Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Space Age

It really sucks to get old.  But it’s still the best available option.  And if your dreams are still alive, then by God, so are you.

AARP began pestering me to buy a membership several years ago, before I turned 50.   I resisted, and their first several recruiting attempts went to help bulk up a landfill.  But I knew that eventually, I would need someone to tell me about good deals on denture adhesives, liver spot creams, adult diapers, Hoverounds, erectile dysfunction meds, and so on.   So finally I ponied up, and now I’m a card-carrying NOP—New Old Person.  Earlybird special, anyone? 

I’ve been coping with my NOPhood pretty well.   Until last month.   When what should arrive in my mailbox but the new issue of AARP Magazine, featuring Patrick Stewart on the cover.

For the love of God.

For those of you who didn’t own television sets in the late 80’s and early 90’s, or who were not yet born then (which I’m guessing applies to about three-quarters of you), Patrick Stewart played Jean- Luc Picard, the second captain of the Starship Enterprise.  The second.  In a show that debuted more than two decades after its predecessor.  The title of the series included the words, “The Next Generation.”  You know, the generation after mine.  And now he’s on the cover of AARP.  The new guy’s an old guy.  What does that make me?

Well, it’s pretty obvious what that makes me.  I have not enjoyed growing old.   Parts of my physical person that I liked and wanted to keep have changed color, fallen off, or had to be sawed out.  I vowed long ago not to age gracefully, and I’m keeping that promise.  I don’t intend to be quiet about it.  “Do not go gentle” and so on.

Yeah, I know what you younger folks are thinking.  “Old fart.”  Sure.  Laugh it up.   You’ll be here someday, if you should be so lucky as to not have your bad habits kill you first.   But only after you’ve paid for my Social Security.  Ha!  How’s that for yuks?  And I won’t even mention the mound of national debt me and my peeps have racked up for you, with which you’ll be struggling to the end of your natural days.  So, sure, enjoy your amusement.  It is what it is.  But you’ll learn, and then it’ll be too late.  As someone once said, the problem with youth is that it’s wasted on young people.  Oh, if only I could go back.

When Captain Picard hit the small screen, I was just turning 30—not over the hill, perhaps, but I could see the summit without the aid of binoculars.  I will admit that Picard was not my favorite Enterprise captain.  He was a bit hand-wringy for my tastes.   In a provocation where Captain Kirk would have jammed a couple of photon torpedoes up an opponent’s most tender spot, Picard liked to pull his chin and mull things over with Counselor Troi.  And when it came to la différence, Kirk did not hesitate to carpe that old diem.  Comparatively speaking, Picard was a monk.  But ultimately, he did OK.  And, second favorite or not, Picard inspired me. 

I’ll further admit that Star Trek:  The Next Generation was not the best sci-fi series ever produced.   Nor was the original Star Trek.   Star Trek: Enterprise was better than both, really.  And don’t get me started on the second Battlestar Galactica.  (Best.  Sci-Fi.  Space.  TV show.  Ever.)  But both Star Treks were groundbreaking, and very special to me.

I was about to turn 8 years old when the first modern sci-fi series, Lost In Space, hit the airwaves.  It knocked me out of my socks—for about five episodes.   After that, it rolled itself up into a goofball.  Mechanical parrots sitting on the shoulders of space pirates who actually say, “Aarrrrrrr!”  Give me an effing break.  I may have been only 8, but I knew crap when I saw it.  I gave up on it.   But the very next year, Star Trek burst onto the scene, and in living color.  My life would never be the same.  Every space-based sci-fi production from that point forward stands on its shoulders.  

To this day, I’ve never gotten over my crush on Yeoman Rand.  But I digress.  Because I was born when I was—1957, 16 days before Sputnik—I got to see it all:  Man’s first tentative steps into space.   Imaginative sci-fi.  The Moon landing.  Charlton Heston shouting, “You maniacs!” when the ending of Planet of the Apes was still a mind-blowing surprise.  The Mars probes.  "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."  "I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that."  Voyager.  Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, transforming from outlandish fiction into morning newspaper reality.  The Rings of Saturn—oh, my God.  I experienced these things in real time when they were new, and original, and marvelous, and historic.  No generation coming after mine will ever be able to do that, or say that.  No one born after 1969 can never know what it was like to see a single event draw a bright line of demarcation across 200,000 years of human experience, separating it into pre-moon and post-moon right before your very eyes.

The good Earth, as seen from
Apollo 8. Courtesy NASA.
When I was a kid I used to sit glued to the TV, my face plastered to the screen for live coverage typically featuring a fuming rocket standing there poised on the brink of history, while a long countdown slowly progressed.  Half the time the missions were scrubbed.   When they did blast off, you got two minutes of fiery action followed by a lot of talking heads, interspersed with the occasional animation, as the capsule orbited the Earth way out of visual range.  I soaked it up.  In particular, I remember like it was yesterday the Gemini 8 mission, which had to be aborted due to a malfunctioning thruster.  I recall that at the time, the voices from Mission Control were more tense than the facts seemed to justify, and I wondered why.  (It would take another half a century for me to truly find out.)  The Christmas Eve moon-orbit message from Apollo 8’s Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders moved me to ears.  (“God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”  I swear, it gets me every time.  It’s getting me as I write this).  Off course, I hung on to every second of the moon missions.  And during the whole time, I sponged up as much sci-fi as I could, in print, movies, and on TV.

