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North American Aviation

NAAI 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
BY
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.

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Rest in peace, Steve Jobs

It’s late at night here in Fife and I can’t sleep.  So I do what many Western twenty-first-century twenty-somethings do – I end up on my computer, browsing the internet.  Tonight I am especially glued to the computer with the Phillies-Cardinals game going on.  If the Cards lose tonight they’re out of the playoffs, so I desperately want them to win in order to keep the prospect of a Cardinals-Tigers World Series alive.  For those who are unaware, the World Series rivalry between the St Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers (my favourite team) spans nearly eighty years.  The first time the two teams played each other in a World Series was in 1934, with the Cardinals taking the series in seven games.  They met again in the 1968 World Series, which the Tigers won in seven.  They last met in the 2006 World Series.  After having defeated the Yankees and Athletics in the playoffs, the Tigers went on to lose the World Series to the Cards in five games.  So in the [unlikely] event that both the Tigers and the Cardinals win their respective league titles and end up facing-off in the World Series, well, I will be an excited young man.

But the Major League Baseball 2011 postseason is not why I am compelled to share a few thoughts in a blog post.  The answer to that ‘why’ is sitting right here in front of me…literally…on my lap.  Yes, I am a ‘Mac user’, and tonight, as has been made clear from the incredible flood of identical status updates on Facebook (yes, I am a ‘Facebook user’), it was announced that Apple co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs has died at age 56.

Not only was Steve Jobs the official technological outfitter of hipsters, he was a proto-hipster.

Without a doubt Jobs’ death will be the talk of the town tomorrow.  Whether you loved him, hated him or found yourself generally apathetic toward him, Jobs has had a significant role in the daily lives of a great many people over the last few decades.  When I initially heard the news of his death I figured that enough people are writing about this, why make my own feeble attempt to eulogise, inadvertently adding to the cloud of ‘We’ve lost a visionary!’ chat?  While I have admitted to being a ‘Mac user’ I have neither a literal nor figurative Apple tattoo.  I am not especially wowed by Apple Keynote addresses.  I certainly don’t trouble myself with the false ‘need’ to possess a wide array of Apple products.  To be honest, it’s all very expensive and even if I had the money part of me doesn’t think that it would be especially responsible to indulge in consumer electronics.  But I have owned several Apple products.  As a child my family had an early Macintosh (we weren’t cutting edge or wealthy, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t stolen either).  All throughout my school years we used Macs in computer labs.  I first learned computer programming on a Mac.

When I went to university I used my extra scholarship money to buy my first computer – a 12-inch iBook G4.  A few years later that laptop’s display went kaput and I eventually upgraded to a black MacBook, the very MacBook that’s sitting on my lap now, four years after that purchase.  A couple years ago a certain Greg gifted me with some money, in celebration of my birthday/embarking on my PhD, meant specifically to assist my purchase of an iPod.  I only tell you this incredibly boring history of my Apple product experiences to highlight how my life actually is affected by the influence of Steve Jobs on a daily basis.

In a way I feel sort of dirty for thinking so much about this.  Nearly one billion people in the world don’t have clean drinking water, let alone a computer, let alone an expensive Apple computer (granted, I’ve never owned the ‘high-end’ Apple products).  It’s very evident to me that I should change my lifestyle, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t make extensive use of my Apple products.  My Macs have brought me through university degrees, have been the means of countless designs (like the designs you see here at LITC), blog posts (like this one), letters, mix CDs, recording songs, etc.  I don’t necessarily need to do all of these things on a Mac, but I have a Mac so I do.  And the iPod – unless I’m spending uninterrupted time with people it is a very common feature of my day.  I estimate that I probably use my iPod for, on average, two hours a day.  I don’t necessarily need to listen to music on an iPod, but I have an iPod so I do.

My point is not to make some profound argument about how the world would stop without Apple – it wouldn’t.  My point is not even to make some profound argument about how my life would be drastically different without Apple – it probably wouldn’t.  But the vision of Steve Jobs, a man who was genuinely passionate about innovation (and genuinely good at selling it), is the fuel behind the success of Apple, success that cannot be reduced to mere monetary units.  The Jobs-led Apple set the bar for other manufacturers (yes, this is a mild endorsement of one aspect of a capitalistic system).  Even though Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, they dramatically changed the way that our society experiences recorded music.  Aside from the technical innovations, Apple also brought a high aesthetic quality to the realm of electronics.  Why can’t our electronics be both functional and pleasing to the eyes?

It’s quite depressing to think about reducing a human being to a brand.  The media outlets will soon be publishing frightening news about how Apple’s success will decline because of Jobs’ death (which isn’t that frightening even if it was true).  Part of me finds this sort of revolting – Steve Jobs was a man with his own unique personality that, in theory, extends beyond the confines of a business, even a business as large as Apple.  But then another part of me realises that Apple was very much at the centre of Jobs’ life and he liked it that way.  Apple was not merely a business venture, but an invaluable outlet for Jobs’ vision and self-expression.

Apple is not dead and will continue to produce excellent innovations, but I don’t think that trajectory could have been so successful without the creative leadership of Jobs.

Steve Jobs wasn’t my friend and I generally do not have a great deal of respect for large companies and their leaders, but all-in-all I think he might have been something like an artist, and a great artist at that.  For someone I never knew and never followed with any sense of dedication, somehow I think I’ll miss Steve Jobs (or as I like to call him, ‘Esteban Trabajos’, with affection).  Thanks for sharing so many good things with the world, Steve.  We here at Lost in the Cloud salute you and will think of you as we experience the blessings of our MacBooks and iPods (and Greg as he uses his iPhone).

Cards won the game, by the way.

Nihilo sanctum estne?

I recall when the first iPod came out in 2001.  It was revolutionary – 1000 songs on a portable and extremely attractive hard drive!   Less than two years after the release of the iPod, Apple launched the iTunes Store.   It was one thing to fit [a portion of] your CD collection onto an iPod, it was another to be faced with the reality that said CDs were no longer useful; one can simply purchase and download digital files which would be synced up with your iPod in minutes.  One need not drive to the record store only to find out that the record they intended to buy was no longer in stock (and would, say, Best Buy even carry a Danielson record?!).  Soon the iPod (or any MP3 player for that matter) would be easily adaptable to all settings: one’s car or one’s living room, through a portable stereo in the park or strapped to one’s arm during a workout.  The sale of CDs has steadily dropped since the introduction of the iPod and similar devices and CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Although I often despise the association, I am of the CD generation.  My family made excessive use of cassette tapes (especially my father’s Van Halen and Eric Clapton and my mother’s Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys), but CDs were around for four years before I was even born.  I remember my first two CDs: Weezer’s first self-titled record (aka The Blue Album) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins.   Since then, my collection has grown considerably.  Still, even with the hundreds of CDs I’ve collected over the last fifteen years, I can fit four times as many on my 120 GB iPod.  With services like iTunes, eMusic, Lala, Amazon, etc., complete MP3 albums can be downloaded for a fraction of the price of a new CD, and unless one has some high-end headphones or a high-end stereo system (a lot of $, £, €, ¥,…) the difference between a standard MPEG audio file (160 kbps) and a standard CD (1200 kbps) is rather unnoticeable.

With all of this technological allure some people are still unsettled by the change.   I myself prefer to have the album in my hands because I appreciate creative packaging design to a near-obsessive degree.  Any look inside a [post Pablo Honey] Radiohead album booklet would quickly convince one of the inferiority of an exclusively digital musical experience (even such an experience with a picture of an album cover on a computer screen).   And while we already have the platform for digital music (computers and MP3 players) couldn’t we save on so much physical consumption by switching exclusively to digital music?   Even when considering environmental issues like the possibility reducing the production of plastics and paper, I find this option difficult to stomach for the same reason that I find digital books difficult to stomach.   There’s something to having a physical CD/package and a physical book in one’s hand…or is there?

Mass production of recorded music didn’t exist until about a quarter of the way into the 20th century.   At that time the vinyl phonograph record was the standard and it could only play from two-to-three minutes of music per side.  By 1949, vinyl records were in 12-inch LP (45-minute long play) form.  This became the standard length of a record.  Eventually this was followed by the use of magnetic tape: the 8-track cassette in the late sixties and early seventies followed by the compact cassette, which could generally play up to 45 minutes of music.

In a recent interview with Paste, Sufjan Stevens expressed his own crisis with regard to this whole shift in the way we can experience music:

I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download?  Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long?  They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now.  So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes? … I no longer really have faith in the album anymore.  I no longer have faith in the song.

Perhaps we find ourselves in this crisis with Sufjan, but while he remains skeptical, I remain hopeful.  From 2006 to 2007, vinyl record sales jumped more than 85%, and from 2007 to 2008 vinyl record sales jumped another 89%.  Yes, collecting vinyl records is extremely trendy and hip at the moment, and yes, when these hipsters accidentally become parents or are forced into real life via some other circumstance they might realise that investing their money in vinyl records solely for the propagation of their hipster image is not very hip after all.  But I still believe that these market figures are indicative of a basic human need for ritual and tradition of some sort.

It is true that there is nothing particularly sacred about the length of an LP or a cassette or a CD, but does the freedom of the age of digital music distribution and consumption require that we abandon the [recent] traditions we’ve grown up with?   Just because the technology moves along and just because we move along with it doesn’t mean that we can’t slow down and savour the beauty and simplicity of the traditional way we experience recorded music, packaging included.  After all, music is art and art is aesthetic and aesthetic is beauty and beauty, as Kant has defined for us in the Third Moment of his Critique of the Power of Judgment, “is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end.”

I see great correlations between this issue, ritual, and Church tradition, but that’s for another post.

[Elijah adds: Pet Sounds added to Listening]