Saturday, July 20, 2019

Michael Collins Drops Off Two Guys at the Moon...

"WAIT IN THE CAR, MIKE," Neil and Buzz said, hopping out after their four day, 238,900-mile road trip. "Gonna take a walk, talk to some folks, grab some rocks. You drive around the block, we'll be right back."
Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong conquer the Moon
Life Magazine photo.

With that, Michael Collins, a dutiful, low key sort of guy listened to the radio, sipped coffee, circled and waited for his cohorts to return from their errand.

Or not.

The actual details likely differed, perhaps substantially, but just in dialog, not in result.

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first to human beings to set foot on the Moon, Earth's orbital companion for the past 4.5 billion years or so, previously an unreachable place in the sky.

Armstrong, the commander of NASA's Apollo 11 mission, arrived preloaded with matchless lines that would echo down through history: "The Eagle has landed," "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" and "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky."

Apollo 11 blasted off
on July 16, 1969.
Life Magazine photo
Aldrin, the second man off the lunar lander, helped plant a U.S. flag on the dusty surface and posed for pictures taken by his boss with a Hasselblad camera. And, during their relatively brief 2 1/2-hour lunar romp, the men collected roughly 13 pounds of rocks.

Fulfilling a fundamental dream of human existence, Armstrong and Aldrin spent more than 21 hours at Tranquility Base (another Armstrong-ism) etching their names in history.

Meanwhile, Collins flew around the Moon alone in a spaceship called Columbia -- glimpsing the dark, far side we can't see from Earth -- waiting for the others to fly up from the surface aboard top half of the lunar lander Eagle and rejoin him for the long ride back home.

Eventually they did, leaving behind a wire-stiffened flag, a solar wind experiment and the lunar module's descent stage. Affixed to one leg of that landing craft, a stainless steel plaque bearing the signatures of all three travelers and President Richard Nixon, stating, "We came in peace for all mankind. July 1969 A.D."

The facsimile signature was as close as Michael Collins would get.

Imagine flying nearly half a million miles to ferry two companions to a place where no man had gone before, while your assignment is simply to wait for them to return.

Michael Collins did that, without evident rancor, bitterness or disappointment.

"I didn't feel lonely or left out," Collins wrote in his recently republished memoir, Flying to the Moon. "II knew my job was very important and that Neil and Buzz could never get home without me." So he flew, and waited, and listened to pre-recorded music including, he said without irony, the 1965 Jonathan King song, Everyone's Gone to the Moon.

Collins actually had another destination in mind, he said: Mars. "It, not the Moon, is where I wanted to go as a child."

The Collins-designed mission patch.
 That said, after the travelers returned, they were kept in quarantine for nearly three weeks, until scientists were sure they'd not returned with Moon bugs. Then the now-world famous trio was released to the public for a trip around the world good will tour that included a ticker tape parade down New York City's lower Broadway, a thoroughfare nicknamed the Canyon of Heroes.

And then Collins walked away from the space program, returning to his Earthbound life as a husband and father.

Armstrong, famously reclusive, gave few interviews and died in 2012 at age 82. Two years later, Congress renamed NASA's primary flight research center in his honor, adding to a veritable mountain of accolades he'd received in his lifetime, including a Presidential Gold Medal bestowed by Richard Nixon. His name also adorns a museum, an airport, public schools and an engineering center at his alma mater, Purdue University.

Aldrin, 89, too received those medals, had schools named in his honor, a lunar crater and this toy.

At 88, Collins legacy is less distinct as he shares his name with a noted Irish independence leader about whom a movie was made starring Liam Neesen. Born in Rome, Italy, the son of a career Army officer, spaceman Collins wrote that he had no home town to honor him with a parade after his first spaceflight, Gemini X, in 1966.

Special edition.
He graduated West Point but opted to join the Air Force, rather than the Army, becoming first a fighter pilot, then a test pilot and then an astronaut. Upon leaving NASA, he briefly served as U.S. Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Like his crewmates, he was honored by the president, Congress and other distinguished groups.

Collins retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major General in 1982.

Today he dreams of mankind traveling into the solar system, perhaps establishing a permanent town in space called Libra at the solar system's libration point where the gravities of the Sun, Earth and Moon cancel each other out. He's still willing to go to Mars, just to find out what's there.

