rising from the muck

I’m reasonably sure that I was sitting in front of a television set in Mrs. Reed’s fifth grade class on Friday May 5, 1961, watching Alan Shepard blast into outer space to defend America’s honor and innovative ability, and show the Ruskies who was boss. I can’t be 100% sure; we watched several of those early space flights in the classroom during the early Sixties but also missed a couple.

One of the reasons I have a hard time distinguishing the flights is because the telecasts were remarkably similar. All three TV networks pre-empted regular programming for the events and flew the lead network newsman to Cape Canaveral.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA’s Orion spacecraft mounted atop, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 at at 7:05 a.m. EST, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Florida. The Orion spacecraft orbited Earth twice, reaching an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth before landing in the Pacific Ocean. No one was aboard Orion for this flight test, but the spacecraft is designed to allow us to journey to destinations never before visited by humans, including an asteroid and Mars. Photo credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Orion Launch (NASA, Bill Ingalls)

The information was low key and bet your life accurate; no pandering, no politics, no vamping for ratings. Each telecast offered a camera on the news anchor, one in the control room, and a couple on the spacecraft. The picture was fuzzy and in black and white. Any animation or graphic depictions were similar in quality and sophistication to Plan 9 from Outer Space. The news anchor, regardless of network preference, was old, white, trustworthy, and wore a suit and black rimmed glasses.

Mickie Reed was my most influential teacher. She taught me to question everything I saw, encouraged me to read a lot, and made learning as exciting as going to Saturday morning westerns. The lady captured the imagination of a roomful of eleven year old boys with Civil War history and transferred that fervor to current events like the impending racial unrest and the space race. She was as giddy as the rest of us.

Our fathers had grown up in an era where walking or on horseback was the only mode of travel. They all read Buck Rogers serials as kids and considered flying a rocket to the moon as farfetched as having a black president. The decade we figured out how to get to the moon was filled with cooperation, innovation, and magic.

On Friday, December 5, 2014, I got up early with the dogs. After feeding them and getting a cup of coffee, I began searching for something worthy of my time at 6:30 am. During my daily dose of Stephanie Abrams on the Weather Channel, I was reminded of the launch of the Orion spacecraft. I had overlooked or slept through the earlier scheduled liftoffs, and now, mostly by chance, I was able to watch live if I could stay focused for another half hour.

The weather channel was likely the only network to even mention the flight, but no worries, NASA has their own channel these days. I was able to watch without commercial interruption, even in these hysterical shopping days leading up to Christmas. This telecast also featured boring graphics but the special effects were top notch. Views were recorded from a dozen or so hi def cameras and replayed as needed.

Control room shots were markedly different. In 1961, everyone wore a white shirt and tie. Pocket protectors were optional. There were no women or minorities in the room, which was filled with cigarette smoke.

A lot has changed in my country since 1961 and a lot has remained the same. We don’t seem to be as inquisitive as we once were and as a result we believe really stupid things. Our gullibility and willingness to accept the impossible is stunning at times, and should be embarrassing.

Like many Conservative legislators, I’m no scientist, but I have to wonder if our increasing dependence on machines to help us think, and our rigid unwillingness to accept differing beliefs, might stem from the disappearance of teachers who inspired so many of the generation of geeks, engineers, and flyboys who carried us to the moon and jump-started a period of great innovation and prosperity in America.

I watched the Orion mission and wondered two things: Whether this might be an impetus for us to rise from the muck we currently wallow in and become great again and whether Mrs. Reed was watching the same telecast as I am, giddy as hell.

Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.