When I was a kid of about 10 or 12, I loved two things: the Baltimore Orioles and the Apollo space program.
I liked my family OK, too, I suppose. But, truthfully, with nine of us banging around the old inn (our house was, literally, a revolutionary-era inn), I could take them or leave them on most days. I’m sure they thought the same about me.
(Example: One day, when I was climbing out of the rear-facing third row of the family wagon, feet first over the tailgate, Dad hit the switch from the driver’s seat that closed the electric window in back — before my buzz-cutted noggin had cleared. The window closed right on my throat. I could have been decapitated. Dad swore it was an accident. My brothers all laughed.)
I didn’t care about football back in my pre-teens or much about basketball. I sure didn’t give a damn about school. And at that point, girls to me were pretty much like straight As: Attainable. With a lot of work. If I wanted to. Someday. Maybe.
So it was the Orioles and the space program.
The Orioles were, when baseball actually meant something to kids, my team. I knew the whole lineup — know it still — and lovingly watched them play on WJZ-TV out of Baltimore every chance I could. When the picture inevitably failed, we tuned in Chuck Thompson and Bill O’Donnell on the radio, stuck it on top of the set and imagined we saw the game through all the TV snow.
The Apollo mission, though … to a kid from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere — a kid who could barely imagine life outside of Delaware, a kid who didn’t step foot on a plane or step west of the Mississippi until he left for college — the Apollo mission was something cooler than playing center field for the Orioles once Paul Blair retired. The space program was sci-fi, only without the fi.
Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell were my guys on Earth. But Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were my guys in the stars.
If I had paid attention to math as much as I studied the Lunar Escape Module, I probably would have never ended up in journalism. (It says in Wikipedia that the LEM was the Lunar “Excursion” Model, but I remember it as “Escape.” I’m going with Escape.) I knew everything about Apollo; what the LEM did and who was in it, what the Command Module did and how poor Michael Collins had to stay up there and drive the getaway car while Neil and Buzz went down to the moon. I knew the route around the moon, what happened when they went to the “dark” side, blastoff, splashdown, slingshotting, how hot it was in re-entry. God, that stuff was so cool.
At the time, my dad worked for International Latex Corporation in Dover, which was famous for its Playtex brand of bras and girdles and other female-oriented stuff I knew nothing about. If any of that womanly paraphernalia registered with me at all at the time, it probably fell somewhere between mildly intriguing and just-shoot-me embarrassing. My dad left for ILC in the morning and got home at night, paid the bills (mostly), fixed the car (always), yelled at me when I didn’t deserve it, smacked my brothers when they did and was, generally, a pretty un-perturbable type, considering seven screaming kids were in his house. What he did when he went to work … I had no idea.
It wasn’t until man almost hit the moon that I learned that ILC also manufactured something way cooler than bras and tampons (whatever they were). ILC, many years earlier, had been contracted by NASA to make the spacesuits for the Apollo missions.
My dad, as near as could I figure it, was part of the space program. He was helping to put man on the moon.
Over the years, Dad brought home trinkets from his trips to Houston (Mission Control!) and answered all the questions we had about the suits and the helmets and the rockets. I showed him models we built of the CM, of the LEM. One time — this is all sketchy, but it’s how I remember it — Wally Schirra was in town and a bunch of ILC kids got to meet him.
(Somewhere around that time, too, give or take five years, the Donovan clan piled into the wagon for a trip over to the Blue Hen Mall where — once I scurried clear of that back window — we stood in a long line to meet, sitting on a folding chair just outside of J.C. Penney, the great Brooks Robinson.)
My dad was not an engineer or some high-level executive at ILC. He was, I think, an office manager. He made sure people had all the equipment they needed to do their office jobs. Pencils. Slide rules. Binders. Paper. But, dammit, he worked at the place that made the spacesuits for Apollo. He was about as cool as any dad I knew.
I remember still Mom and Dad waking us up one night and bringing us into their bedroom. There, on the tiny TV that sat on top of their dresser, Neil Armstrong was hopping off the leg of the LEM and into the dust of the lunar surface. We were transfixed.
We wondered — the whole world wondered — if we could do it. That night, we did. And at that moment, with the whole Donovan clan staring silently at the black-and-white image, it seemed anything was possible. Even for a buzz-cutted middle kid in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
I thought of all this last week when I saw Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy blast off from the same launch pad that the Apollo program used so many years ago (on what was then known as Cape Kennedy). I watched, incredulously, as two of the boosters landed back on Earth, intact, on the pads in Florida.
It was so, so cool. So sci-fi. A bunch of hipster millennials cheered at SpaceX headquarters in California. A bunch of old people whooped on the beaches of Florida.
I laughed out loud at my computer screen, remembering the feeling.
Here we are, almost 50 years after Apollo 11 dumped Armstrong and Aldrin onto the moon — Collins never did make it down there — and we’re now talking about sending a human to Mars. A person. On Mars. Maybe someday, if Musk has his way and we have to, the whole lot of us will go.
We’re going to have to start to dream bigger.