The never-ending space race: A personal view

'Jerusalem Post' journalist's father recounts working with Neil Armstrong over a half a century ago.

By
March 4, 2019 18:48
3 minute read.
Neil Armstrong (foreground) inspects space suit gloves with Dr.Gerald Ahronheim (R)

Neil Armstrong (foreground) inspects space suit gloves with Dr.Gerald Ahronheim (R) and NASA flight surgeon Dr. Ken Beers. (photo credit: DR. GERALD AHRONHEIM)

 
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Israel’s Beresheet satellite took off for the moon early on Friday morning, a journey which began over half a century ago in Texas.

The unmanned spaceship is expected to land on the moon on April 11 – and for my father, it brought back memories of his time at NASA in the mid-1960s ahead of NASA’s mission to the moon.

He loves everything about aviation, from passenger planes to fighter jets and space. Always pointing to the sky when a plane would pass overhead, he would teach me the difference between the different kinds of engineered birds flying above us, ferrying their passengers from one point in the world to another.

While my father is no astronaut, but rather a pediatrician with an expertise in infectious diseases, he used to regale me with stories of space, the never-ending expanse of the unknown, conquered slowly by mankind.

My father was in his fourth year at the University of Michigan Medical School, and as he told me: “At the time, the ‘Space Race’ was the big thing and the idea of Aerospace Medicine seemed very interesting to me.”

He may have been the first medical student to arrange an elective at NASA, probably stemming from the fact that a couple of astronauts hailed from his hometown of Jackson, Michigan.

“I made contact with someone peripherally connected to the program who referred me to the Aerospace Medicine office of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC, now the Johnson Space Center) outside of Houston, Texas. To make a long-story short, an elective got organized by the team at NASA, approved with difficulty by the Medical School, and off I drove to Houston in December 1965.”

NASA’s Aerospace Medicine office’s job revolved around “insuring astronaut health: from their lives on the ground to up in orbit, and everywhere in between.” His time there included the final preparations for, and then the actual mission, of Gemini 8.

Gemini 8 was NASA’s sixth manned spacecraft to orbit the Earth, and would carry astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott.

As a medical student, my father didn’t work with Armstrong and Scott directly, but sat in on several meetings with them.

“I was very impressed with Armstrong’s understanding of the engineering principles involved – he seemed smarter and more knowledgeable than the engineers... [having the] ability to guide them to solutions of the problems under discussion... he was very cool and capable, much more than a ‘mere’ pilot!”

The “most fascinating” simulator my father recalled was the one used to train for the actual Rendezvous and Docking mission where they had to maneuver into a position so that they could hook up with the Agena rocket.

“In fact, to accomplish this was a very difficult exercise involving high mathematics. The simulator was like a Gemini capsule on one set of arms, with an Agena hook-up on another set, and then they moved independently – controlled by computerized orbital dynamics programs with the Gemini capsule guided by the astronauts. It’s much more complicated than it sounds. I had the pleasure of flying this simulator, and succeeded in the hookup.”

On March 16, my father watched as Armstrong and Scott blasted off from Cape Kennedy (Cape Canaveral) atop a Titan rocket. But before he could get back to Houston to monitor the astronauts in flight the mission failed and had to be cut short.

While Gemini 8 did not complete its mission – the rendezvous and docking succeeded but the hooked-up units tumbled out of control and the remainder of the mission had to be aborted – it was Armstrong’s first space flight, demonstrating his skill, which led to his selection as the commander of Apollo 11; one more step towards Armstrong’s famous step for mankind on the moon a few years later.

For my father, his experience with NASA and the mission had a lasting impact, one that sticks with him to this day.

Though the space race between America and the former Soviet Union officially ended decades ago, space is infinite and there’s still lots left to explore – and now Israel is taking part.

“It’s terrific,” my father told me on Tuesday. “Space is huge and there are lots of places to go. It’s an amazing achievement. I hope [Beresheet] succeeds in its mission and sets a new standard for others to emulate while they continue to improve. I encourage this development and wish them the best.”

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