Forty years ago, the attention to space exploration was constant. And the faces of the exploration gave rise to a group of larger than life individuals—the astronauts.
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In a small Episcopal church in El Lago outside of Houston, a young man stood at the altar looking out at the solemn room. It was the summer of 1983. Sitting in the pews were his father’s family and closest friends: astronauts, scientists, engineers, doctors, neighbors. It had been twenty years since they moved to Houston and called the area now known as Clear Lake home. On this day, they came to honor the life of a colleague. A man who with a shared vision helped launch the most exciting scientific endeavor of our century—the race to the moon.
“I will not speak as though my father was a great man for one of the many things he taught me was that there really are no great men, only circumstances that allow ordinary men to do great things,” Dr. Brian Hull said in his father’s, my grandfather’s, eulogy.
But what took place in that small community of southeast Texas in 1963 was just that; the circumstances for greatness to be achieved through manned space travel. In the national arena, the attention to space exploration was constant. And the faces of the exploration gave rise to a group of larger than life individuals—the astronauts—a unique group of men who were famous for being the first of their kind. With buzzed haircuts, etched jaw lines, and tough physiques, they became the new American heroes. Profiled in newspapers across the country, Americans wanted to know everything about the military test pilots chosen as astronauts. The rural area outside of Houston soon became the center of it all.
Now over 40 years since the construction of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the allure of the early years is lost in the history books. In April, President Barack Obama, speaking at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said, “The challenges facing our space program are different and our imperatives for this program are different than in decades past. We’re no longer racing against an adversary. We’re no longer competing to achieve a singular goal like reaching the moon.”
But in 1963, the race was just starting. Dr. Wayland E. Hull was a professor of physiology at Duke University. His pioneering research in high altitude physiology would lead to an offer to join the NASA team. Along with thousands of other specialists and leaders in their field, Wayland Hull moved his family outside of Houston, Texas to work at the Space Center. Today there are nine NASA home bases for astronauts across the nation; the original is in Houston. In 1961, development for the center began on a 1,600-acre plot of land and new neighborhoods engulfed the Clear Lake suburbs, which was soon made up of NASA employees and high-profile astronauts.
The original seven astronauts—Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald Slayton—were chosen in 1959 to play out Project Mercury, that would send a man into space. But in 1961, the Russians sent the first man, Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, into space, making the race to the moon the next goal. Project Mercury ended in 1963, and nine additional astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, were selected in preparation for landing a man on the moon’s surface before the end of the decade. The Johnson Space Center was where this would all be made possible.
“They selected these military test pilots and held them up as representatives of leaders of the free world in space,” said Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut from 1990 to 2005. “It was a natural way of reacting to what the Soviets did with their cosmonauts. They put them forward as military warriors and space warriors, and so did we.” The sense of heroism and bravery attributed to the persona of the astronauts brought a new type of celebrity to the American homes. Family men living in Texas. Brave military veterans. Fathers. Husbands.
“They were all skilled pilots,” Brian Hull says. “They had an incredible sense of adventure and exploration but the NASA leadership and the government wanted them to be movie stars and to seem larger than life because it helped it all seem possible.”
The news media rallied around the idea of the astronaut celebrity and helped harness public enthusiasm and support through the constant coverage. “Astronauts in those days were demigods,” said Reid Miller, the former Miami bureau chief for the Associated Press who covered the Gemini and Apollo missions. “Every single person, every single child knew their names. An astronaut didn’t sneeze without us knowing.”
Gemini, the second human spaceflight project, helped develop 10 manned flights between 1965 and 1966 that were performed in preparation for Project Apollo. Miller was based in Miami as the AP news editor and later the bureau chief during the pivotal years of NASA’s early launches. But when he and his team of around 40 reporters were covering an anticipated mission, they went to Houston to get the story.
Miller says his most exciting reporting experience was covering Apollo 11, the first mission to the moon’s surface. The crew of Apollo 11 included Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. In the months before the July 16 launch in 1969, their lives and the lives of their families were front-page material. “We staked out their homes. We watched their wives coming and going and their children if they had them. We covered them like a blanket,” Miller said.
Apollo 11 has been regarded as “the greatest show in the history of television,” recalled David Bushman, the television curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. The achievement stood for something that united the country. “It was an early example of something that is very common now—it is not just the actual event itself that is significant, but it is also the media event,” Bushman said.
