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Has It Really Been 40 Years?

December 13, 2012

40 years ago the last Apollo Mission was launched. I worked the Apollo 17 Mission from start to finish, nestled inside the Audio Control Room at the Manned Spaceflight Center.


My memories of the last moon mission are spotty at best. I had been recording, documenting and time stamping launch preparations for weeks.  Keeping track of 8 to 12 audio sources, and isolating specific audio clips to be released to the news media, was no small task.  Catering to news media personalities was frustrating at best.  All the world’s high profile news paper, radio and television networks were there … along with their pretty faced anchor men.  There were very few anchor women in those days.  We had to be careful not to favor one over the other … although sometimes personalities would clash.  We had to be instruments of 1970s diplomacy.

Apollo Missions were like preparing for an Olympic Event.  Everything was in the process of getting ready, reconfiguring and retesting everything over and over to make certain it was ready to go. 

After all, during Apollo the whole world watched.  The world watched the end result of what we said and did.  At that time in history, America was out to impress the world with it’s technical prowess. 

Sometimes a news-person would burst into our control room insisting on some audio clip right now!  We would be working with “Super Tape” that recorded all the ‘back line communications’ at Mission Control, which was “Red Badge” stuffThis was in the middle of the Cold War, so everything was classified as Confidential, Secret or Top Secret.  The badges we wore allowed me entry into the security level I was cleared for.  During Apollo I wore a Red Badge that allowed me access to “Secret stuff”.  The last thing any of us wanted is to be exposed to “Secret stuff”.  Whenever we could avoid “Secret stuff” we would.  If you want to know what the “Secret stuff” was, sorry, it is still “Secret”.  Whenever you were exposed to “Secret stuff” you would have to be “Debriefed”.  We all hated that.  Those infamous stern looking men in sunglasses and dark suits sat you in a small room and asked ‘pointed’ questions.  Regardless of what you saw or heard, it was nerve wracking.

Apollo 17plaque


The Apollo 17 crew, Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmidt,  launched on December 7, 1972, from launch pad 39-A. Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmidt touched down on the lunar surface on December 11 in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, Moon.  Ron Evans kept orbital and module integrity and documented the moon surface.

Harrison Schmidt was the first and only real geologist to see the moon first hand … he was the ‘kid in the candy store’ and had to be reined in from his science adventures to return to the module … especially when his air pack was getting low.  Ronald Evans was the sweetest astronaut I ever met during Apollo … As always, before the water had settled on the ocean from the splashdown, the Public Affairs boss would burst into our control room and hand expensive cigars to all of us.  We all lit up whether we smoked or not.  It was ritual.  You would not believe all the rituals the space program had back then.  Today’s space program is just a corporate mechanism, the adventure is long gone.

Years after the last Apollo Mission, conspiracy theorists have decided that some “air-to-ground” conversations between the astronauts and Houston reveal evidence of a cover up. They try to point out that the astronauts talked in code to disguise evidence of alien or ancient human occupation on the moon.  They point to common natural phenomenon and assert that they are UFOs.  My goodness, when you are in space, everything is a UFO!  Unless you can call it by name, it remains UNIDENTIFIED.

Since I was recording these “air-to-ground” conversations 12 to 13 hours a day, during the mission, I think I have some news for these mystery mongers. Astronauts talk funny.  They have their own language, especially when they try to describe what they see and do.  Much of these descriptions are unique to the training they receive and pre-agreed upon.  But, some of these descriptions are unique to the astronaut who cannot remember how to pronounce the convoluted names old astronomers gave to different lunar features. On the engineering side, astronauts and engineers use shortcut descriptions to call back instrument readings. My favorite is “all balls” to describe a line of zeros.

Popular Science: After Apollo 17, NASA scheduled three more missions to the Moon—18, 19 and 20—but those were subsequently grounded. The truth about why, however, isn’t stranger than fiction. John Schuessler, a former NASA engineer who worked on the Gemini program that came before Apollo, tells PM that the enormously successful Apollo program was ended for mundane reasons such budget decisions and NASA’s research goals. “They’d accomplished everything they were trying to do,” he says. “Apollo was a proof that the United States was a leader in technology in space. That was the big gain.”

Schuessler says NASA simply did not have the time or funds to fit in more moon landings after 1972. The agency had to plan Skylab visits in 1973 and 1974, as well as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. “They’re always a shortage of money,” he says. “Plus, there was a shortage of political support, and they were getting ready for the next program.”

As for conspiracy theories about a secret Apollo mission, Schuessler is quick to dismiss them. “That’s all baloney. You can’t launch a Saturn Launch Vehicle without people knowing,” he says “Secret missions like that are fun for sci-fi—I think Apollo 18 will be fun to watch—but there’s no reality to it.”

WIKI: Nixon did not personally care much for the program begun by the man who defeated him in the 1960 Presidential Election, and his administration pushed for NASA to nix Apollo 18, 19, and 20 in favor of the space shuttle program

At the end of my time with the Manned Space Programs, I returned to what is now considered a “Normal” world.  My wake and sleep cycles were no longer at the whim of orbital mechanics or the waking cycles of the astronauts … which changes by 30 minutes to an hour every day of the mission.
I no longer have to be bright eyed and lucid at 3 AM, to open Audio-Visual connections with Russia or Washington, or Alameda, California or Huntsville, Alabama or the Moon.
I agree with Commander Cernan’s observation, “It’s almost like you’ve lived two different lives”. “It’s the loss of that good science that frustrates Cernan when he contemplates America’s 40 years of space drift. But it’s the loss of that sense of surrendering to the pull of the moon, of Mars, of deeper space, that galls him more“.

I no longer think that the most important tool to save the human species is space exploration.  Humanity has lost it’s adventure.  Education systems no longer want to learn about everything that crosses it’s path and discover new truths.  I see human inquisitiveness decline and fall into self absorption. I do miss the excitement of the 1970s.  I miss the defined goal of taking humanity into the cosmos and saving life as we know it.  The early space program was pure guts and nerve and creativity and made you feel like you were part of humanity’s advancement. The Apollo years were pure adventure.  The Shuttle years were the winding down toward corporate takeover … and the Space Station is an International collaboration that is bought and paid for by multi-national conglomerates.
My 20 years working with some of the most brilliant minds America had to offer, has given me enough material to write 100 novels.  But I am just BossKitty and sometimes I just think too much.

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