For those of us who got to experience the launches of the Apollo moon missions, those three words, “We have liftoff,” are burned in our memories. As the launch controller counted down the final few seconds we could scarcely breathe, filled with anticipation, excitement and yes, fear of what the next few moments would unveil. The Saturn V rocket, stark white and standing twenty stories tall next to the bright orange launch tower, breathed vapor from its liquid oxygen tanks like a monstrous dragon ready to belch its fiery blasts. We knew that in seconds an explosion of fire and overwhelming sound and fury would either launch the three astronauts, trapped in their capsule at its spear point, on their mission to the moon—or incinerate them in one vast fireball.
We were too conditioned for that latter heart-stopping failure. The early years of our attempts to catch up to the Russians and put a man into orbit and then on to the moon, were little more than an encyclopedia of failure. The US Navy, through political pull and wrangling, had been made responsible for the herculean catch-up effort. To accomplish that assignment a rocket courageously named Vanguard—the advanced guard, first into battle—was selected. It looked the part. Tall, slender, it looked like a massive rifle cartridge aimed at the sky. We could imagine it firing into the blue, streaking past the puny Russian Sputnik, carrying our national pride with it. But then came reality.
As the countdown came to zero, flames and smoke erupted about it as the first stage fired. We had liftoff. Slowly, it began its upward climb. But then…like a boy trying to balance his ball bat on his nose, it would begin to wobble, then suddenly start to flip over. In the blink of an eye, it destroyed itself and our hopes in a humiliating ball of fire. One after another, we watched in growing embarrassment and frustration that morphed into national anger. This was unacceptable. The Russians were making us a laughingstock.
Over time, our engineers and scientists (both ours, and the ones with Werner Von Braun who we rescued from the Germans at the end of World War II) came to the rescue. In 1961, as a newbie electrical engineer, I walked down the halls of Bell Telephone Labs in New Joisey listening to radio reports coming from virtually every office in the building. We held our breath and prayed, as Alan Shepard rode the first Mercury capsule into a suborbital flight to become the first American into space. We were on our way, and never looked back. “We have liftoff” became the watchwords of American pride and confidence.
And so it’s now my turn to launch, with this my inaugural post. I thought it more fitting—although perhaps it’s just wishful thinking—to title it with those three hopeful words than to choose a title such as, oh, I don’t know…“Vanguard,” maybe?
So what will it be, this blog, you ask? My intent, my hope, is that it will not be inaccurate to carry the Apollo moon mission metaphor a bit further in answer to your question. When we sent men to the moon, it was not done to discover a new world. Mankind had been looking at the moon for as long as we had existed. We went, I think, for two reasons…well three, really. First, we as a nation could not afford to fall behind Russia technically or militarily. Our national security depended on superiority. And second, we went because tackling challenges was part of our national psyche. It was part of who we were as a nation. We won wars. We built a transcontinental railroad by hand. We did it because it needed to be done, and to prove to ourselves that we could do it. Finally, and I hope not least of the reasons, we went to explore, to see what was on the backside that was forever hidden to us earthbound creatures, to see if it was indeed made of cheese as we had been told as children. We went to get acquainted with the Man in the Moon.
I have no interest in proving my superiority to the Russians, but the other two reasons are appropriate. It is not my nature to back down from a challenge, and without question doing a blog that is worth the readers’ time is a challenge. For it to be an Apollo, and not a Vanguard, is a daunting task and I can only hope I’m up to it. You’ll let me know, I’m sure.
But then there is that third reason. I hope to so some exploring. The Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible said “There is nothing new under the sun.” He was correct back centuries before we came along, and he’s still correct. There is little new under the sun for anyone to explore in a blog. But I haven’t explored a lot of it, so it’s new to me. And that is mostly what this will be about—my exploring topics of interest to me, and sharing them. If I do my part well, they may also be of interest to you. A lot of it will relate to writing and publishing. But not all of it. I have a strong tendency to wander down bunny trails and off into the weeds. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “ When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And that’s what I tend to do.
And so I have liftoff. Where I’m headed, we’ll find out together.