Monday, August 10, 2009

6. APOLLO 11 - 40 YEARS A MEMORY

Apollo 11 poster.
The following is an abridged transcript of my presentation at the Monroeville Public Library on the evening of July 20, 2009 upon the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. Images of the artwork and photographs of this exhibition can be found here on my website. Other blogs on this art show include my blog of June 15, 2009, July 4, 2009, July 21, 2009, and August 12, 2009.

I want to thank you all for attending tonight. I am Bob Bickers, the artist behind this exhibition. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Friends of the Monroeville Public Library who support the Gallery Space and is sponsoring this exhibition. I also want to recognize Sally Wightkin, curator of the Gallery Space, and the various volunteers who work hard each month to bring us wonderful art shows in this very fine forum. Finally, I want to thank Mr. Mark Hudson, head of Adult Programs here at the library who invited me to appear here and say a few words. Allow me to introduce my wife, Diane Bickers. She is my law partner at Bickers & Bickers in Murrysville and serves as my assistant in events as this. In fact, tomorrow is our 16th wedding anniversary. Also here to lend a hand is my daughter, Alyssa Bickers. She just turned 15 and is a student at Franklin Regional High School.

The Bickers family on July 20, 1969.
Before I get started, I want to announce that this afternoon I was contacted by Alan Boyle, MSNBC's science editor and host of MSNBC's Cosmic Log. Apparently, my short story of my Apollo memories in 1969 and the photo of my family placed me in front of 1400 other entries, winning me a prize and putting that family photo on the front page of MSNBC.com and in the Cosmic Log. I also won a very nice book which will be mailed to me shortly. This was an unexpected surprise and I am truly honored that Mr. Boyle chose to select me for his column. I plan to start by talking about the events of 40 years ago, then I will share some interesting facts that have come to light about the Apollo program since then and finish with a brief explanation of the photos and paintings in this exhibit and up here on the tables.

I. My Background: A little bit about me: I was born in 1956 and was always interested in space exploration. Some of my earliest memories included watching TV coverage of the early Mercury and Gemini missions. I never missed a televised lift-off if I could help it. About that time I also started drawing spacecraft and rockets. I got pretty good at it and even sold some of them to my classmates for a nickel each. I was known at school, there in Memphis, Tennessee where I grew up, as the guy who wanted to be an astronaut. I met very few others at that time who shared my passion for space. In fact, the day after the Apollo 1 fire (on 1/27/1967) when Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee & Ed White died during a rehearsal on the launchpad, I came to school and all my classmates stared at me, saying, well, do you still want to be an astronaut? Of course, I said. Being an astronaut is dangerous but the rewards of space exploration make the risks worth it. The fact is, I was not discouraged but wanted to be an astronaut more than ever, and I consumed every book in the library and every magazine and newspaper article I could find on the space program and project Apollo in particular. By 1969 I was 13 years old and in the 7th grade. I won the science fair at my school in 1969 when I produced detailed plans and blueprints for a manned mission to Mars. It was basically a Saturn V third stage outfitted for inter-planetary travel. Somehow NASA stole my idea and created Skylab out of the Saturn’s third stage, but instead of sending it to Mars they placed it in Earth orbit, where it eventually fell on Australia. We have, by the way, another space station, another Skylab, and you can see it at the Smithsonian. We chose to make it into an exhibit rather than place it in orbit. Or send it to Mars. By the time Apollo 11 lifted off that summer in 1969, I felt I was ready for it. I had my huge National Geographic map of the moon (showing the near and far side of the moon) mounted on heavy cardboard and tiny Apollo models on pins where I could plot their exact positions as they orbited the moon. I had models of all the spacecraft and satellites I could get my hands on. My bedroom looked a little like a branch of mission control, if unofficial and perhaps unnecessary. I built a 3D model of the Earth and moon on plywood (the Earth was a painted rubber ball and the moon was the size of a marble) and used tiny specks of white paint (red for Russian spacecraft) on the heads of black insect pins to represent the spacecraft on their voyage to and from the moon. (I also had a similar model of the inner and outer solar system. Holes were drilled for each week of travel in each planet’s orbit and once a week, all the planets advanced one hole. I pulled out strands of cotton from a cotton ball attached it to a pin to represent comets. I used this model to keep track of interplanetary probes and planetary positions). Background stars and the Milky Way were applied by flicking a toothbrush with paint on it and that created micro-dots. Not bad I think at a time before we had computers. And when you put a black light on them - wow, you could imagine you were there in space.  

