Sunday, July 22, 2007

Carpenter, Stafford, And Cernan, O My!

The San Diego Air and Space Museum hosted former American astronauts Scott Carpenter, Tom Stafford, and Gene Cernan. (Here.) (That's Carpenter making a point while Stafford and Cernan listen in.*) A large turnout of kids and adults was there to listen to these real space cowboys, buy their books, and speak with them. Here's some of what the astronauts had to say, in no particular order.

Carpenter spoke movingly of missing his former colleague, Wally Schirra, who recently died. He and Stafford both gave high praise to Schirra's sense of humor and told of how much it helped during the early years when things would go wrong. Carpenter told a story about when the original seven astronauts were made honorary members of the Texas state police, Schirra joked, "no more speeding tickets for us."

Carpenter said that during the 1960s competition with the Soviet Union was the main motivator for NASA. That competition drove NASA, and the Soviets, to do better work.

Carpenter said his heroes were Jacques Cousteau, John F. Kennedy, and Werner von Braun. Kennedy because he inspired us to go to the moon and von Braun because he showed us how to get there. Cernan's hero is his father.

Cernan said he's often asked what he would have done if his lunar lander had not taken off from the moon. He said he's thought more about what he would have done if the lander had not been able to burn for at least 7 minutes and 7 seconds on liftoff from the moon. That amount of time was necessary to reach orbit. Anything less and the lander would have entered a decaying orbit and eventually crashed on the Lunar surface. He said he doesn't know what he would have done and that it doesn't matter. He said there was nothing that could be done to avoid the risk and the mission was worth it.

All three astronauts agreed that the most beautiful sight in space is the Earth.

In a telling comment about how much change happened in the 20th Century, Cernan told of how Stafford's mother crossed the plains to Oklahoma in a covered wagon and lived to see the day when her son would fly to the moon. Cernan suggested that progress has slowed too much since the days of Apollo.

Stafford gave some advice on how to get into space on a NASA rocket. Go to school and study science. Get a Phd. Design an experiment that can only be done in microgravity. Designate yourself principal investigator. Send a proposal to NASA. Get ready to fly into space.

Cernan told the children in the audience to have a dream. He told them to dream the impossible. He said they should do what they love to do and do their best at it. They may not end up the best at what they do but their efforts will pay off. He said that he dreamed as a child of one day flying off aircraft carriers. He never dreamed he would ever fly into space. But his dream of flying and his hard work at it put him in a position to fly into space when the opportunity presented itself.

The museum displayed a full-size Mercury capsule where the astronauts spoke. That's it below hanging from the ceiling. Note its size compared to the nearby cars and airplane.

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* Many thanks to my fellow Mars Society of San Diego member, Gerry Williams, for graciously allowing me to use the photo he took of the astronauts. That one photo was much better than any of the half a dozen or so I took of the three men.

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