Storyteller Jay O'Callahan (Photo: Charles Collins)
Forged in the Stars continues with the stories of Neil Armstrong and Christa McAuliffe.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth’s winter storytelling special. I’m Steve Curwood. And now, Jay O’Callahan continues his love letter to NASA, “Forged in the Stars.”
O’CALLAHAN: Six days to boot camp. Five days, four days, his mother called and said, "J.C., there’s a man, Bernie Goodwin from NASA, he said he’d talk to you. Here's his number. Call him."
He calls Bernie Goodwin.
"J.C. High Eagle”
“I looked into your record, you are a brilliant young man, J.C. You're full of fire. You're the kind of person we need. In fact I’d like you to start Monday morning, manned space center, Houston."
"Why, the draft?"
"Yes, sir, the draft."
"Well, J.C., you're a policeman, you know possession is nine tenths of the law. You come, we posses you."
He goes home and tells his mother and she says, "Call your grandfather."
"I told you they wouldn't take you."
J.C. gets his guitar, borrows his mother’s car, he heads to Houston. He's thinking Granddad must have negotiated a different fate for me with the Almighty.
He is hired Monday morning as an engineer. Few weeks go by and Chris Kraft who becomes the famed flight director, got a big cigar, comes over, "How do you like it here, son?"
"I love it, I love it. One thing though."
"I'm used to reading books to learn. What should I read?"
"Son, we don't read books here, we write them."
Soon enough, J.C. High Eagle is writing the Agena Systems Handbook. J.C. High Eagle is an engineer is in the flight control center for all of the Apollo missions. He is helping get people to the moon.
Kate took a breath and said, “Jack, that's the story. He achieved his vision, Jack. Now tell me, what did you love about the story?"
Jack said, "Well, one thing is it’s too dramatic."
"Oh, tell me what else did you love about the story, Jack?"
"Alright, I'm sorry, Kate, I'm sorry. I liked the grandfather part. Only reason I'm at MIT is because of my granddad. I mentioned grad school once to my dad. He said, 'you won't fit in, Jack, you won't fit in. You're not their people, you won't fit in.' So I went to granddad, he said, 'Jack go to grad school. If you learn enough you can take your lobster boat to the stars.' So here I am, Kate, still trying to fit in. Let's have the pizza. Oh Kate, next Thursday do me a favor, Kate, don't be dramatic."
The following Thursday, Jack was coming up three flights of stairs. And Kate was very nervous because she knew she was going to be very dramatic. So, she thought about the best thing about Jack and the worst thing. And they both happened last April. Last April Jack took Kate to Gloucester, borrowed a friend’s lobster boat, they went way, way out to sea. The stars were bright, the seas were rough. This is Jack's world. Kate was terrified.
"Kate, Kate, I'm going to tell you a story that begins billions of years ago."
"Jack, condense the story. I’m scared, Jack."
"All right, Kate. You know Jupiter, Kate? Jupiter is so big you can put twelve hundred earths in the volume of Jupiter. You know the red spot on Jupiter, it’s a storm that’s been raging three hundred years, it's twice the size of the earth. The first time I saw you, I had a red spot in my heart. I love you! Marry me!"
Well, of course she said yes. Two days later they were stuck in traffic in East Cambridge going to a departmental party. Jack hated those; he had the tweed jacket on.
Kate said, "I love that because of the solar wind the whole solar system is in a bubble.”
"Kate, it is a hel-li-o-sphere. Hel-li-o-sphere. Not a bubble. Get the language right. Grow up!"
"Jack, we have talked about that tone of voice for a year. I'll take the subway home. Here's your ring. It won't work!"
She got out and slammed the door. She was on that when Jack came into the kitchen with the old windbreaker.
"Kate, I was thinking something."
"You brought éclairs! Thank you, Jack. Sit down, Jack. I’m going to do a scene; I think you’re going to love it. I want Armstrong to tell a story so I've invented someone to tell it to."
"You invented a character!"
"Jack, it's a literary device to help me tell the story. This is the idea. Armstrong's going into a nursing home, there’s an old man in a wheelchair. He’s all bent over. He's a retired Admiral. He's a friend of Armstrong's. Armstrong has come several times, but now the Admiral has no idea who Armstrong is, and the Admiral doesn't talk anymore. The Admiral's wife, a retired professor, asked Armstrong to give it one more try.
“Admiral Armstrong reporting for duty, sir! Admiral? Armstrong reporting for duty, sir.”
The old man lifts his head up a little, a little more.
“Yes, sir. In North Korea, sir. I was down 500 feet once, sir, and my wing got sliced off. I had to eject. The only reason I’m here, sir, is the wind blew me into a rice paddy instead of the sea.”