II. The World of 1969: Now it seems to me that there are two types of people in the world today –those who remember the Apollo landings and those who don’t. I will ask that those who do remember to bear with me, as we share a common experience, while I attempt to convey to those who weren’t there, what it was like to live in 1969. In 1969 we had no twitter, no e-mail, no podcasts, no webcasts, in fact, no internet at all. Only the military, some government agencies such as NASA and some big businesses had computers and most of those would fill a room or closet at least. Information was stored on magnetic tape or on paper cards with little rectangles cut out on them. In fact, the want ads were full of advertised positions for key-punch operators. There were no laptops, and only a typewriter could fit on a desktop (and if you were lucky, it might be electric). You had no cell phones, no blackberries, no satellite TV, no cable TV. No TiVo, No CD’s, No DVD’s, No VCR’s, No videotape (for the public), no way to record anything off the TV except to take photographs of the TV screen on photographic film or point a movie camera at the TV and capture it on movie film. This was a time of Kodachrome slide film, Super 8mm movies and projectors, cassette tapes were just a few years old and the brand new 8-track cassettes showed promise as the preferred medium of the future, at least for music. So now that I’ve firmly established that we lived in the electronic dark ages, what did we have to obtain information? We had radio –all the popular DJ’s and the top 40 music was playing on the AM radio and there were numerous local stations. None of that was stereo, by the way. FM only had a handful of stations which played entire music albums of obscure artists. It was certainly no source for news. The shortwave radio was always reliable even if half of the airwaves were being jammed by an annoying buzzing noise by various nations trying to block radio broadcasts from other nations. Still, the BBC from London or South Africa was usually a steady and reliable, if somewhat exotic, source of news. Newspapers came out once or twice a day if your city had an afternoon paper. Magazines were much fewer and broader in scope than what we have today. Still they were published once a week at best, but usually just once a month. That left us with 1969 television. We had only four local stations in Memphis then. One for each of the major networks, ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. There were no USB channels. No CNN. PBS (WKNO) only broadcasted educational programs for school classes to sometimes watch in the daytime, and then went off the air by late afternoon. That made the three major networks the primary information source for current events as they occurred. I must say that quality and objectivity in the network news rooms was better than it is now. And they were not afraid to break in with latest news. Let me say something here about Walter Cronkite on CBS, who passed away this weekend. It is hard to describe or convey how much an influence he was, how respected and trusted. He and some of the other news anchors on the other networks were our guides to the world. Most people in the United States got their news through one of these few individuals. They were familiar friends, almost family, to most Americans. Walter’s enthusiasm for the space program was infectious. I remember seeing him become annoyed on air with those who didn’t want their soap operas interrupted. He argued that this was the purpose of television - to bring to the viewer important news, even historic events, as they were taking place --not entertainment. Having said that, I personally preferred not to watch him, though. Walter was fascinating to watch and listen, especially when he interviewed someone, or when nothing important was going on. But the man simply would not shut up! He felt compelled to explain or comment on everything that happened, as it happened, that he would sometimes talk right over something important that was being said. Then he’d start asking what was just said, which he would know if he hadn’t been talking so much. Films show that he almost talked right over Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon. I didn’t see that. I had long given up and turned to a channel where I could see and hear my information from NASA relatively uninterrupted. Still, I could not control the network executives and they decided what, how much or when I could see broadcasts from the moon, for instance. It was very frustrating later on to know that live TV was being broadcasted in the later Apollo missions but discovering that no network thought it was newsworthy enough to show us. There was no NASA TV, no internet. We were at the mercy of TV producers and book, magazine and newspaper editors as to what we would be shown and when. I may have been 13, but I didn’t like it. Only in the last few years, with the development of high speed internet, has the situation in rapid and full information access significantly improved. So, with a fast hand on the channel dial (there was no remote control –and the TV was black and white), I was ready for Apollo 11.  

