of “second place,” responded through the president of the United States. In April of 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba pretty much started the Cold War, according to some historians. Now the Space Race was going to enter the political maelstrom. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech before a Joint Session of Congress in which he laid down to NASA the challenge of sending a man to moon and back again. As if that weren’t a daunting enough challenge for a team that had yet to send a man into orbit, Kennedy set a deadline on the program — the end of the decade.

Building on the success of Alan Shepherd’s Mercury mission, NASA launched Gus Grissom into space in July of 1961. His was another preliminary mission — there would be no attempt yet at establishing an orbit around the Earth. It wasn’t until February of 1962 that the U.S. sent Astronaut John Glenn into Earth orbit aboard the Friendship 7 — a full nine months after the Soviets had completed the feat.

That same year, 1962, was an important one in boomer musical history. The communications satellite Telstar 1 was launched into orbit. Composer Joe Meek immortalized the moment with an instrumental song every boomer can recognize. “Telstar” was originally recorded by The Tornadoes. It went to number one in the U.K., and was the first single by a British band to ever hit the U.S. Billboard Top 100. Then in 1963, it was covered by The Ventures, perhaps the version most boomers will recognize.

John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule. Photo courtesy of NASA.
John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule on Feb. 20, 1962. Astronauts were allowed to name their own crafts in the Mercury Program. Each had chosen to use the number 7 in their naming structure to reflect that they -- the original seven astronauts -- were a team. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Mister Boomer remembers being in grade school during the Mercury missions. A black & white TV sitting on an AV cart was wheeled into the classroom every time there was a launch. A second class of students was ushered in to sit on the floor between the desk rows, faces turned to the TV. Then, along with our nun teachers, we quietly sat in awe as we witnessed the historic events unfold, as they happened.

The Friendship 7 launch holds a special, particular place in Mister B’s memory banks. The summer after the successful mission, Mister Boomer’s family hopped into the car to visit Washington, D.C. The family visited the monuments, U.S. Treasury, sat in on a session of the House of Representatives for a few minutes, and visited the White House. Impressive, memorable visits for a young child, to be sure. But none could capture the imagination as much as a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There, Mister Boomer saw the Friendship 7 capsule — the same one he had seen in the launch, on TV. Looking like an inverted top, it sat on a platform, with wooden stairs leading directly to it. Walking up the stairs, visitors could not only touch the louvered exterior of the capsule, but peer inside through the small window. There, a mannequin astronaut in full gear was visible in the one-man pilot seat. This surprised and frightened the young Mister B at first, but then he was struck by the incredibly tiny and tight space John Glenn had inside his capsule. Walking down the stairs, Mister Boomer noticed the charred exterior of the spacecraft. The pattern of re-entry had left a visible trail in blackened flames. He couldn’t resist running a finger over the darkened side, only to find there was no charcoal-char residue at all. It was completely burnt into the metal, a permanent testimony to the day.

For Mister Boomer, that was it. He followed every space mission, as many boomers did, up to the moon landing in July of 1969 and beyond. With President Kennedy’s challenge met, the U.S. had overtaken the Soviets in the Space Race. And boomers had stories that stirred images of the final frontier that today’s generation can’t even fathom. We were there at the beginning, boomers!

What great memories of the space program do you have? Do you still have a copy of “Telstar”? Is it by The Tornadoes or The Ventures?

8-Track Mind

In 1964, Bill Lear and the engineers at the Lear Jet Corporation, in conjunction with the contributions of several other corporations that included Motorola, Ampex, RCA, Ford and General Motors, released the Lear Jet Stereo 8, the first consumer 8-track tape player. Magnetic tapes encased in a housing had been around since the fifties, most notably in 4-track form. Radio broadcasters had been using a similar cartridge in the mid-50s, to make it easier to play jingles and commercials on demand.

The 8-track cartridge as introduced by Bill Lear consisted of 4 programs, 2 tracks each, building on earlier inventions. In previous incarnations, the tape was set to run in a continuous loop. Tracks were switched by the means of a metal foil that activated the sensor in the playback mechanism. Lear’s main alteration in the cartridge was moving the rubber pinch roller, formerly part of a playback mechanism, into the cartridge itself.