In his article recounting the impact of Apollo 11, Bushman wrote it was “no small feat given that the country was mired in an unpopular war in Southeast Asia and was being ripped apart at home by race riots and antiwar demonstrations.” While the rest of the world was waiting and watching in anticipation in the days before Apollo 11, those living just outside of Johnson Space Center watched as news reporters came and went trying to get a glimpse at the daily lives of their neighbors.
“I remember having to have a pass to get into the neighborhood at some points,” Brian Hull said. “Before Apollo 11 launched, the press would stay at the hotel near the Space Center on NASA Road 1. They put a TV tower and a press box on the roof where they would broadcast. It was an international event.”
Even as a child, Brian Hull says he understood the importance of what was going on but it was different for his family and those around him. “We all knew what was happening and we all paid attention to it because somebody always had a stake in it,” he said. “Somebody’s parents were involved in some aspect all the time.”
The stakes seemed higher during Apollo 11 because reaching the moon was a new feat, he says. And his father had an important hand in the safety of the astronauts behind the scenes. Dr. Wayland Hull sat in Mission Control monitoring the health of the pilots during the entire flight. From their pulse to blood pressure, his research in physiological safety would help ensure the astronauts could physically reach their goal of a lunar landing.
An estimated 500 million people watched as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface at 10:56 PM Eastern Daylight Time on July 20, 1969. Miller and his AP team worked for 15 hours that day, he says, writing stories that told the world to the exact second what was going on. They convened in a hotel room filled with TVs and wrote all their stories in advance, making changes only if something unexpected happened. But in the case of Apollo, everything went according to plan. “We knew to the second when Armstrong would land. We had that story written and all we had to do was release it,” Miller says.
The day of the landing, the Houston Chronicle, along with most major newspapers, was consumed with coverage of the event. The front page read like a movie script:
3:03 p.m. – Lunar Module begins descent to the Moon.
3:15 p.m. – Lunar Module lands on the Moon.
5:14 p.m. – Armstrong and Aldrin take time out to eat.
5:49 p.m. – Armstrong and Aldrin begin a four-hour rest.
8:26 p.m. – Collins, the CSM pilot, begins a four-hour rest.
10:29 p.m. – Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar module spend up to one hour eating before preparing to leave LM for walk on surface.
The morning’s headline read, “Sunday Night is the Big Night, Moon Crew Gets Ready to Land.” That night, Armstrong stepped on the surface and spoke his famous line. Miller ran the story. After the reporting was done, Miller and some of his staff watched the landing for the first time in his hotel room. “We sat there through the night, emptying a bottle of Jack Daniels, and watching television saying, ‘Wow, look at that.’ We had just written thousands of words about it, and we were literally seeing it for the first time.”
The three major television stations, ABC, CBS and NBC, replayed the coverage non-stop throughout the night and into the morning. Kenneth Bowersox, a former astronaut who was part of the 12th class of astronauts starting in 1987, was a 13-year-old boy when he watched the moon landing. “There was something special about them as people,” he says. “For people now, it is not as special because it seems like a long time ago.”
Astronauts today are generally not recognizable unless they are wearing their blue suits, he says. Like the original groups of astronauts, Bowersox has a military test pilot background but says it is less common criteria today for becoming an astronaut. “The tough guy image of the astronaut from then was part of the time period,” he says. “That image has changed over the years. Since the first missions were focused on the transportation ability, it made sense to have astronauts who were from a test pilot or military background.”
The Johnson Space Center, now surrounded by economically booming urban environments, still continues manned space exploration and astronauts like Kenneth Bowersox and Leroy Chiao call Houston home. Many men and women who were a part of the first years of manned space exploration are now gone. Some have passed on and others moved on to different endeavors. The stories of those early days are left to those who remember.
There is a small room in my house that holds all of my dad’s possessions from his childhood. It is filled with photo albums of a young family in Houston. The walls are lined with books that, behind the age and dust of the outer covers, chronicle the experiments and research of his father, Wayland Hull. There are framed mementos with personal messages. “To a dear friend…,” signed by astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman. There is a faded little league trophy engraved with the name Coach Neil Armstrong. On the walls among the many photographs is an old black and white image of two deer. One is looking out at the camera. Off in the distance looms a large building, seemingly out of place against the image of wildlife. The building is the Johnson Space Center, somehow contrasting how far they had come in that small prairie town.
There is a framed American Flag. It is small and tattered. The once bright red and blue colors are wrinkled with age under the glass covering. But it holds significance beyond the meaning of the flag—this particular flag went to the moon’s surface in the pocket of an astronaut during Apollo. It was given to my grandfather to honor his role in making that feat possible more than 40 years ago. I never met my grandfather. But I understand more now about what that means.