Escape Velocity

(Reflections of a wayward Astronaut)

By John Morgan

One of the many great things about Halloween is its pure escapism.  For brief moments in time we are able to slip out of bounds and security of our daily lives’ and choose from an almost limitless variety of identities.  Our moods and interests are seldom static and Halloween is able to convey our dynamic forms of self-expression effortlessly.  The recent passing of my boyhood idol, Neil Armstrong, has me reflecting back on a time when my dreams and aspirations sailed to the stars, as well as through my neighborhood streets.

As a child growing up during the unprecedented Apollo Space Program, it’s hard to convey to later generations the scale, scope, and influence the space race had on all of us watching from home, school or work. When there was a launch or a landing you stopped whatever it was you were doing, no matter where you were, and you focused entirely on what was occurring out in space. The overarching sense of awe and wonder we reserved for NASA and our astronauts was nothing short of hero-worship.  They were the flesh and blood embodiments of humanity’s potential. Stretching the boundaries of what was possible beyond our imaginations.

It was during those days, that my brothers and I were active in a junior rocket club in Southern California. I’ll never forget the launch of my Brother Bill’s first home-made rocket.  He crafted and christened his first rocket after the first manmade satellite:  Sputnik 1. To my brother’s credit, it was a solid representation of the Soviet orbiter. It was constructed of the finest round Styrofoam the local hobby store had to offer, and it’s four spindly Balsa wood legs stood the craft apart from the sleek mostly Mercury and Apollo recreations sharing the launch platform.

As I recall, there were four rockets in total on the launch platform that day. Word from mission control (a sordid collection of high school science students) came that the vehicles would be launched in sequence from left to right. That meant that Sputnik 1 would be batting clean-up.

The weather was typical for that time of year, warm smothering smog filled air with strong Santa Ana winds. You couldn’t have asked for more ideal conditions – all systems were go! The countdown had begun.  Five, four, three, two, one: fire rocket number one…perfect launch, perfect parachute deployment, perfect craft retrieval; fire two…another flawless launch and parachute deployment, however, the swirling winds made recovery difficult, but a determined ground crew retrieved the craft; Fire three…this rocket did Cape Canaveral proud, it soared well past the other two rockets high altitude marks and continued climbing effortlessly into the hazy sky before we spotted the plumes of its parachute open. Rocket three caught the wind and dozens of kids chased the rocket into the surrounding cactus and rattlesnake infested hills in a mad dash to retrieve the craft, before it and all its model rocket technology could fall into enemy’s hands and then be back engineered for their own nefarious purposes.

At last it was Sputnik 1’s turn – soon everyone would know the satellite’s dirty little secret. You have to understand that this all took place in the heart of the cold war. Tensions were high, national pride was at stake, all non-essential resources were channeled into the two rival nation’s model rocket space programs. Unbeknownst to our fellow rocket club members, this would be the Sputnik 1’s one and only launch. For such were the urgency and the madness to make this launch window that there was simply no time or budget to install a parachute. Either Sputnik 1 would achieve escape velocity and reach Earth orbit or it would come crashing back down to into a Styrofoam and Balsa wood disaster the likes of which the world had never seen!

Fire Rocket four! The electrical current went into the Estes rocket engine and puff…dud. My brother raced to the Sputnik 1, quickly replaced the engine. Fire Rocket four! Again, current surged, this time the potential orbiter merely responded by tilting to its side and slidding down the launch tower. Now we were all worried. Engine problems were common in those heady early days of model rocketeering, but none of us anticipated two consecutive engine failures. Détente was called between the Soviet and US rocket model builders. A trade agreement was reached and a new engine procured. The third engine was installed. Fire Rocket four! It was a picture perfect launch. The mighty little satellite cleared the tower and climbed nearly ten to twelve feet into the sky before careening wildly out of control. If there was a self-destruct button it would have been pressed. The little satellite had in an instant became a rocket-propelled demon and its four spindly legs looked like human barbecue skewers. Everyone ran for cover as the rocket shot all around seeking retribution for not having any fail safe mechanisms installed. Failure was not only an option – it was an inescapable inevitability! Thankfully, and we can only attribute it to an isolated wind shear event caused by everyone running for shelter in different directions, the satellite was forced back down to Earth where it spun harmlessly in tight circles until is engine ran out of fuel.

By now you might be asking yourself, “Why is all this in a blog supposedly dedicated to Halloween?” Frankly, I am not sure that it does. I am late to fascinating world of blogging (in fact, this is my first blog).  However, if I can tie any of the loose gossamer threads of my childhood story back to the anchor of why Halloween is so special, I would simply say this: Halloween allows all of us an opportunity to test drive our dreams or at the very least, experience the world from a different point of view.

To be successful toy and Halloween costume manufactures must keep their products relevant for their potential customers – it’s as true today as it was in the late 1960s. For me the spirit of Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts could be found in the form of Mattel’s action figure Major Matt Mason, astronaut extraordinaire.  His Halloween costume doesn’t look like much by today’s realistic standards, but I can assure you that to the boy looking out through the plastic face mask, it was real enough to transform our suburban neighborhood into an alien moonscape.

During the course of our lives, we pick people that we admire and strive to improve ourselves by modeling our behavior and goals after the example they set.  If it wasn’t for Neil Armstrong and intrepid men and women of our space program, I would never have been in any model rocket club. Consequently, I would have never experience the infamous Sputnik 1 disaster nor would I have ever worn a Major Matt Mason costume which proved to be, “One small step for a child, one giant bag of candy for childkind.”

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