By 1967, Ford offered an 8-track player as an option to all its vehicle models, and RCA began releasing 8-tracks for its catalog of artists. This combined effort helped the 8-track gain credibility and popularity. Once consumers saw its portability and convenience, the era of the 8-track was underway.

Plagued with consumer problems from the start, the 8-track cartridge proved large and kinda clunky, filling up interior console bins and making storage inside a car more difficult. That notwithstanding, what irked most people Mister Boomer knew was the constant tape hiss and loud ker-chunk heard when the tracks were changing, which often happened within the middle of a song. Restricted to the tape’s eight tracks, albums had to be readjusted to conform to the technology’s requirements. This meant reconfiguring song order in many cases, songs being broken between tracks, and, in some situations, songs repeated or content added to fill the tape.

By the 1970s, the 8-track was on the way out. Cassettes, though introduced in 1963, didn’t overtake the 8-track until the late 70s. Consumers discovered that cassettes were cheaper than 8-track tapes, and record companies had to take a hard business look at the various formats they were publishing: vinyl, 8-track and cassette. By the time compact discs gained in popularity in the early 80s, the 8-track’s day in the sun had waned.

Mister Boomer’s entry into the world of the 8-track began in the summer of 1972. His brother had installed a unit in his own car a couple of years earlier, and now was selling that car. He removed the 8-track player and, since his newer auto would have a built-in 8-track player, offered the older unit as a hand-me-down to Mister B.

Mister B's 8-track player
That's right, boomers. This is an actual scan of the owner's manual for Mister B's in-car 8-track player.

Brother Boomer helped Mister B install the unit inside the glove compartment of his 1964 Plymouth. The Mini-8 fit perfectly. Instead of permanently securing it to the included hanging bar, though, a locking mechanism was installed in the roof of the compartment. The male counterpart was attached to the top of the unit. This allowed it to slide and lock into the bracket so the unit could be removed and carried when leaving the car, providing an extra layer of security. Tape players were a common target of auto break-ins. Employing a hacksaw blade from their father’s toolbox, the two boomer boys cut holes in the door panels and back window deck to house the speakers. True stereo sound would now be achieved. A few wires and a fuse later, the unit was ready for a test drive.

Despite the easy fit of the player in the glove box, the 8-track tapes themselves were six inches long. Inserted into the unit, approximately two inches remained outside the entry slot to enable the cartridge to be grabbed and removed. This meant that when Mister B wanted to activate the unit, the glove box needed to remain open, as the tape extended beyond the compartment. It also meant the tape would be out of reach while driving. It was portable music on demand all right — as long as you inserted a tape before getting underway.

Nonetheless, the floodgates now open, Mister B began buying 8-tracks, and added more titles to his annual family Christmas list. His girlfriend at the time had an interest in Elton John (Rocket Man), Cat Stevens (Peace Train) and Chicago (Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?), so naturally those purchases had to be made. Sitting in the passenger seat, she could control the volume and, since there was no rewind, click through the tracks to her heart’s content. Yet there was more. Mister B took this new in-the-car portability as the chance to discover new music he might not be able to play on the home “Victrola,” as Mister B’s mother called the family phonograph. This experimentation resulted in Jethro Tull (Aqualung; Thick As A Brick), The Doors (Best of the Doors), Santana (Abraxas), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Deja Vu; 4-Way Street) and even Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida) joining the collection. As a free-thinking, red-blooded American male, classical music on 8-track sat side by side with the rock ‘n roll in the Mister Boomer 8-track library (Best of Beethoven; Best of Tchaichovsky; Mozart Symphony in G Minor; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos).

It may have been clunky, annoying and inconvenient, but it was your music when you wanted it. In the early 80s, Mister Boomer was heading out to seek his fame and fortune away from Middle America. The entire 8-track collection, numbering in the vicinity of 80 tapes, were quickly sold, along with their storage cases, at a garage sale. Never climbing on the cassette bandwagon, Mister B’s personal portable music would have to wait until the introduction of the iPod before he forayed back into the realm.

Well, boomers, what is your happy 8-track memory?