Sunday, February 26, 2012

Aunt Effie's Farm

My bucket list spans several pages. Some items are difficult ("visit every existing American manned spacecraft" has been a decades-long process) but some are quite easy - - provided I set aside time to put the item as a priority "to-do."

I live in eastern Massachusetts, and one of my long-time unfulfilled bucket list items has been to visit the site of Robert Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket launch. Today is the day I've managed to check that particular item off my list.

Goddard launched his rocket at a field on his Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. It's about 12 miles from his home in Worcester, and the site is still (fortunately) undeveloped. The reason the site is undeveloped is because it's on the 9th fairway of the Pakachoag Golf Course. There are houses scattered up and down the hills surrounding the field, but thanks to the 18 holes, Dr. Goddard's  launch site is pretty much the way he left it back in 1926.

Goddard was treated as a crackpot by newspapers of the day. The NY Times chided him for an implied ignorance of physics. "That professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction; and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react - to say that would be absurd. Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

The Times finally retracted their comment on July 16, 1969 - - the day Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins headed for the Moon in a Goddard-derived launch vehicle.

The only other place I can think of that comes close to the historical importance in the timeline of flight is Kitty Hawk. I've been to Kitty Hawk, and the reverence for the site in Massachusetts is nowhere near the veneration received by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina. The entrance to the golf course is a modest building at the top of Upland St. in Auburn. 

Nobody was at the pro shop today - - the door was locked, and there were no exterior signs pointing to the Goddard marker. Fortunately, there was Internet access on my Droid, so Captain Girlfriend and I managed to geocache our way to the memorial. 

It's a pretty far trip down the front 9 holes - - fortunately all downhill - - but an icy wind was blowing from the west. The Captain hunched up inside her coat (she never wears a hat) as we marched down the fairway.

It really was an ideal place for rocketry experiments, especially back before there were any nearby houses at the borders of this cow field. The gently sloping hill afforded a great view to see a rocket's path high in the air.

Finally, at the foot of the long hill, we spotted the marker. It's a very simple stone pillar that marks yet another place where the path of history changed forever. 

The American Rocket Society erected this memorial in 1960. Which means, of course, that the town fathers of Auburn, Massachusetts never bothered with recognizing this place for 34 years. But that's the case with most of Robert Goddard's work in America, anyway. 

Here's the mandatory bucket list picture:

And here's The Captain, patiently waiting to get her picture taken next to the stone so we could hurry up and get the heck outta there. What a trooper.

We took a fast, freezing jaunt back to the truck. I was imagining living in a house backed up to the golf course. I'd probably try and build a replica of Dr. Goddard's original pipe-nightmare rocket and donate it to the site. But probably the golf course folks wouldn't allow it.

Auburn's high school team is called "The Rockets" but that's really about all the town has done to memorialize Robert Goddard. How is it possible that this town missed the boat to capitalize on its place in history: the birthplace of modern rocketry?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Godspeed, John Glenn

As Brian Fies posted more eloquently than I ever could, Colonel John Glenn rocketed into orbit 50 years ago this Monday. The flight of Friendship 7 has been chronicled in periodicals, films, TV shows and even G.I. Joe accessories over the past half century.  Of course, saturating every medium with versions of the story makes it a bit difficult to sort out the reality of the event from the reactions of the writers.

Glenn's Mercury flight as a staggering moment in history cannot be overstated. Although the Soviets had launched Gagarin and Titov before Col. Glenn, this would be the first time a human being would be launched into orbit on live television. The American way of doing spaceflight was a marked difference from those launches behind the Iron Curtain. We, as a nation, were willing to show our triumphs and failures as they happened, not hiding the news until after a mission was successful. Glenn's ship was being launched immediately after the loss of Liberty Bell 7 the summer before - - an event where viewers around the world were treated to the live scene of Gus Grissom nearly drowning in the Atlantic as recovery crews grappled with his capsule. We wouldn't see a live Soviet launch until 13 years later, when a Soyuz left the pad to rendezvous with an American Apollo spacecraft. Our attitude in making the race to the Moon a public one (at least on our side of the racetrack) was as much a political success as a technological one.

A lot of the legend-writers, though, oversimplified both the nature of the hardware and the people involved in getting Friendship 7 up and back to Earth. Tom Wolfe, for example, portrayed John Glenn as a naive bumpkin, spouting stars-and-stripes cliches and relying on engineers to do all the "real work." John Glenn was a Marine aviator and combat warrior. He flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific during WWII, and stayed on as a jet fighter during the Korean War, shooting down three MiGs in some of the first jet dogfights in the history of the world. Colonel Glenn was no greenhorn newbie - - he was a survivor of some of the fastest, deadliest action on the planet.

After all of his wartime adventures, he still wanted more. Glenn campaigned and was accepted into NASA in 1959, despite a lack of a college degree - - beating out 104 other applicants. He was at the top of his field proficiencies, both in aerodynamics and reacting to a rapidly-changing aircraft environment. There were few people - NASA counted 7 - who would be capable of handling the rigors of flying a Mercury spacecraft into orbit.

It's amazing that after a half-century, Colonel (now retired Senator) Glenn is still with us, along with his fellow Mercury 7 astronaut, Scott Carpenter. Glenn would take to the sky again in 1998, riding onboard Space Shuttle Discovery, ostensibly to test geriatric responses to weightlessness, but also to inject a bit of PR into the routine and somewhat lackluster Shuttle program. Fifty years on, John Glenn continues to press for NASA's manned space program, returning to the stage when budget cuts are threatened. He remains our national hero, a man for whom people once wept on seeing in parades.

The pilot of Friendship 7 is one of those rare people whose hype doesn't exceed their true stature. I feel proud to be a part of the generation who saw his heroism as it happened. Godspeed, John Glenn.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Some things never change

One of the best parts of living in The Future is that things I'd normally have to go to a library to do I can now do while couch-surfing on my laptop at home.

When I was a kid, I used to haunt the basement of my local public library, perusing the stacks of old magazines and newspapers. It was fascinating to read the letters columns of popular science magazines such as, well, Popular Science, and see what the subscriber base at the time thought of Things to Come.

I remember reading this particular letter to the editor from October of 1949, and I managed to find it again, online!

Not sure what R. Klingbeil's life was like after 1949. A Google search shows a "Klingbeil Shoe Labs" from Queens doing quite a healthy business in ice skating equipment today. I hope Klingbeil got to see Sputnik flash overhead only a decade after this note was published.

Funny, or maybe sad - - I had a similar discussion with someone about this same topic on a pier at the Banana River in Florida. We were both waiting for the final launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. I was amazed that the concept of how orbits work still evades the minds of many people currently living in the Space Age. How is this possible?