"And Mars is just the beginning," Collins said.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When Skylab Made Us All a Little Chicken Little

SKYLAB WAS MANKIND'S first semi-permanent off-world home. Shot into Earth orbit in May of 1973, the combination laboratory and apartment housed nine men during its cumulative 171 days of occupancy.

Its last three-man crew vacated the premises in February 1974, after a record 84-day stay, leaving behind an assortment of supplies including film, food, and a roll of teleprinter paper for future visitors. Then, using their own spacecraft, the astronauts nudged the space station into a higher orbit and returned to their planet.

Damaged upon launch, Skylab began life as a fixer-upper.
NASA photo taken by the lab's last departing crew.
For five and a half more years, Skylab circled the globe patiently awaiting new residents or the boost of a passing space shuttle, but neither one came.

Without assistance, the nearly 100-ton satellite gradually lost its war with gravity and drag and began falling back to Earth, reentering the atmosphere 40 years ago today, July 11, 1979.

Though its return was long forecast, the imminent arrival of a large falling house, superheated by atmospheric friction, set off a planetary frenzy.

While NASA -- America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- had put the laboratory in orbit, it had utterly and completely failed to make adequate plans for either keeping it there or gently landing it in some pre-ordained safe place.

Project Apollo, which provided launch vehicles for the lab and its three separate crews, had long since ended. The shuttle program was years behind schedule.  Only a year earlier, a Soviet-launched nuclear satellite crashed in Canada, spreading radioactive debris.

Now, NASA could identify a swath of Earth over which its wayward space station may come down, but it could not say precisely where. In Europe, some people panicked. In America, some held parties.

Poster board headgear promised
.00193 nanoseconds of warning you've been hit
The San Francisco Examiner newspaper offered a $10,000 bounty for the first piece of genuine wreckage brought to its offices. The rival San Francisco Chronicle promised $200,000 to any subscriber whose home sustained damage. Some enterprising folks cashed in by offering early-warning headgear.

NASA downplayed the risk, predicting the odds of any individual being struck by its falling object were about 600 billion to 1. Some of the implements aboard the disintegrating station: a 5,000-pound airlock, a 4,000 pound lead safe and a half-dozen 2,700 pound oxygen tanks.

Still, the space agency -- in a last ditch effort to influence the outcome -- fired the station's remaining booster rockets upon reentry, aiming it toward the Indian Ocean. They missed.

Skylab broke up in the sky, raining parts over rural Western Australia, earning NASA a $400 fine from the Shire of Esperance for littering. There, resident Stan Thornton collected some some of its fragments and flew to San Francisco to collect his prize.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Less Than Miraculous: An Ode to the 1979 Mets

EVERYONE LOVES A WINNER and few winners are more beloved than the Miracle Mets of 1969. Sad sacks, lovable losers and ultimate underdogs, they rose from historic ineptitude to world champs in just eight seasons.

This weekend, those legendary Mets are being honored, revered and remembered at Citi Field. So, fĂȘte away 50th anniversary celebrants, this weekend is yours!

The 40th Anniversary
For me, 2019 is a more personal anniversary, I'm commemorating the Mets' return to awfulness, 1979 -- my first year as a dyed-in-the-wool, watch-every-game fan -- the year the Mets had the lowest full-season attendance in franchise history: 788,905 including me, thrice.

It was the year of Maz, Swannie and The Grave Digger, of The Flushing Flash and Kelvin Chapman. It was the swan song for Ed Kranepool, who joined the team as a teenager during its woeful first season in 1962, partook in the miracle, stayed through the downfall, and -- after a brush with death -- will appear at Citi Field today.

At 9-15, the '79 Mets fell to last place on May 7th and never got up. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.

With the death of founding owner Joan Whitney Payson in 1975, control of the team passed first to board chairman M. Donald Grant and then, ultimately to Payson's daughter, Lorinda de Roulet.

Grant and de Roulet ran the club as cheaply as possible, dealing away rather than rewarding those who had kept them competitive for most of the 1970s, including Miracle mainstays Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. While the cross-town Yankees were signing the likes of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, winning three straight pennants and back-to-back world series, the Mets were decorating the National League East cellar.