III. The Apollo Program: I’ll briefly summarize the Apollo missions to give you some perspective. Apollo 1 ended in a launch pad fire and the deaths of Grissom, Chaffee and White in January, 1967. The fire was caused by a spark from faulty wiring, flammable materials in the spacecraft and an operational atmosphere of 100% oxygen. The escape hatch, which had been literally bolted into place, provided no escape. After that, the Apollo capsule was redesigned and the program continued. Apollo 7 was launched in Earth orbit to check out the command and service modules. Apollo 8 was sent to lunar orbit where the astronauts read from the Bible on Christmas Eve, 1968, in the face of rumors that the Russians were about to beat us to it. Apollo 9 was another Earth-orbit mission and the first time the lunar lander was flown in space. In May of 1969, Apollo 10 went into lunar orbit with all the spacecraft components –this was a dress rehearsal for the actual landing. Finally, Apollo 11 actually landed on the moon in July, 1969, and I’ll talk about that mission in more detail in a moment. Apollo 12 landed on the moon in November, 1969. Apollo 13 became a rescue mission when an oxygen tank on the service module exploded on the way to the moon. You can rent and see the movie on that mission. Alan Shepard, who had been the first American astronaut to rocket into space on a Redstone Rocket, lead the mission of Apollo 14 and walked on the moon (and hit a golf ball with a modified club). The last three Apollo missions were more rewarding scientifically and more exciting in that not only did they include the lunar rovers to allow the astronauts to cover more territory, but they landed in riskier, but more interesting terrain, often close to rilles and large mountains. The Apollo program was cancelled by lack of funding by congress, but much of the hardware was already built. One Saturn V rocket was used to build and launch Skylab, the others were put on display. Three Apollo command and service modules were used to visit Skylab and the last Apollo capsule was used in the Apollo/Soyuz project with Russia in 1975.  

IV. Apollo 11: But in July of 1969, there was definitely a building excitement of the realization that people were actually about to land on the moon. The daily papers and magazines were filled with articles, interviews and special sections and reports. The landing itself took place on the afternoon of July 20, 1969. The networks showed cartoons or models of the lunar lander (called “Eagle”) nearing the moon’s surface while we all listened to the voices of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and mission control. It was 3:17pm (Central Standard Time) when they safely landed and we all heard “Tranquility Base here...the Eagle has landed.” My parents, brother and sister and I had all been watching the TV. My father pointed out to me that my palms were all wet and sweaty from the tension of following the landing. I stepped outside to relax and work off the excess energy and excitement. I saw traffic on the road in front of our house and I could not believe that these people were so oblivious to the historic event that had just happened. “Where did these people need to go that was so important that they would miss such an historic event?” I asked myself. Later that night, the astronauts came out of their spacecraft for the moonwalk. Where were you that evening? It was Sunday night and our family gathered around the TV. My father took pictures of the TV screen and also had us all pose by the TV set. Later, we even threw a mattress into the den and stayed up late watching the news coverage. Many accounts have been described of what people were doing that evening. William Shatner recounted that time being alone, in a trailer, watching on a small portable TV, his show Star Trek cancelled and likely to be forgotten. Then we saw the ghostly images, shadows, sometimes transparent, reflections, and grainy. Yet it was odd the way the people bounced across the surface of the moon. You could clearly see the moon dust and dirt being kicked up and moved about, yet there were no clouds of dust in the vacuum at all. Very strange and other-worldly. The flag hung on a horizontal metal rod. It never rippled. It shook when someone touched it. It was made of nylon and decayed very quickly. According to Buzz Aldrin, it fell over during their lift-off from the rocket exhaust. President Nixon called, which everyone could have done without. Commentators openly wondered if the astronauts would really go back inside when told to. Cronkite added, “Who would stop them?” Cronkite also commented that this event was so historic that the calendar itself might be calibrated against it in the future with the years divided between “before moon” or BM and “after moon” or AM. Having been born in 13 BM didn’t sound too dignified and the current date of 40 AM was too confusing in the morning. Still... It is hard to fully describe what a transition this event represented in how we viewed the moon. The moon was always a bright round circle in the sky that changed shape and colors. Most of the time it didn’t even appear three-dimensional. It had an almost abstract quality to it. The moon was the very symbol of all things that were beyond our grasp. Things that were unreachable, unknowable. As thus, it also represented the future, perhaps mankind’s far future. Reaching it was something that would happen someday, when the future arrived, but not in our lifetimes. All of that changed that night. From then on due to this mission and the others that followed, the moon was less abstract and more real to me. It was an actual place, a fascinating and wonderful place that I found both interesting and beautiful. And as we explored even more rugged and varied terrain, it became even a magical place to me, so unlike Earth in its stark contrast. I disagree with Buzz Aldrin and his “magnificent desolation” description of the moon when he walked its surface which he explained recently really meant it was magnificent being there, but the moon was desolate and thus not beautiful. Is a desert not beautiful because it may be nearly lifeless? As an artist I disagree and I think he is being disingenuous because of his current push for Mars missions. I heard him that night myself and he was definitely transfixed by the stark beauty of the moon. When Apollo 11 ended, and the astronauts were back home, I got busy. I gathered newspapers and magazines as they came out. Here I have collected all the newspaper editions in Memphis from about a week before the mission to about two weeks after the mission. Later, I ordered government books and documents as they became available but quickly went out of print. Now we have many more books and sources on the internet. NASA and others have posted archives of all the photos that were taken on these missions. No longer are we solely reliant on publishers and editors. Plus we can take the imperfect photos and work with them with our computers. More about that later. I never did become an astronaut. My plan was to join the Air Force, become a pilot and then an astronaut, but I became disenfranchised with the military after three years of R.O.T.C. and I was also discouraged in the way that scientists and true scientific exploration had been pushed aside while much of the manned spaceflight program in the U.S. was dominated by engineers and pilot jocks. Not until the very last mission to the moon did NASA even include a real scientist on the crew. The book The Making of an Ex-Astronaut by Brian O'Leary, published in 1970 was a major influence to me. I became a lawyer instead and later refined my artistic abilities. My brother, who was going to be an attorney, instead became an Air Force pilot.  