I’m no celebrity stalker, but in the years since I have caught up with some of these folks.  June Lockhart—the matriarch of the Space Family Robinson—is a huge supporter of TV news, which is my profession.  I ran into her, totally by surprise, one night at a Radio Television News Directors’ Association convention party, at which point  I cornered her on a couch and didn’t let her escape for 45 minutes.  Yes, I turned into Creepy Stalker Dude.  I couldn’t help myself.  She was fabulously gracious, and even wanted to know if I’d seen her daughter Ann act.  I had (in the original Battlestar Galactica).  And I came away with an autograph and a photo of June standing on the reconstructed flight deck of the Jupiter Two.   (And by the way, she agreed with me about those first five episodes).

A couple of years ago, I was talking out loud at work about the fact that meeting William Shatner was an unchecked bucket list item of mine.  A friend asked if I were aware that Shatner was making an appearance at the Phoenix Comicon in just two days.  I wasn’t.  But I scooted up the road, took in his show, exchanged about two sentences with him, and wound up with a picture of the two of us posing together.  Check.

The following week, I was talking with this same friend, and I mentioned that meeting some of the Apollo astronauts also were bucket list items.  He asked if I were aware that some of them would be in Tucson for Spacefest that very weekend.   I wasn’t.  But what an amazing coincidence!  Two days later, I scooted down the road, and came away with a huge haul of autographs and pictures.  Check.

Yours truly with Buzz Aldrin
In one of those photos, I’m talking with Buzz Aldrin.   I felt like Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in that scene from Wayne’s World where they meet Alice Cooper.  (“We’re not worthy!  We’re not worthy!”)   But I managed to keep my composure, and, incredibly, I found that the two of us actually did have something in common to talk about.  My best friend’s daughter had competed with Aldrin on ABC-TV’s Dancing with the Stars, and he remembered her well.   Imagine that.  Me and a guy who helped plant man’s first footprints on another world gabbing about a mutual acquaintance.  Talk about your Six Degrees of Separation.  It is a joyously small world.  We are all interconnected.  Don’t you ever doubt it.

Dave Scott and me
A few moments later, there I was chatting it up with Dave Scott.   Everyone there wanted to ask him what it was like to drive the first off-planet dune buggy.  Not me.  I wanted to know what really happened on Gemini 8.  Scott told me something that is not generally known.  Gemini 8 was the first and only space flight where Mission Control unpatched the astronauts’ voice circuit, so that only controllers, not the public, could hear it.  As the spacecraft tumbled wildly in increasingly violent high-gee gyrations, for a moment NASA feared Scott and Neil Armstrong were about to buy it, right then and there, live on the air.  Can you imagine how history would have been different if they had?   Of course, what history actually reflects is that Armstrong fired up the RCS thrusters and saved the day.  When he did it, the two of them were probably less than 30 seconds away from blacking out—at which point that would have been that.  Scott related this to me as casually as he might have discussed a morning round of golf.   But I could tell he was at least somewhat impressed that I knew about the incident and wanted to focus on that.  In terms of space danger, Apollo 13 got all the publicity, because it was a days-long drama.  But Gemini 8 was the closest we ever came to losing astronauts in space, prior to Challenger.   And here I was, face to face with one of the actual guys.  For an aging hero-worshipping space flight nut like me, it doesn’t get better than that.

It’s men and women like Scott and the other astronauts I met that day—including Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, and Fred Haise, who survived Apollo 13—who are the real heroes, of course.  Not actors.  But the latter are deserving of our admiration, too.   While explorers are the ones who actually reach new heights, it’s storytellers who help inspire them to want to do it, and inspire us to encourage and enable them.  For instance, NASA credited author Robert Heinlein’s groundbreaking 1950 movie Destination Moon for helping to set the stage for the moon missions.   Sometimes, we become the vision of ourselves that we imagine.  Conversely, we do not achieve what we do not dream.

When it comes to space, that’s important.   As a species, three possibilities lie on the path ahead.  One, we will solve the problems that are now polluting our environment and changing the climate.  Two, we’ll starve to death or kill each other while drowning in our own garbage and excrement.  Or three, we’ll find a way to expand the reach of our race to the stars, and establish the Final Frontier Bill Shatner and his producers talked about, and Heinlein and his contemporaries wrote about.

I don’t know what will happen.  I know only what I want to happen.  So far, we’ve made only a weak stab at the stars.   The first moonwalk was not the only space-related bright demarcation across human history.  In 2012 there was another.  We now live in a time where the first man to step foot on the moon has died—of old age.  There has been no follow-up act.  At the moment America doesn’t even have a manned space vehicle in service.   The stars stand back out of reach, laughing at us, as if to say.  “Yaaaah!  Ya missed us!”  Even so, mankind hasn’t quite given up.  There is the International Space Station—which, hopefully, will survive our current dust-up with Russia, with whom our astronauts hitch rides.   We still have probes kicking up the dust on Mars.  The Kepler mission is up there, searching for exoplanets, and it’s finding them.  And I just read that the University of Arizona, in my home town, has been given a thumbs-up to go grab us a chunk of asteroid.  We’re still in the game, if just barely.

So, Patrick Stewart, age 73and every actor, writer, and explorer who inspires us to reach beyond ourselveshere’s to you.  May you continue to live long and prosper.  The wish is completely selfish.  We need the light of your stars for navigation.   God bless you.   

And God bless all of us.  All of us on the good Earth.


Sci-fi fans and authors, I invite you to check out my novel, A Journal of the Crazy Year, which can be found here.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.


  1. Nice. I share much of the same history with you and your words really resonate and remind me of how those things made me feel - back-in-the-day.

  2. Thanks for saying so!
    Because of this post, I heard from a friend of mine recently who told me he ran into Neil Armstrong on an airplane, and wound up having dinner with him. I'm trying to get him to tell me that story in writing for the blog. It's an amazing world!