“Now, what’s your last assignment?”
“Moon? Where’s that?”
“The moon, sir. The moon. Three of us, up to the moon in three days, sir. Michael Collins, Buzz Aldren and I. The question is, can we land on the moon? So, two of us – Buzz and I – we float into this lunar module."
"Lunar module, what kind of plane is that?"
"It's an unusual flying machine. It's like a cockpit: switches, gages everywhere. And the walls, they're no thicker than a sheet of aluminum foil. Triangular window for me, one for Buzz. We’re 50,000 feet above the moon and we’re harnessed to the floor, standing."
"Why are you standing?"
"Two chairs, sir, would weight 600 pounds. The lighter we are, less fuel. Or I should say, Tom Stafford, two months before he was 50,000 feet above the moon.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Stafford, I know that name, Stafford. Academy?
“His mother, Stafford’s mother, came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon, you know that?
“I did not, sir. Well, Stafford didn’t land, Admiral because his lunar module was too heavy. So, Buzz and I go down forty thousand feet and then were lurching like that, sir. Like a drunk, like a drunk, sir. The radar kicked in, the computer doesn’t agree. The radar’s right and Buzz is trying to get the computer to agree, so we're lurching and then: bzzzzzzzz. This is a master alarm, sir, this is serious. It could be an abort. Houston says it's a go on that alarm so down we go, sir.
And now, the problems snowballed. Our computer, Admiral, is cutting out so Houston’s getting nothing. They need crucial information, then it cuts back in, cuts out. They get just enough information. Down we go, sir. We get down seventy-five hundred feet, we tilt like this – Admiral, I can see the Sea of Tranquility. Seventy-five hundred feet. We get down 3,000 feet, sir. We're going slow, now 48 miles an hour. A thousand feet and we are in trouble. The computer is flying us blindly into a crater. Big as a soccer field, sir. We're going to bust up, sir because of the rocks there. So I take over flying."
"About time, Armstrong."
"So I'm flying, we call it the Eagle, sir. I get down two hundred twenty feet; I’m skimming over these boulders, looking for a place to land. There's a place, no it's no good. My heart is pounding. Ninety seconds of fuel. Then I find a place over here. 60 seconds of fuel. We’re at 100 feet. The rocket blast is stirring up the dust, and I can’t see, Admiral. 30 seconds of fuel. We get down to 50 feet, Admiral, and now we’re drifting backwards, I don’t know why and I’m wrestling with a sideways motion, we’re going down slower and slower! The contact light is on. We are on the moon. I turned to Buzz, we haven't shaved in days, got these bubble helmets and we shake hands.
'Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.'”
"Then we're supposed to go to sleep."
"Sleep, man, you're on the moon!"
"Exactly, sir, we couldn’t go to sleep, we ask permission to go out there. They said fine. It takes a long time, there's a check off list and you got this oxygen pack. So I'm doing that and I look up. There's a circular window, I look up and way up there – there is the earth the size of a silver dollar. It’s blue and it’s white and it’s beautiful. I put on these boots to give me traction and I thought about what I might say."
"You hadn't thought about it?"
"I'm a pilot, Admiral, the way you were. My job is to land and to get up, it's not to say something. So finally I'm ready to open the hatch."
"I wouldn't want to be on the moon."
"Why's that, Admiral?"
"No, sir, it's a vacuum."
"I made a joke, I made a joke. You've got no sense of humor. Go ahead."
"I opened the hatch, Admiral, I pulled a D-ring and so the television camera is on. Hundreds of millions of people all over the earth are watching. It’s awkward, I have to back out. It’s a sixth gravity, so I don’t weigh much, but it's awkward. I go down the ladder, and the last rung it’s a three-foot jump. The Eagle has these four legs and at the bottom of each leg, what we call a pad. It's like a big, shallow soup bowl. The Eagle has four legs; they didn't collapse because we had landed so gently. So I jumped three feet down, and I jumped back up to make sure I can do it. I jump back on the pad, I’m holding on to the ladder. One of the scientists said the moon dust might be a mile deep. I don't want to go down a mile. So, I put one foot on the moon, it's solid.
'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'
"What would you have said, sir?"
"Well, my wife's likes Thoreau. He said something like, 'I didn't come to change things, I came to wake the neighbors up.' "
"That would have been very good, Admiral, very good. I put both hands on the landing gear then I put my second foot on the moon. Then, I let go."
"That took guts, that took guts, Armstrong. My wife, Cigna, she wants to talk to you."
