Jerry Nelson: Apollo memories

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

Hard to believe that it’s been 50 years since I’ve been to the moon.

I didn’t personally go, of course. For one thing, I lacked the tiniest modicum of training or skills that it takes to become an astronaut. I have stuff, but none of it is the right stuff.

For another, I was 11 years old when Armstrong and Aldrin left their cleated footprints on the dusty surface of the moon. It looked to me like our celestial neighbor could use a good going-over with a Dust Buster.

The Space Age arrived two weeks before I did. Sputnik was beeping overhead in low earth orbit when this particular Baby Boomer came into the world. I’ve never found any value in this confluence of events other than that it might explain why I’m somewhat of a space cadet.

I grew up with our nation’s space program. News of the Mercury and Gemini projects was embedded in the soundtrack of my early childhood. Nobody was a bigger fan of the space program than Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America. Perhaps Uncle Walt owned a pile of aerospace stock.

Growing up, I was fed a steady diet of riveting rocket reportage. It seeped into my consciousness that it was imperative that we beat the Russians to the moon. I couldn’t figure out why; the moon had been there for a long time and would likely be there a lot longer. All I knew was that we needed to beat those dirty commies.

The space program was heroic and inspiring. In my case, it inspired me to try to build a rocket of my own. “Try” is the operative word here.

In my defense, I didn’t have anywhere near the budget that NASA had. My expenditures were limited to what I could save from my allowance to buy fireworks during the Fourth of July fireworks season.

Instead of such exotic materials as titanium and unobtainium, my rocket build was limited to cardboard and glue. I had no clue regarding guidance or trajectory; my sole operational objective was “higher is better.” It was only logical that more was also better.

Following NASA’s lead, I decided that the best way to accomplish my goal was to use multiple engines and multiple stages. The rocket building process began with me sneakily requisitioning the cardboard tube from a roll of gift wrap. It was a small sacrifice for the greater good.

A set of bottle rockets (aka solid rocket boosters) were glued to the lower section of the cardboard tube. This would be the first stage. Another slew of bottle rockets were fastened farther up the tube to create the second and third stages. I added some cardboard fins to the bottom of the vehicle. I didn’t know what the fins were for; I just thought they looked cool.

At last my launch vehicle was finished. Most people might have said that it looked like a bunch of bottle rockets glued willy-nilly to a cardboard tube, but most people don’t understand rocket science.

After a brief countdown, I lit the fuses on the first stage. I was in the midst of lighting the second stage when the ignition sequence abruptly commenced.

The launch was spectacular, but not in a good way. Instead of soaring majestically into the ether, the vehicle tipped onto its side, hissing angrily. I had forgotten that the rocket engines were the kind that had a report. A series of explosions rocked the launch vehicle. Bottle rockets shot in every direction, forcing spectators and mission control personnel to scramble for cover.

That July, the world watched as Apollo 11 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. Thanks to my recent rocketry experience, I had a deep appreciation for the flawless launch.

My seven siblings and I crowded around our TV – which had a screen approximately the size of a postage stamp – as the Eagle touched down. We squinted at the grainy black-and-white images that were beamed live from the surface of the moon.

Then Neil Armstrong stepped off the LM and into the stark, unforgiving vacuum and uttered those immortal words about man and mankind.

It was a stunning moment. Everybody whooped and cheered. We had done it! Not just NASA, not just America, but the whole world!

After a decade that had been roiled by wars and assassinations, burning cities and burning rivers, the moon landing was a gleaming moment of unity and triumph. It was only a moment, but we would take it.

A few days later, as I watched Columbia splash down in the Pacific, something occurred to me.

Retrorockets! My spacecraft had probably needed some retrorockets!