Mister Boomer Tips His Hat to Elon Musk & SpaceX

When carmaker and space entrepreneur Elon Musk was born in 1971, the Space Race was long over; the U.S. was declared the underdog victor when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July of 1969. Interest in manned missions to space peaked around that time, but support for continuing manned space exploration was bolstered by the introduction of the first Space Shuttle in 1976. Appropriately christened “Enterprise,” it was named after the boomer-favorite spaceship on the TV show, Star Trek. For the first time, boomers could see a spaceship that could fly into orbit and land back on Earth, ready for another flight.

Deep budget cuts to the Space Program and a public that no longer stopped whatever they were doing to watch rocket launches — like we did during the 1960s — made it difficult to maintain an ambitious program to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off in January 1986, it became evident that progress from here on out was going to be slow and deliberate.

The International Space Station missions (1998 to present) kept our toes in the water, but many boomers, like Mister Boomer, longed for the thrill of big missions where brave men and women zipped across the universe the way we had seen in the TV shows and movies of our youth. Fast forward to February 6, 2018, when Elon Musk’s SpaceX team launched the Heavy Falcon rocket from the same Cape Canaveral launchpad that had propelled NASA astronauts to the moon, rekindling the hopes and imaginations of the Boomer Generation who sat on the edge of their seats while watching the space launches, from the earliest manned Mercury missions that began in 1961 to landing on the moon, as President Kennedy had challenged, “before the end of the decade.” People had camped out for two days to watch the Heavy Falcon launch along the same highway where boomers and their families had watched the Apollo launches. This SpaceX three-booster system doubles the liftoff capacity of what current rockets can muster, expanding the payload possibilities for future missions.

To, as our sixties lingo would put it, blow our minds even more, the three Heavy Falcon booster rockets were not designed to fall off into the ocean, never to be used again. No, Musk’s company has spent the past decade engineering the booster rockets so that they land safely on Earth and are able to be refueled and used again. The two side boosters did just that, landing back at Cape Canaveral in a synchronized event that looked like something from a Buck Rogers episode. The largest booster, the center rocket, was supposed to land on a drone ship platform in the Atlantic ocean, but missed it by 100 meters. Preliminary reports say the rocket didn’t have enough remaining fuel to execute the landing maneuver.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Musk had another surprise for us. The spacecraft that was launched by the Heavy Falcon boosters was intended to head for an orbit around Mars. When the nose cone of the craft opened, it revealed a red convertible Tesla Roadster with a mannequin in a spacesuit behind the wheel. As strains of David Bowie’s Life on Mars emanated from the car’s sound system, the mannequin — dubbed “Starman” by Musk — had his left arm resting on the car window while the right hand “steered” through space. The car’s electronic readout screen posted the message, “Don’t Panic,” and a copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was in the glove compartment. The latest reports say that Starman will miss his orbit trajectory for Mars, and is headed toward the Asteroid Belt. Sweet boomer dreams are made of this!

One week after the incredible SpaceX test of the Heavy Falcon rockets comes news that our government is poised to end funding of the International Space Station in 2024. Reports indicate a desire of the current Administration to turn it over to private industry. While boomers like Mister B might question the wisdom of such a decision, one can only hope that if privatization is the future of space exploration, the International Space Station won’t become a floating hotel with a certain president’s name on it, but rather placed in the hands of visionaries like Elon Musk. Think of the possibilities of building interplanetary craft in space instead of engineering bigger rockets to send the immense size and fuel supply that will be necessary for such travel directly from Earth. While you’re at it, Mister Musk, could you please begin the work on a Warp Drive, and oh, if we had a way to beam up to the Station, that would be super! To infinity and beyond!

What did you think of the SpaceX test launch, boomers? Did it remind you of the excitement we felt in the early days of the Space Program?

Boomers Witnessed Apollo 1’s Fateful Mission

January 31 is designated as an Annual Day of Remembrance for the brave men and women who lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration and discovery. This year marks a fateful anniversary in that regard, as fifty years ago this week three astronauts lost their lives in a preflight fire aboard Apollo 1 (NASA titled AS-204).

Scheduled to launch on February 21, 1967, Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were to be the first crewed flight of the Apollo missions that would eventually take us to the moon.

This was to be Roger Chaffee’s first space flight. The other two, however, were veterans of the Space Program. Virgil “Gus” Grissom reached space in July 1961 aboard the Liberty Bell 7 capsule in the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission. After a 15 and half-minute suborbital flight, his space capsule sank in the ocean on reentry. Grissom was quickly retrieved by the US Navy. Edward White became the first American to perform a spacewalk in June 1965. He was one of two astronauts aboard Gemini 4. Pilot James McDivitt and White spent four days in space, on only the tenth manned spaceflight launched by the US.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo astronauts suited up for a planned preflight test of systems in the Command Module, which was in place on top of the Saturn rocket (AS-204) at the launch site. At around 6:31 p.m. EST, the crew reported a fire inside their module. From the subsequent investigation and report to Congress, we know that a voltage surge was recorded around one minute before the fire was reported. The fire began beneath the Senior Pilot’s couch and spread through channels that were designed to deflect debris away from the astronauts during flight. It quickly surged through the Command Module, which contained 100 percent oxygen, consuming flammable materials and wiring and filling it with smoke. Pressure built inside the module with the heat from the fire, making it exceedingly difficult to open the inside of the two-layer hatch since it opened inward. The crew on the platform outside could not see the astronauts through the viewing window due to the smoke, and were not able to approach the capsule in time due to the heat. All indications pointed to the Apollo crew and platform personnel following procedures, but in less than twenty minutes, the crew was officially reported dead.

As a result, NASA grounded all flights while an investigation was conducted. It was to be nearly a year before the next launch, which was a severe setback in the middle of the Space Race. President Kennedy’s goal of getting a crew to the moon and back within the decade seemingly became an impossible mission.

In our day and age, it seems unbelievable that there wasn’t a system in place to handle such contingencies as an onboard fire before the spacecraft was launched. However, we need to remind ourselves that putting people into space was a completely new thing, and virtually every aspect had to be developed as the Space Program progressed. As a result of the investigation, NASA initiated major design and engineering changes before the first Apollo flight was launched. Among these changes were:

• An outward-opening hatch
• Mix of oxygen and nitrogen in the module
• Fireproof storage containers
• Protective covering over wiring and flameproof coating on wire connections
• Plastic switches were replaced with metal
• Emergency oxygen system to isolate crew from cabin emergencies
• Fire extinguishers onboard and on the launch platform

The deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee hit the country — and boomers — hard. For boomers like Mister B who followed the Space Program through every mission, it was a devastating blow, like a member of the family had passed away. Mister Boomer recalls seeing pictures of the damaged module in Life magazine, along with photos of a subsequent zipline escape system installed on the launch towers. Though it was a severe setback for the Space Program, after NASA presented their findings and intentions for modifications to Congress in April of 1967, there weren’t many people ready to give up on achieving President Kennedy’s challenge that he made only six years earlier.

Do you recall hearing the awful news of the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts from the first TV and radio reports, boomers?