The Admiral's wife, maybe ten years younger, a beautiful woman, she said, "Neil, I remember the day the three of you lifted. I'll never forget it. The sound, but mostly that white fire that lifted you. You know what I think that fire was made of? I think – no, I don't mean combustion. I think it was made of the passion, and the effort, the courage of six hundred thousand people, the scientists, the engineers, the secretaries, the managers. And the fire that lifted you off, I think it was made of the hopes of hundreds of millions of people all over the world that you’d make it. That fire was made by scientists, by Einstein, but it was also made by every child who's ever wondered where does a frog go in the winter? And how could there be a bit of red and green inside an icicle? Why does a crow sound different from a blue jay? The fire that lifted you off was made by Amelia Earhart, and the Wright Brothers, and Lindberg, and Leonardo DaVinci. It was made by people all the way 40,000 years ago who took torches and went into caves and made paintings.”
"Yes, ma’am. And ma’am, we came back, NASA sent us to countries all over the world and people would run up, ma’am, and they would never say, 'you did it' they would say 'we did it, we did it!' "
"Well, Armstrong, you're a fine man. One thing though."
"Work on your sense of humor."
“My wife will see you out.”
They went out in the hall. "Neil, I felt his fire again today. Thank you."
"Well, Jack, that’s it, what do you think?"
"Kate, I asked last week not to be dramatic."
"Jack, I have studied some theatre and this is who I am, Jack. Now, run something by me, Jack."
"Kate, I’m not ready. I’m gonna run along."
"Well, take an éclair. I'll see you Thursday."
The next Thursday Jack came up into the kitchen, with his tweed jacket on. She said, “Jack, sit down. I'm gonna to run a short piece by, then you run all you want, all right? So this is what I'm gonna say, Jack. I’m gonna say…"
In 1951, in Columbia Point in Boston. There was a three-year-old girl on a tricycle. She was an adventurer. Her name was Christa…
“Jack, let me finish.”
Christa bounced onto the street; she was going to bike all the way to the big houses, far away! Well, a neighbor brought her home. Christa, very close to her dad, they loved music. When she was 21 she married Steve McAuliffe. Christa McAuliffe truly blossomed in her early-30s. She was teaching American History, Concord High School in New Hampshire. She was raising money for the hospital and the Y. She volunteered on the one hand to teach catechism, on the other for Planned Parenthood. But, her greatest focus was her children.
She wrote in her journal, ‘how can two kids be so different? Scott is five and he’s so sensitive. Last night he turned Sesame Street off because a cartoon cat was eating a cartoon mouse. And Caroline is three, she doesn’t ask, she demands!’ Christa McAuliffe applied to be the teacher in space. She wrote in her application, ‘I developed a course called the American Woman, and discovered that the journals of ordinary people tell a fuller story of history. And like the pioneers on the Conestoga wagons, I’ll keep a journal as a pioneer in space.’
Christa McAuliffe was chosen to be the teacher in space. The Challenger was to liftoff January 28th, 1986. The night before, there was a fierce argument among managers, engineers. And some of the engineers said, you cannot liftoff tomorrow! It’s going to be freezing in Florida! It’s got to be at least 53 degrees or o-rings might not expand, it’d be a catastrophe. The engineers were not listened to.
The next morning, January 28th, at eleven thirty-eight the Challenger lifted up. Standing there, Christa’s parents, they were freezing. They watched the Challenger lift up. It was magnificent. Ed Corrigan, Grace Corrigan watched it go up and up for a minute. And then, a flash of yellow and a fireball. And out of the fireball came debris from the Challenger. And then there was a tower of smoke and silence. And Ed Corrigan, Christa’s dad said, ‘She’s gone. She’s gone.’
Jack said, "Why the hell would you do that? We’ve got one hour, and no talking about death."
"Jack, I'm going to do Christa McAuliffe! Millions of people will never forget the moment she died, I’m going to talk about her. Jack, Christa is the ordinary person. She's all of us. Maybe the best of all of us, but I’m going to talk about her.
This is exploration, it’s dangerous. Magellan set out with five ships. He died along the way, did you know that? One of his ships got back. Jack, I have to have the courage to tell the truth. This is science!"
"Oh, ho, Kate's going to have the courage to tell the truth. Kate, we were in love two and a half years, you said, 'Here's your ring, Jack. It wouldn't work.' You didn't have the guts to talk it out. You didn’t have the guts!"
"Jack, I was scared. I am scared. Jack, my mother was eighteen, she was a brilliant pianist, thought she might be a great pianist. My dad said, 'Take a couple of years off, help me get the hardware store started.' She did, I was born, my brother was born. She never got back. You know, dad’s has had a terrible stroke; his mind doesn't work. He doesn't talk. She wheels him into the hardware store everyday. That's her life. And her one day at home, Sundays, she washes the walls. I think she does it to make them disappear, Jack."
"Kate, we're on Sunday, seven o'clock. So, be there at six o’clock for the sound check."
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