Parity with the Yankees, at least on cardboard.
The '79 season dawned with the my naive expectation they'd somehow outperform their shoestring budget.

Their pitching staff was anchored by Craig Swan, whose 2.43 earned run average led the league in 1978. Battery-mate John Stearns had just set a big league record for most stolen bases in a season by a catcher, 25, while first-baseman Willie Montanez had driven in 96 runs.

Veteran infielder and off-season grave digger Richie Hebner was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies after their signing of Pete Rose made him expendable. The price was pitcher Nino Espinosa, whose 11 wins led the staff in '78. His departure would leave a void the team failed to fill.

The brightest star on the Mets roster by far was Brooklyn-born centerfielder Lee Mazzilli, 24, who emerged a bona fide big league talent in '78, batting .273 with 16 homers, 61 RBIs and 20 steals. With his Italian good looks and tightly-tailored uniforms, Maz was a matinee idol on the rise.

The matinee idol, from the '79 yearbook
But he couldn't pitch and the club sorely needed pitching.

The Mets brought to camp then declined to sign veteran Nelson Briles and went north with a rotation including Swan and Seaver trade piece Pat Zachry, Brooklyn-born Pete Falcone and rookies Neil Allen and Mike Scott. In the bullpen: Koosman acquisition Jesse Orosco, 22, starting a career that would see him pitch in a record 1,252 games.

They also brought up Chapman, an infielder attempting to jump from AA to the majors after impressing in camp. He'd open the season at second base, pushing incumbent Doug Flynn to short and veteran Tim Foli to the bench.

The rookie stroked two hits and scored two runs in the Mets' 10-6 opening day win over the Chicago Cubs. Hebner went 4-for-5 with a homer and Swan picked up the victory. Mazzilli's three hits the next day keyed a 9-4 win. It was all down hill from there.

Rookie Kelvin Chapman, from the '79 yearbook
Chapman had four singles and a double in his first 16 at bats, then went ice cold, mustering just one more hit in April, by which time the Mets had dealt Foli to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the fleet-footed though erratic-fielding Frank Taveras, relegating the rookie first to the bench and then to the AAA Tidewater Tides.

Hebner, who'd made the post-season seven times as a member of the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates, was a miserable Met. His streakiness at the plate and apparent carelessness in the field wore on the fans and they on him. Despite batting .268 with 10 homers and a respectable 79 RBIs, he'd last just a single season in Queens before being shipped to the Detroit Tigers.

Montanez utterly failed to hit and in August he was traded to the Texas Rangers.

A freshly-minted Met, from the '79 yearbook
Scott and Orosco struggled and were returned to the minors. But for an injury, Allen would have joined them. As he healed, closer Skip Lockwood went down with a bad shoulder. The righty Allen was sent to the bullpen where he formed an effective short-relief tandem with lefty Ed Glynn, a one-time Shea Stadium hot dog vendor nicknamed The Flushing Flash.

They combined for 15 saves, but those opportunities came few and far between.

When an elbow injury sidelined Zachry, the Mets were forced to go outside the organization for help, acquiring veteran Dock Ellis -- who once pitched a no-hitter while high on acid -- and swingman Andy Hassler. Neither could stanch the bleeding.

After 156 games, the Mets record stood at 57-99. The club seemed destined to lose more than 100 games for the first time since 1967. Yet somehow they didn't, reeling off a season-best six-game winning streak to end the year.

Swan went a career-best 14-13, with a 3.39 ERA, hurling 251.1 innings over 35 starts while no other Mets starter won more than six games.
By 1979, he had seen it all.

Utility man Joel Youngblood Wally Pipp-ed the starting right fielder's job away from rare free agent-signee Elliott Maddox, emerging as a viable everyday player with moderate power and a strong, accurate throwing arm.

Still, the year belonged to Mazzilli, who batted .303, with 15 homers, 79 RBIs, and 34 stolen bases. Selected to the National League All Star team, he stroked a game-tying pinch-hit home run, then coaxed a game-winning walk from the Yankees' Ron Guidry an inning later.

The 63-99 season was the last for the Mets' original ownership group, who sold the team to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon for $21.1 million that winter.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive