North American Aviation
I had just left North American airspace when I realised. You see, when I find myself in the midst a long distance journey I become incredibly emotional. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it’s the thin, recycled air. Maybe it’s the persistent hiss of the jet engines. Maybe it’s the realisation, when looking out the window onto the earth and sea below, that I am truly an insignificant wee speck of matter inhabiting a tiny plot on a tiny planet within a tiny solar system within a relatively small galaxy within an unfathomably large and expanding universe.
But I find another theory yet more romantic. In even the recent past, travelling nearly 10,000 kilometres, across an ocean and then a continent, would take ages — months upon months. During that time, on top of the regular roller coaster of emotions during any given six-month period in life, travellers would face an even greater confrontation with their own mortality and the mortality of others. And I think when I find myself 10,979 metres in the air, travelling at 902 kilometres per hour, passing over the land and sea, in those 10-12 hours I experience just a small taste of the emotional stress of those who had to make the journey in weeks, months or even years. Whatever the cause, I always fall victim to this neurosis when I travel great distances. But this visit to the place of my birth featured more substance than I had expected.
I should’ve realised that things would be incredibly different. In the two and a half years since my previous visit, I was blessed with a niece and three new nephews. I wasn’t prepared for the pain of saying goodbye to them two weeks later, knowing that I won’t be around to share in those special early moments — whether that is first words, first steps or the first day of school. Will they remember me when they see me next time? I don’t even know when ‘next time’ will be. And alongside all of the other joys and sorrows that I missed in the last two and half years, I lost one of the most influential and important people in my life.
I’m a man who has been blessed with two amazing grandfathers. My mother’s father died in March 2010. He had been very influential in at least this last decade of my life. But before I converted to Christianity and sensed a calling to church ministry, my passions had been devoted to a good number of things attributed to my father’s father. And that’s not to say that since conversion my paternal grandfather has not been a continuous influence. He taught me countless things about life and virtue and filled me with the riches of wisdom and curiosity. But when my father’s father died in December 2012, in accordance with his wishes, no funeral was held. I was encouraged by my family to stay in Scotland.
In honesty, my grandfather’s passing probably came as a relief to some. His quality of life had been worsening steadily and he hardly resembled the man he was before Alzheimer’s set in. But even in the midst of his battle against that horrific disease, I saw definite glimpses of my stubborn, cheeky, but ultimately tenderhearted grandfather. In his pride, a younger version of my grandfather would have abhorred his state in the final years of his life. But that’s neither here nor there. It has happened as it has happened.
Although I haven’t lived with my parents for a decade, like any good and decent child, I’ve kept a fair number of my belongings, mostly books and vinyl records, at my parents’ house. This trip seemed as good a time as any to sort through what remained of my belongings in California. Very conveniently, my father had consolidated most of my things to a few boxes in the shed. Among these boxes was one full of my most treasured possessions — the things given to me by my grandfather. I had started the collection from before I can remember (with the help of my father, who had also passed things down to me). It went hand in hand with my obsession with spaceflight and aeronautics, all inspired by my grandfather. Pictures, technical manuals and diagrams, slide rulers, NASA Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle mission patches and memorabilia. I used to stare at these things for hours upon hours. And here they were again, just as magical as ever before. Well, almost.
When I was younger, if I had any questions I could just visit my grandfather. He was always up for talking with me, and not just about his work in the aerospace field. He taught me countless life lessons that remain with me to this day. During this visit to California, these scraps of paper and miscellaneous in a box took on new significance – they were my grandfather’s continued presence.
I arrived at LAX on the Monday. My time in California would be full of visits and wee travels. Saturday was booked for a visit to my aunt and uncle’s house for a gathering of some of the Smiths. My grandmother was there, visiting from Yucca Valley. My uncle had planned to take my grandmother home on the following Monday, but my father and I had planned on spending that day together and we both had the same thought — we wanted to spend our day with his mum and in the High Desert (and perhaps make a visit to Joshua Tree). When we got to my grandmother’s house on the Monday I had a close look around. It was the first time I had seen the place after my grandfather’s death. It had gone through some changes when his condition worsened and he required 24-hour care, necessitating relocation to a care home, but this was it — my grandfather was gone. At some point I had a frantic thought. There was a particular item that used to hang on the wall in my grandfather’s house. He had always told me it was his most prized possession, but I couldn’t find it. I asked my grandmother where it might be and she seemed to think that it had been given to my family. My father didn’t recall and being that I had been gone for two and a half years, I sure as hell didn’t have it.
This item was a strange thing – a plaque of wood with a small engraved brass plate beneath a block of translucent plastic, within which was found a piece of God-knows-what. My grandfather told me the short story behind the object numerous times and I wish so much that I had made a recording of his words, in his own voice with all of the proper details. But I’ll do my best to tell it as he told it.
