Monday, July 20, 2009

My Earliest Childhood Memory

Forty years ago today I was 4 years old. I was growing up just 25 miles from the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), where Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of engineers were working to put men on the moon.

July 20, 1969, marks my earliest childhood memory. I was sitting in the den of my parents' home, watching the family's black & white television. The den walls had that heavily varnished stock paneling that was so popular in the 60's and 70's. I seem to remember my mom was ironing clothes, but that may be a stray flash of another memory from the same room. Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, and two men named Armstrong and Aldrin were walking on its surface. I remember that my dad had to take me outside to look up at the moon. Apparently I thought I would be able to see the American flag up there and the astronauts walking around the landing site. Of course, I couldn't see a thing... just the same old moon. And yet, I guess it was different. Looking back now, I only experienced four short years with an unexplored moon in the sky. But from that moment on, everything was different.

My most formative years -- around the time I entered elementary school -- were spent watching those test pilots and scientists journey to the moon and back, play around on Skylab, and clasp hands with the Soviets on the Apollo-Soyuz mission. I visited the brand new Alabama Space and Rocket Center in nearby Huntsville, Alabama. I played with my Major Matt Mason toys and dreamed of the day when we would be living on the moon.

I was a sophomore in high school when the first space shuttle was launched, and I kept a scrapbook for those first few years of shuttle flights. I still have it, as a matter of fact.

Then I headed to college in Huntsville, right there where MSFC is located... where Dr. Von Braun and his fellow engineers launched America's space program. I majored in computer science and mathematics. When I finally graduated in 1989, I wanted to go to work for NASA as a software developer. But, at that time, I was told that I would need to go to work for a contractor if I wanted to actually develop software. In those days, NASA civil servants were basically just contract managers. Well, I wanted to write code, so I chose the contractor route. I had two very good job offers: one with Intergraph Corporation, which was a very successful commercial company at the time; and one with McDonnell Douglas Space Systems, working on the Spacelab project. Of course, I chose the career in the space program, although it paid a little less.

Since then I have spent 20 years working as a NASA contractor on such projects as Spacelab, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the International Space Station, and now the Ares I crew launch vehicle.

I'm still dreaming of that day when people will be living on the moon. Actually, I'm doing more than dreaming. I'm working to make it happen. I hope the Constellation program will take us back to the moon. My goal now is to participate in America's return to the moon and hopefully our first journeys beyond, to the asteroids or Mars.

And to think it all started on that hot summer night in July 1969.

UPDATE: MSFC was recording memories of the Apollo 11 moon landing during the 40th anniversary celebration at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I decided my story was worth telling, so I waited in line for my turn in front of the camera. There was more, but they edited it down to what you see below. Notice the boy peeking in over my right shoulder... that's our son.

See all the other recorded memories at the MSFC Apollo 11 4oth Anniversary site.