I knew exactly what she meant. She and I were soul mates long before we met. Pardon the corn, but it’s true. She grew up in Michigan and I grew up in Oklahoma; we met in college. But when we were children, we were both science nuts long before Sputnik. We both repeatedly checked out Vinson Brown’s How to Make a Home Nature Museum and followed the instructions. We both checked out books on how to grind the lens on your own reflecting telescope, but neither of us made one because we didn’t have the money to buy the glass blanks.
On October 4, 1957, Russia orbited their first satellite. I was in fifth grade when the teacher went up to the front of the room and wrote Sputnik on the board. She said it meant Earth-moon in Russian. It didn’t, but we knew almost nothing about the Russians then. A few days later, she wheeled a cart into the room. It had beakers beneath, a tiny sink, and a hand pump. Oklahoma schools had instituted science as a middle school and elementary subject for the first time.
I kept track of every satellite we launched and every rocket that blew up on the pad. There were a lot of them. When the Russians launched Muttnik (the nickname was American) I was fascinated to see a living creature in space. All my schoolmates said only the stinking Russians would send a dog up there to die.
I watched the Mercury astronauts first press conference and quickly got to know them all. I was thrilled when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Everybody wrung their hands because a Russians got there first, but I didn’t care. We were in space – and we meant people, not Americans.
I watched Shepard’s and Grissom’s launches, and cheered when Grissom didn’t go down with his capsule. In Michigan, my future wife was collecting every magazine that covered the Mercury program.
I was at school while John Glenn was in orbit, so I missed something monumental in our family history. My father, who thought the space program was a waste of money, got off his tractor and came in to watch the televised coverage. He later said, “I just couldn’t work until we got that old boy back safe.”
The rest of Mercury, Gemini, the beginnings of Apollo – I never missed a mission.
I had discovered ecology, at a time when nobody knew what the word meant. I spent my junior year building an Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness for the regional science fair. It was complicated, cutting edge, and more than I could actually complete by fair day. I won’t bore you with the details, but it helped get me a Fleming Fellowship the following summer. That gave me a chance to work with real scientists and to see some of the world beyond my tiny town. Those were the people who suggested I should apply to Michigan State.
At MSU the Biology department cared nothing about ecology. I was a few years too early; if you didn’t need an electron microscope to see something, it wasn’t interesting – to them. The closest thing to behavioral biology was Anthropology, and that is where I ended up. And where I found my wife.
We married in 1969 and took off for a long drive around the US, visiting relatives and national parks. We got back to to East Lansing in mid-July, following Apollo 11 on the car radio. On July 20 went went in to the student lounge of her old dorm and sat with dozens of college students watching a grainy black and white TV as Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon.
If you are old enough to remember those days, or younger and want more information, I recommend Jay Barbree. For fifty years, he was the voice of the space program for NBC news. In 1995 he received an award from NASA for being the only reporter to cover every manned spaceflight in US history. More importantly, he was the reporter the astronauts trusted.
Barbree has written Neil Armstrong (2014) and Live from Cape Canaveral (2007). His prose is only workmanlike, but his first hand knowledge is unparalleled.
Barbree’s personal friendship with Armstrong gives his biography an authenticity and intimacy that could not be provided by any other writer, and the same is true of Live from Cape Canaveral. Chapter nine of that book, ”I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”, is required reading for anyone whose heart broke the day of the Apollo One fire, and a sharp reminder that we later lost two space shuttles because of lessons not learned.