But before we get into my grandfather’s story, some background is necessary. In the midst of the Cold War, on 4 October 1957, the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1. The Soviet Union launched their second Sputnik satellite, this time carrying a small dog called Laika, in November. It wasn’t until the end of the following January that the United States launched Explorer 1 in response. On 12 April 1961, the Soviets bested the Americans once again when they sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space aboard Vostok 1. He spent 108 minutes in space, completing one orbit of the Earth. In May the Americans responded when they launched astronaut Alan Shepard into space aboard the Mercury 3 spacecraft dubbed Freedom 7. Astronaut Gus Grissom spent 15 minutes in space during the sub-orbital flight of Mercury 4 on 21 July 1961, but the Soviets answered with a second orbital flight manned by cosmonaut Gherman Titov on 6 August. It wasn’t until the third manned American Mercury mission sent astronaut John Glenn into space on 20 February 1962 that the United States was able to achieve Earth orbit. Astronaut Scott Carpenter repeated Glenn’s mission in May.
Although having trailed the Soviet Union for the first five years of what was named the ‘Space Race’, on 12 September 1962, the US President John F. Kennedy, whilst speaking at Rice University in Houston, Texas, announced,
We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
To journey to the Moon! An ambition in the minds of the earliest creatures capable of sight and cognition. A god, a disk, a face, a perfect celestial sphere!
In order to achieve this ambitious pledge, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) followed the success of the Mercury missions with the Gemini programme, which set out to test necessary steps in order to develop a mission capable to sending humans to the Moon, things like extra-vehicular activity (‘spacewalks’), longer duration flights and orbital rendezvous of two spacecraft.
As to be expected, the steps to get to the Moon were planned out meticulously. The successor to the Gemini programme, the Apollo programme, was designed to work through different phases, culminating in an eventual Moon landing. The basic steps were as follows:
1. Test out the manned Command/Service Module (CSM) in Earth orbit.
2. Test out the manned CSM in Moon orbit.
3. Test out the manned Lunar Module (LM) in Earth orbit.
4. Test out the manned LM in Moon orbit.
5. Land on the Moon.
Each successive stage couldn’t be completed until the previous stage had been tested thoroughly. The contract for the construction of the CSM was awarded to North American Aviation, the company for which my grandfather worked at the time. But due to design flaws (of which my grandfather played no part), what was the to be the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 1, was destroyed on the platform during a launch simulation test on 27 January 1967, killing all three astronauts on board – Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee.
The Apollo 1 tragedy was a major setback for NASA and the Apollo programme, and in September 1967, North American Aviation merged with Rockwell Standard to form North American Rockwell. Following much grieving, drama and deliberation, the Apollo programme was allowed to continue and my grandfather served as the Electrical Supervisor for the construction of the Command Module with North American Rockwell.
After a series of unmanned tests, the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, finally took place between 11 and 22 October 1968. Much was riding on the success of Apollo 7 – the future of the Apollo programme and JFK’s pledge to reach the Moon before the end of the decade, the future of NASA, the future of North American Rockwell, as well as the Americans’ desire to reach the Moon before the Soviets.
Despite a lot of nerves, the mission went as planned and when the astronauts returned they held a meeting with the ground crew from North American Rockwell. Thus officially begins the wee story behind my grandfather’s most prized possession.
When in Earth orbit, a spacecraft and its contents experience weightlessness, and when there are bits leftover from the construction of the spacecraft they sometimes emerge from their nooks and crannies and can pose a threat or distraction to the astronauts inside.
During this meeting with the ground crew, Captain Wally Schirra, Commander of Apollo 7, produced a large box containing what he said were the bits found in the Command Module by the astronauts whilst in orbit. My grandfather and his co-workers held their heads in shame. I believe some expletives were uttered when he told the story.
Schirra opened the large box to reveal a slightly smaller box, to the slight relief of the ground crew. And that slightly smaller box contained yet an even smaller box. He proceeded to open the boxes like nesting dolls until the final box, a very small box containing seven small bits of rubbish. In the standards of air and spaceflight, Apollo 7 proved to be an exceptionally clean machine.
The Commander and crew felt the need to express his gratitude to my grandfather by suspending the wee bit of rubbish (some woven insulation from electrical wiring) in a block of translucent plastic mounted to a piece of wood with a brass plaque that reads:
THIS ARTICLE, FLOWN ON
APOLLO 7 OCTOBER 11-22, 1968,
IS PRESENTED TO
T. J. SMITH
CAPT. WALLY M. SCHIRRA
FOR THE CREW OF APOLLO 7
‘There are only seven of those in the world’, my grandfather would say. But where had his gone? I searched all over and asked everyone I could. My time in Los Angeles was winding down to a close. Resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t find the plaque, I packed up my box of space memorabilia and shipped it to my home in Glasgow.
As I was packing my clothes for the journey home, my father asked me, ‘What about this safe box?’ He was referring to a small army-green box that I had scoured the week previously. I supposed that I had spotted a few things that I would have liked to take with me back to Glasgow: some pictures of my grandfather with his crew for the Space Shuttle Main Engines, a certificate from Ian Ross, then Director of John Walker and Sons Ltd, Kilmarnock, commemorating my grandfather’s Hole-In-One from 28 April 1992, and a few other certificates of achievement from NASA and North American Rockwell. There was even a picture of the moment when Wally Schirra (looking well chuffed) gave my grandfather (looking well irritated) the small piece of wire insulation at that meeting. As I moved papers around I realised, there it was – the plaque. It was right under my nose the whole time, hidden between papers in this small army-green box in my father’s shed.