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.

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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.

7 Comments
  1. Will Cantrell

    Mike:

    Really enjoyed this piece. I got a little giddy myself on Friday as I watched the rocket lift off and pondered the possibilities of Mars, the Moon and asteroids. While I watched Orion soar, I also remembered sitting in Sister Jean Michael’s Sixth Grade at Our Lady of the Pines watching a black and white portable TV and waiting for lift-off of Sheppard or Grissom or Glenn. For the next couple of years, my class watched every launch and even a few splashdowns.

    Remember Tang, that awful tasting orange drink we made our parents buy because it was said to be the same beverage the astronauts drank in orbit? (My Mom insisted that I drink the whole jar of Tang as she said sh didnLt have money to waste.) Remember that Gus Grissom damned near drowned after splashdown? Remember Scott Carpenter saying “Godspeed John Glenn…: as that semi-reliable Atlas rocket lifted off and inserted Glenn/Friendshi 7 into orbit FOR REAL this time (not one of those sub-orbital jaunts)?

    Remember how we all collectively held our breath waiting to hear from Scott Carpenter after he and Aurora 7 overshot the landing zone by 250 miles? (Flight Director Chris Craft was so pissed off at Carpenter that he never flew again.) Man, those were the days. And while I understand national budget priorities and all, there’s a part of me that says we’ve been away from ‘space’, the Moon, and other national scientific adventures for far too long.

    The astronauts who will fly Orion to Mars are likely in pre-school today (unless John Glenn comes out of retirement and insists on going again. You can bet John will still be alive and ready to go just like he did on the Shuttle). I just hope I’m still alive to watch the adventure unfold. The TV telecast will be in color this time. Good piece. Will

    1. Mike Cox

      Will,
      Thanks for the kind words. People younger than we are didn’t get to see history from the front row. I remember all the things you mentioned and a few others. I second your wish and hope we both are alive to see the progress. Maybe we can get together with a few beers and a hi def TV.

      1. Trevor Stone Irvin

        Good piece Mike, though I don’t agree with your summation. Most of us as
        we get older sugar coat the time period we have lived through. We have the tendency
        to view “our history” and “our generation” as a bit better, a bit more important
        and just a little smarter than that of the younger generation coming up. Past generations
        said the same thing about us. And all generations get to see their unique history
        from the front seat. Any generation, including ours only gets to experience a
        small snippet of history first hand, the rest we have to read about and interpret,
        often incorrectly. And the history that others in the past have experienced and
        the history others will experience in the future is just as significant and
        influential as the tiny bit we get to live through. Assuming that mankind’s
        history continues – the breakthroughs that future generations will make will likely
        make our accomplishments look small in comparison.

        Regards,

        T

        1. Mike Cox

          T, as a rule, I agree with you; there was an old man across the street from us who lamented everything young people do. I don’t want to be like him. But I can’t help but notice two trends. Everything we make anymore is designed to do work for us and make us think less. This has to take away our abilities and diminish us in some way. Secondly, ever since we started warning the stupid ones about possible consequences of their actions, (ie, don’t drive with this in place, etc) we have allowed an inordinate number of idiots to escape the gristmill that used to be natural selection. This has to increase the percentage of stupid people walking around, and modern trends and beliefs lend credence to that theory.
          On another note, I really liked your post on food snobs, except for one minor thing. There is a vast difference between cake and torte.

          1. Trevor Stone Irvin

            Mike,
            I agree with everything you say here, people are lazy and dumb – except I think that is the way it has always been. I’ve always felt that 10 percent of the
            population does 90 percent of the lifting.

            Every invention or appliance could be seen as making a task easier thus making us dumber. But that’s not the case. If inventions made us dumber, every generation of humans would have gotton increasingly more stupid with each advance – and we would all be mouth breathin’ cretins by now. When lunatics like my dad invented solid state devices and the hand held calculator, the result didn’t make us dumber. By that logic, invention of the slide rule would have made scientists dumber because they no longer worked it out longhand, on paper – We haven’t gotten stupider we simply changed our needed skill set to adapt to the current problem at hand. This has gone on for centuries.

            As Einstein said “imagination is far more important than knowledge.” Knowledge can be gained, but imagination, a far more innate quality, is somthin’ you’ve either got or you don’t. Imagination may be rarer than IQ, as I know some pretty smart people who are not very imaginative.
            So I would wager that there are just as many imaginative people born every day as there have always been. It remains, that mankind as a whole, is a stupid and violent creature, that’s a fact. It hasn’t changed much in
            thousands of years. The body of mankind’s knowledge is always increasing and we must select which parts are now more important to work with, and discard skill sets that are no longer useful, or at least less useful, than they once were.

            As for the gristmill of natural selection being eliminated – it hasn’t. By that reasoning we should let a dumbshit drive around without a seat belt because he might procreate or let idiots play with firearms to cull idiots in the herd (Oh, I’m sorry, we actually do do that.) Wouldn’t all medical advances fall into that same category and make the world population weaker and stupider? Wouldn’t all the dumb weak ones that were ‘sposed to die drag us down intellectually or at least physically? That simply hasn’t happened. Just as seatbelts and safety equipment save the occasional dumbass, they save thousands of intelligent folks too. Accidents aren’t just for idiots. Medical advancements also save smart, strong people who might have died and now add positively to our gene pool and the world.

            So I think we as a race are about where we’ve always been, between a rock and a hard place … not likely to get any smarter, not likely to change.

            Glad you liked the food snob piece – I changed the word cake to torte simply to eliminate a repetition of the word cake in the sentence – and I figgered, fuck, torte is close enuff to cake! (But now that I know, you know, the difference between cake and torte, I suspect you may be a food snob!)
            Regards,
            T

          2. Mike Cox

            Not a food snob T; I grew up on butter beans, turnip greens, and potted meat. I still like two of those. I live with a baker. She showed me the difference between cake and torte.

          3. Trevor Stone Irvin

            Living
            with a baker … smart man!

            I love my butter beans, still like potted meat, though I find most too salty
            now … but I never could develop a taste for turnip greens. I cook them for my
            family, my wife and boys love ‘em, but they taste like dirt to me.

            Regards,

            T

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