V. What We Have Learned in 40 Years: A steady stream of new information about the Apollo 11 mission started to surface almost before the mission was even completed. People started to talk about what they knew, books were written, mission debriefings which were originally classified by NASA were eventually declassified and released. Then the internet was developed that allowed a flood of information into the public forum where it has been thoroughly examined by many people. Still, new revelations are being made even today. Here are some facts that came out later and a few things you probably did not know about the Apollo 11 mission and crew. 1. Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin got his nickname “Buzz” from his sister, who pronounced "brother" as "buzzer" when she was learning to talk. 2. At the debriefings, Aldrin did not feel that they needed to wear life preservers during launch as they would be useless in a real emergency; 3. Michael Collins and Aldrin noted that Neil's suit pocket interfered with the abort handle and they were worried worried about that aborting the mission. 4. The spacesuit was far too tight in the crotch for Mike Collins. There was a problem at the suit factory using urine collection devices that did not fit well. Lift-off was especially painful for him. He recommended that astronauts take their own collection devices with them to the factory for a proper fitting. 5. The astronauts noticed a burnt smell when they first went into the Lunar Module. They spent some time checking for burnt wires but came up with nothing. 6. The crew was concerned about the lack of training in the TV broadcasts, which were broadcast live with 200 million people watching and they were afraid of looking like amateurs or worse. 7. UFOologists have had a heyday with this one –the crew noticed a strange object that floated along with them towards moon which sometimes looked like a cylinder. But their concern was that the object may have broken off the spacecraft and they wondered if it had something to do with the intermittent radio reception they sometimes had. The radio problems eventually got better and the object they sighted eventually disappeared when they went into lunar orbit. 8. Cosmic rays were striking the crews’ retinas which appeared as flashes or streaks through the spacecraft. This phenomena is more common in deep space beyond the Earth’s magnetic field and at that time was little understood and quite startling. 9. The lunar dust had a distinct odor. Neil Armstrong described it as "wet ashes in a fireplace" while Buzz Aldrin said the smell was "metallic." Others describe it as having the odor of gunpowder. 10. "The very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the Communion elements," according to Buzz Aldrin. The pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston gave him a kit that included a wafer, vial of wine and small chalice. Aldrin administered Communion to himself shortly after landing. The church still uses this replica of the cup that went to the moon. 11. Buzz Aldrin, who had the title of Lunar Pilot was initially expected to be the first man on the moon, with mission commander Neil Armstrong going second. Aldrin’s home town paper even proclaimed him to be the future “first man” when they learned of his selection. But Armstrong insisted that he go first because he was the mission commander, and because of where he stood in the Lunar Module and the way the hatch opened, it was much easier for Armstrong to get out first. Somehow I find it hard to believe that something wouldn’t have been worked out if the door had swung the other way. 12. Aldrin has fostered some resentment about not being the first man on the moon, and some have attributed this to the fact that there is only one photo that Aldrin took on the lunar surface of Armstrong and that was one with his back to the camera. Almost all of the other photos were of Aldrin, although photographing each other was never a priority and taking photos on the surface was almost an afterthought on NASA’s part. Armstrong and Aldrin complained that their training with these Hasselblad cameras (which had no viewfinders) was poor and instruction in photography exposures, and what to photograph was clueless. Those in charge of images were not kept in the loop and made a part of the team. Photography instructions were added to the flight plan in pen and ink. The crew also wanted auto-exposure meters. The result of all of this is that almost all of the photos taken inside the spacecraft were underexposed and blurry. Those taken outside were not much better. Some of the problems with the images can be corrected today with modern re-imaging computer programs. Also, we are now able to splice images together, and improve them, to better give us an appreciation of what it must have been like to have been there on the surface of the moon in 1969. 13. Some of the things we later learned we probably did not need to know. For instance, Armstrong and Aldrin almost had to go to moon without jock straps. They were too embarrassed to ask ground control where they were, but they eventually found them put away with the spacesuits. 14. When an important switch on the Eagle’s control panel broke off, Aldrin used a felt-tip pen to jam it into the broken nub, thus allowing the astronauts to get back to the Command Module after lift-off from the moon. 15. Armstrong reported that while Earthshine was many times brighter than moonshine, it was still too dark for a safe landing by their estimation. 16. The astronauts on the Eagle stood up when landing and operating the spacecraft. They did have restraints designed to keep them on the floor, but the crew reported that they only tended to pull their pants down instead. 17. There were many other problems with check lists and procedures, not enough training, the coffee was tasteless, Armstrong said: “there ought to be a law against snaps” and instead using velcro; and the lack of coordination between them, mission control in Houston and the schedules they were given in using different time zones. from the schedules. 18. A very interesting revelation came about just this weekend. Originally, we were all told that after the lunar landing, the astronauts were scheduled a rest period before suiting up and then starting the moonwalk. Later, said NASA, the moonwalk was held ahead of schedule as the astronauts were too excited to sleep and wanted to get going. It was revealed 40 years later to a reporter at a banquet and confirmed by Neil Armstrong that a period of time was built into the schedule to allow the fluids and liquids in the Eagle to settle and to prepare the spacecraft for an emergency liftoff if that were to become necessary. The moon walk was to begin immediately afterwards (before something bad happened). The problem was that nobody knew how much time would be needed for this and the fear was that reporters would start spreading stories that there was a malfunction or something had gone wrong if the astronauts were not ready to start their walk immediately. It turned out that not that much time was needed to prepare the Eagle for lift-off and the moonwalk proceeded ahead of schedule, the “sleep period” being unnecessary. I always thought something wasn’t quite right about the explanation of a 4-hour rest period. Even Walter Cronkite could not believe that NASA seriously expected Aldrin and Armstrong to sleep and rest before going outside.

