Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sooners in Space

Because I owe several bloodlines, and most of those who share my last name, with Oklahoma, by way of both voluntary emigration and forced marches (like the Trail of Tears, on my mother's side), I would be remiss not to join Enid News and Eagle in spotlighting what was probably filler, in their printed edition. It is a list of Oklahoma's sons and daughters who have traveled into Earth orbit.

(I've actually met General Stafford, which was an unexpected treat. It was on Capitol Hill when he attended a reception for my one-time employer, the majority leader of the House. Though I was much younger, I was suddenly fifteen years younger and a ten-year-old in the unseemly casual presence of one of my superheroes. I had no idea he had long been a friend of my father's, just as was Mike Collins, Frank Borman and Scott Crossfield.

Few remember "almost," and as the final dress rehearsal for the first Moon landing, General Stafford had piloted the Apollo 10 lunar module to the edge of terminal descent over the Moon, perhaps nine miles above the surface before jettisoning the descent stage and firing the ascent stage back into lunar orbit and an eventual rendezvous with the command module. He and lunar module pilot Captain Gene Cernan became a couple of almosts. General Stafford has the distinction of being the man who came closest to landing on the Moon without ever setting foot there. His companion, of course, would eventually lost this distinction by commanding Apollo 17 into its delicate landing at Taurus-Littrow three years later. (The other among the almosts is perhaps the most poignant story of Jim Lovell, who with Borman and Bill Anders, became the first Humans to visit the Moon's vicinity and, as commander of Apollo 13, of course would barely survive the free-return trajectory using the lifeboat of a recast lunar module he did not have with him on Apollo 8).

When Stafford and Cernan dropped the descent stage and fired up the ascent stage, after hovering for a brief moment as dead weight in freefall over the Moon below, those of us paying attention on Earth had our teeth set on edge when the crew experienced a violent shaking, what Stafford characterized as "wild gyrations" before smoothing out its boost back to low lunar orbit.

"I don't know what the hell that was," Stafford was heard to say, on the Big Loop, literally shaken. A few people were later upset, though far more complained when Borman, Lovell and Anders read from Genesis, from lunar orbit, on-board Apollo 8, Christmas Eve 1968.

So, at the reception, catching General Stafford alone, in his Full Bird U.S. Air Force uniform, I introduced myself not as a congressional aide but as a formally younger fan who thanked him for his service, forcefully remembered his command of Apollo 10, and of Apollo-Soyuz in 1975, and said to him, when he was hanging over the Sea of Tranquility and experienced those "wild gyrations" I would have let fly with far more than just a few formally unprintable words.

His reaction was an inscrutable smile I would never forget. I worried for sometime whether I had irritated him somehow, and, of course, I probably had. Like all fans, I had remembered him for what was important to me, as though it were a shared intimacy between friends. Of course, it was nothing of the kind. Like all those of my heroes of the Apollo Era, all the work with Alexi Leonov, another of my heroes, preparing for Apollo-Soyuz, his work on Gemini, the chance at experiencing far more than the Gap, then still underway, between his last mission and the long-delayed Shuttle, there was other things on his mind than being remembered by some political hack on the Hill for a single moment of being an "almost," which was certainly an experience only he and Captain Cernan had ever really "shared."

Television shrinks life to the size of the field of view through a keyhole and creates false familiarity. And if familiarity breeds contempt, then it must in part be contempt, in a way, all by itself.

And here, not far from my ancestors homelands, are Enid's catalog of Oklahomans who have traveled into Space.

So far there have been seven astronauts from Oklahoma who have made a major impact on the space program.

• JOHN B. HARRINGTON is of Chickasaw descent. Though born Sept. 14, 1958, in Wetumka, he grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo. He joined NASA in August 1996 and trained as a mission specialist. He flew the space shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station Nov. 23 to Dec. 7, 2002, and logged more than 330 hours in space including 3 EVAs (extra vehicular activities). He retired from the Navy and NASA in 2005.

• SHANNON LUCID was born in Shanghai, China, but grew up in Bethany and considers it to be home. She earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma and master’s and doctorate degrees in biochemistry from OU. She served six months on Russia’s space station Mir and has made five space flights. She was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the only woman so far to receive that award.

• GORDON COOPER was born in Shawnee and was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Before he joined NASA, he flew fighter planes in Germany and then served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He flew the Mercury capsule in May 1963 and was on Gemini 5’s eight-day, 120-orbit flight. He died in 2004 at the age of 77.

• LT. GENERAL THOMAS P. STAFFORD was raised in Weatherford. He was selected as part of the second group of NASA astronauts in 1962. He served on Gemini VI in December 1965, Gemini IX in June 1966, Apollo 10 in May 1969, when he orbited the moon, and in 1975, on the Apollo-Soyuz test project.

• STEWART ROOSA grew up in Claremore and attended Oklahoma State University and the University of Arizona. He went to the moon on Apollo 14. While Edgar Mitchell and Alan Shepherd explored the surface of the moon, Roosa orbited it 33 times. He was the backup command module pilot for Apollo 16 and 17, and by crew rotation, would have been the pilot of Apollo 21 if it had not been cancelled. He died at age 61 of pancreatitis and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

• WILLIAM R. POGUE is of Choctaw descent and grew up in Okemah. He was pilot of Skylab 4, which was in space for 84 days and made 1,214 orbits of the earth.

• Last, but not least, is Enid’s own OWEN K. GARRIOTT. Garriott served 60 days onboard Skylab 3 in 1973 and 10 days aboard Spacelab 1 in 1983.

Hopefully there will be many more men and women from Oklahoma serving in space exploration in the years to come.

Information provided by Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center.

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