I was at the perfect age as I had watched all the space shots on TV. Tiny little Mercury capsules with planned launch times of 8:00AM that would launch an hour late and the whole event was still over before lunch. You can't imagine, unless you were there, the media focus on the space program. Newspapers and television news with stories about technical challenges or breakthroughs all that would make the trip to the moon possible.
Those tiny little Mercury capsules with barely room for a man to maneuver, with only a tiny little window, with flight times as short as 15 minutes led to Gordon Cooper being the first American to spend a whole day in space. And they were heroes to the public because they were doing something completely new and unheard of. They were explorers not unlike Columbus volunteering to sail off into the distant seas to find out what was on the other side.
Project Mercury proved the technology that men could fly in space and answered the medical questions such as would the astronauts' eyeballs lose their shape in zero g and cause them to go blind. Could the astronauts eat and digest food in space? Would these men go mad from some mysterious space maladies unknown to the terrestrial physicians? These were serious questions from educated people. And the uneducated? Well, before they believed that men never went to the moon in the first place; they believed that those rockets would break the glass bubble around the Earth and let out the air and kill us all.
The Titan II rockets were huge next to the Mercury-Atlas rockets and the Gemini capsules also looked like technological marvels alongside their Mercury counterparts. The missions for the most part went flawlessly and it proved that NASA was also learning to fly. On Gemini VI part of its mission was to rendezvous with Gemini VII already waiting for them in orbit. Think of it, four men is space, when only three years earlier just having one up there was hailed as a marvel. But as the countdown reached zero, the rocket engines ignited then shut down, and the training manual in such situations said to use the launch escape system and eject.
Wally Schirra held his finger on the trigger but didn't pull it; he was able to rightly assume that the malfunction was electrical and not a malfunction in the rocket itself. Had he been wrong they could have been blown to bits, but that is why NASA used test pilots, men used to handling life and death decisions in precarious situations and instantly making the right choice; men who took pride in being able to save it. Schirra's decision saved two missions, and as NASA administrators breathed a sigh of relief yet they still asked the question, why didn't you follow your training manual?
The pilot undocked, checked his location and targeted himself for an emergency landing. The astronaut did it all so quickly and calmly that NASA was taken aback by his coolness in the crisis. It made NASA administrators pencil in the name Neil Armstrong for a moon flight. The Gemini project had achieved all of its goals; its hardware for the most part had worked effortlessly and it helped to build a confidence that would shortly be seen as overconfidence.
The Apollo One fire, which killed three astronauts, was a wake up call to remind us of the fragility of what we were doing. That we didn't have all the answers and still made foolish mistakes such as having a pressurized cabin full of pure oxygen with thousands of electrical circuits and high voltage wiring. In retrospect it seems insanely stupid. But just as making airplanes from wood and cloth were replaced by steel and aluminum we learn from our mistakes.
Meanwhile, Wernher Von Braun was having problems with the Saturn 5 rocket. Not only was it the biggest rocket ever built, it was the first rocket ever purposely built solely for the exploration of space. The Atlas and the Titan had been converted from ICBM's designed to carry nuclear destruction. President Kennedy made it clear that our goal was the civilian exploration of space. Kennedy, wise beyond the decades, understood that although we were in a space race, a weaponized space race increased the chances of disaster by mistake for all humanity.
Unless you lived through it you can't imagine the frenzy. The song "Telstar" was a big hit on the radio, an instrumental ode to the miracle of a communications satellite. Elvis recorded an album, "Live from Hawaii," and the cover boasted "Beamed live via satellite!" Of course who could ever forget Tang, a watery orange-flavored powder drink whose sole claim to fame was that is was drank by the astronauts in outer space?
Thousands of products followed suit, the ball point pen used by astronauts, the paint used by NASA. It even got so crazy that a popular commercial of the time advertised the nutcracker used by NASA to shell the pecans that went to the moon! And only $19.95, isn't that amazing, order now! The 1970 Ford Mustang hood emulates the triangle design of Apollo's windows.
On July the 20th when man first walked on the moon there was a surrealism felt worldwide, like something out of a science fiction movie as whole nations and their peoples surrounded TV sets and watched as Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. The world heaped praise on the United States for the greatest technological achievement of mankind. And unless you were there and watched it you can't really understand the world before it.
At the moment when America was triumphant, it uncovered a plaque on the leg on the Lunar Module. "HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND." No flag waving or chants of USA, USA! Neil Armstrong's words reminded us that this was an achievement for mankind and only sponsored by Americans. The world is entirely changed from what it was in 1969 by the technological revolution that was sparked by the needs of the infant space program.