VI. A Few Final Observations: Space Exploration is in its infancy and so is Space Art. There is no school, no classes or instruction on how to paint perspective in a vacuum, atmospheric effects without an atmosphere. This is all new and artists who do attempt to paint this subject matter are all pioneers, self-taught, experimenting and learning as they go. But wherever man has gone, his art has followed. In fact, with a sharp knowledge of science and artistic skills, an artist can forge ahead and take us to places we won’t be for many years to come. In fact, good artwork and inspire us to go further, reach higher and accomplish more than we ever thought possible. I felt, in a very personal way, the enormous contrast between the airless environment in space and on the moon verus the rich colorful organic Earth. I look forward to painting more Earthly subjects again. And I will never take our planet, and the life on it, quite so much for granted either. People will return to the moon someday, if not us, the Chinese will I am sure. Mankind will visit and live on Mars and perhaps go to other parts of the Solar System and beyond in the centuries to come. As for me, I’ll be doing more space art in the future, but I intend to not just look backward but to go forward and set my sights on new distant horizons on distant worlds that I honestly believe people will one day explore and live. Perhaps I can share some of those visions with you, say, in 2019? Postscript: It was interesting that after I gave my presentation, many people came up to me to share their experiences of 40 years ago. Many were friends, clients, and strangers I'd like to know better. One gentleman showed me an actual Apollo 11 flight manual that was printed out and made available at the time of the Apollo mission. Others told me of their involvements in the space program. It was a fascinating evening. After speaking for about an hour, the guests (which numbered about 50) mixed and talked and examined the artwork for about another hour before the library was closed up for the night. It was a truly enjoyable experience for me and I hope for all those present. I also learned that evening of my brief spot of fame in the Cosmic Log by Alan Boyle, MSNBC's science editor. For a very short period of time, we were front page at MSNBC.com, but fame is fleeting and it didn't take long for news to become old and in less than an hour we had been replaced with newer stories. Afterwards, I received several e-mails from people including distant relatives who worked for NASA in the 1960's. The whole experience was a fun ride and I hope to be able to do something even more spectacular for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019. See you there! ...But do keep checking back here at my blog and my website and I'll try to keep it interesting!

No comments :

Post a Comment