Monday

ALUMINUM FOIL AND A WIRE COAT-HANGER ANTENNA


This story is an excerpt from my book "Growing up with Spaceflight; Apollo Part One" if you enjoy it... try the book, you'll love it.  

APOLLO 8:
ALUMINUM FOIL AND A WIRE COAT-HANGER ANTENNA

The Apollo 8 patch I bought at the KSC visitor's center on my first trip to to Florida; Feb. 1973. I'm pretty sure they no longer sell for 75 cents.

Our little house at 3324 Lexington Drive in Sheridan Park was packed full of relatives and neighbors. It was Christmas eve 1968 and my folks were hosting a party for our closest family friends. All of the adults were laughing, talking, eating, drinking and smoking. Mostly smoking.

Being an asthmatic I always had a very low tolerance for smokers and smoking, but in 1968 most people smoked.

My parents had both just quit that foul habit primarily due to my new doctor, an allergy-specialist, and the first true no-nonsense person that I have ever met. Dr. Goodwin was said to have, “the bedside manner of a bull,” but he got his points across to me and my family. Upon my second visit, where he reviewed my medical tests with my parents and myself, he pointed his pen at me and said, “If you ever smoke you will die.” Then he turned to my Mom and Dad and said, “If you two want him to get any better and to grow up to have a normal life, you both have to quit smoking. Today!” So firm and deadly-serious was his manner that both of my parents gave up cigarettes on the spot— cold turkey. Dad later took up a pipe, but at least he gave up the coffin-nails. So it was that at our household Christmas party seven months later, at least my Mom and Dad were not a part of making the blue haze that hung heavy in our living-room.

Although the TV was on, you really could not hear it and there was no place for a kid to sit and watch it. Besides that the party “atmosphere” was akin to sitting in a smudge pot. In short order I disappeared into my parent’s room where the “old” family TV resided. Every network had the same lead story to broadcast. It was a historic adventure called “Apollo 8.”

Stuffing one of my Dad’s T-shirts under the door to keep out the local pollution, I turned on the old TV and let her tubes warm up. After a few seconds the familiar crackle of static electricity began as the cathode-ray picture tube slowly built up to its 30,000 volt, shadow-mask face potential. Soon the blue tinted black and white image began to fuzz into clarity. With haste I spun the channel selection dial to UHF and channel 25; CBS. That channel was where Walter Cronkite was hosting and it came in the best on the old TV- primarily because channel 25’s broadcast antenna was located about 1,202 feet from my parent’s bedroom. Of course the aluminum foil that my Dad had wrapped around the distorted, wire coat-hanger that served as the TV set’s UHF antenna may have helped too.

Cronkite was saying that they were expecting another live TV broadcast from the moon shortly. There was not a hint that he had been on the air almost continually since about four o’clock in the morning. Just the excitement in his voice told me that something historic was taking place and it had my total attention. I sat, alone, cross-legged, on the foot of my parents bed, in the darkness. The party commotion happening just up the hallway seemed so distant it was as if I was in the studio with Cronkite myself. Perhaps countless other viewers across America felt exactly the same way at that moment. Now, Cronkite told us, the crew was ready to do their final TV broadcast from the Moon. The CBS “simulation” showed a model of an Apollo CSM from the rear with the expanse of the slightly curved lunar surface just below. Soon the voices and cross-talk from Mission Control made it apparent that the TV show from the moon was about to begin.



NASA’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO) announced that we were one minute… and then two minutes into acquisition of signal with Apollo 8, and CAPCOM Ken Mattingly, who had recently changed shifts with Mike Collins, told the crew that all of their systems looked great. Then the PAO announced that they had a TV picture in Mission Control. Quickly the picture shifted from the simulation of the flight to the fuzzy, slow-scan TV images of the lunar surface. It actually looked like a fishbowl with the words “Live Transmission From Apollo 8” superimposed on it. After a few moments, CBS cut back to Cronkite as the crew moved the camera to another window. The picture turned to a view inside Mission Control as the crew started out by saying that this was Apollo 8 live from the Moon, as if we did not already know that. Next they all gave their final descriptions of the moon and their impressions of the place that no human had ever before visited.

"The moon is a different thing to each one of us." Borman led the narration, "I think that each one of… each one carries his own impressions of what… of what he's seen today. I know my own impression is that it's a vast, lonely, forbidding type of existence or expanse of nothing; it looks rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone. And it certainly would not appear to be a very… inviting place to live or work. Jim, what have you thought about most?"

"Well, Frank," Lovell picked up the narration, "my thoughts are very similar; the vast loneliness up here of the moon is awe-inspiring, it makes you realize just what you have back there on earth. The earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space. Bill, what do you think?"

"I think," Anders continued, "the thing that impressed me the most was the lunar sunrises and sunsets. These, in particular, bring out the stark nature of the terrain, the long shadows really bring out the relief that is here (and) hard to see in this very bright surface that we’re going over right now. We are now coming onto Smyth's Sea, a small mare region covered with dark material. There's a fresh bright impact crater on the edge towards us. And mountain range on the other side. These mountains are the Pyrenees.”

About then the signals from the moon were disturbed and the crew’s show became abbreviated.

“Apollo 8,” CAPCOM interrupted quickly, “we’re not receiving picture now, over.”

Anders continued with his description as Houston repeated that they were not getting a picture. Suddenly the crew fixed the problem and I found myself looking through the rendezvous window, over the sill and out toward the Moon. All of my thoughts of presents and Christmas morning were suddenly muted. There were three guys up there circling the Moon, and I felt as if I were right there with them. Of course their view of the Moon was a great deal better than my blurred, washed-out black and white TV view. But still, it was THE Moon, and we were all there— all of us who were growing up with spaceflight.



From the din of the Christmas party voices out in my living room I heard a few quips of “Look at that!” as the same show that I was watching was playing on the TV out there. They, however, could not hear the words of the astronauts who were pointing out craters and evaluating the proposed site for the first lunar landing. Although, from my perspective, I was alone watching the event, it was later calculated that this broadcast was watched by more humans than any other single event in history to that date. Suddenly the crew stopped their lunar observations and said that they had a message to those of us on earth. They read from the Book of Genesis. It was a fantastic moment that added a shade of faith and humanity to the pure technology of the mission. It also got them sued by an atheist.

My parents ended their big Christmas party about an hour later with half-drunken and completely-drunken neighbors and relatives stumbling happily out into the bitter-cold mid-Michigan winter night. Fortunately, most of them lived nearby in our subdivision. The one who was the most intoxicated ended up face down in a snowdrift near our driveway and was able to be poured into the back seat of his car and driven home by his wife. Mom and Dad were left to clean up the house and prepare for Christmas morning. That, of course, meant putting us kids to bed. We all scrambled into our sleeping nests having been told that the sooner we went to sleep, the sooner Santa would come. That worked well on my younger sister and brother, but I found that my thoughts were centered more onto my 1/96 scale model Apollo CSM. I lay there in the dark holding it up as if passing over the lunar surface, or peeking into its small windows and looking at the little crewmen inside. I also studied the big Service Propulsion System engine bell. Cronkite had told us dozens of times that it had to fire in order for the crew to return to the Earth. Oddly, at the ripe old age of 11, unlike some adults, I had no doubt at all that it would work. 

I fell asleep with that level of innocent confidence.





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