Monday, December 17, 2012

There Were REAL Apollo Astronauts in Pensacola

We arrived at Palafox Marina in downtown Pensacola, Florida on Friday the 14th of December. It was a short cruise day from Holiday Harbor and we were tucked in nicely into our slip a tad before noon. We knew we were going to stay here a few days while we waited for a storm system to pass through. Also The Zone needed a bit of attention from a marine technician. Ross was saying that he found a very small leak in a steering fluid system hose. But we were excited to be in Pensacola.

Palafox Marina is at one of the wharfs right on the waterfront of downtown Pensacola. It is very nice with a good restaurant called Jacos where we had lunch after our arrival. But downtown Pensacola was kind of let down. It is very nice and clean but there isn’t much going on. Lots of lawyer, insurance and architect offices seem to be around as well as the city and government centers. Other than that not much to see or do.

On Saturday, our first full day there, Lisa and I decided that we were going to go to the Naval Air Museum at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the largest US Navy air base. We got all of our bus information and hopped onto the number 57 line that took us directly to the base and to the museum. Pensacola is obviously a military town with all of the requisite tattoo parlors, bars and shops all featuring military discounts on their signage. We saw a lot of sailors who were easy to spot with their crew cuts and polite manners. Pensacola NAS is the central Navy flight training base in the country and taking the bus through the base was interesting seeing all of the teaching facilities with everything from aircraft maintenance to flight training. The base is pretty new as there was a lot of damage to it by a hurricane back in 2003. So there are a lot of brand spanking new buildings. Eventually we made it to the museum which is quite large with great displays of every aspect of navy flying.

Ok, I need to warn you now that the following story is true. It happened just as I say it did. It’s a little gross at first but it is what it is. I went to the men’s room and as I was standing, uh, doing my duty I started reading an advertisement that was placed strategically on the wall in front of my face. (You ladies don’t have this happen to you. Do you?) It talked about a weekend symposium to be held at the museum discussing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs as this month celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission, the last mission to the moon. There would be several public panels featuring genuine astronauts from the program. Way cool! I read the entire thing fully expecting to see that it was either past or sometime shortly in the future. But no! It was that day! Very cool indeed. After a quick lunch we found out where that afternoon’s panel discussion would be and claimed our chairs. The astronauts featured were David Scott, Tom Stafford, Eugene Cernan, Walter Cunningham, Charles Duke, and Richard Gordon. We also caught some of John Glenn’s lunch time presentation. They all spent 90 minutes talking about aspects of the program and their individual missions. One thing that they were unanimous about was that the success of the space program back then was really due to the teamwork of the entire program, not only the astronauts and engineers but also the management and administrative functions. They also spoke about the culture of the program, that it was open and interactive where no one was afraid to speak up. One interesting side story was about the proposal to create the Gemini program. NASA’s entire proposal request for the Gemini space craft was one page long. That’s all. They left it up imagination of the people of the aerospace industry to come up with the solutions. One of the astronauts commented that the entire lunar space program from President Kennedy’s challenge to successful accomplishment took only eight years and few months. He further said that in the corporate and governmental climate of today it would take that long just to write the proposal. He’s right.

I grew up engrossed in the space program. While some interest in the program began to wane in the later flights my interest only grew. These were the heroes of my youth and young adulthood.  I was not able to get close to any of them, to shake their hands, but I wanted to. In their youth they were the best pilots in the entire world. They did things that were spectacular with courage and skill. The Apollo program and these men barely get mentioned in history classes anymore. What a shame. Their accomplishments should still be shouted from the roof tops as a guide for all of the generations to come to act boldly with determination and accomplishment. I fear that the younger generations look at them as just old men. But they aren’t ordinary old men, not by a long shot.

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