Posted by: trevormeers | May 25, 2012

My Heroes Have Always Been Nerds

As American cosmo-legends go, there’s never been any bigger than Marine-turned-astronaut John Glenn.

As much as America loves the idea that our heroes are just average joes underneath it all—guys who not only put their pants on one leg at a time, but choose Dockers as those pants—it’s tough to sell that line when it comes to astronauts. Our recent visit to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center provided the latest reminder. Astronauts represent a line of speed junkies running from the original Mercury 7 to the generation that only recently gave way to the more Ph.D.-heavy crews of the shuttle program. Throughout that line of people in cool flight suits, we see a straight-up collection of folks cut from different timber. We’re talking genuine dress-up-like-a-bat-and-clean-up-Gotham types; mere mortals who lacked superpowers, yet clearly possessed more Right Stuff than the rest of us. They’re Maverick and Iceman without the cheesey volleyball scene.

At the Space Center’s Astronaut Encounter, we attended a Q&A with Jon McBride, who logged 64 combat flights in Vietnam and dozens of carrier landings before he beat out thousands of other applicants to enter the first class of shuttle astronauts in 1979. He went on to pilot the Challenger on a 1984 mission to the international space station. Even when he wasn’t on the shuttle crew, he was often in the mission’s photos, piloting a T-38 Talon chase plane alongside the shuttle as it takes off and lands.

Clint Howard in his groundbreaking astro-geek role as Guy With Thick Glasses #3 in Apollo 13.

It’s hard to tell yourself that guys like McBride are just like the rest of us as you walk past the astronaut memorial, find your rental car parked under the John Glenn sign and head back to Orlando for another day of riding Peter Pan’s Flight. But even on the Mt. Olympus that is the space program, there’s room for the rest of us who lack 20/20 vision, icewater in our veins and a tolerance for riding ballistic missiles for a paycheck.

For us, there are the nerds. Even for all of the Kennedy Space Center’s towering rockets and videos of astronauts describing walks on the moon, the tour devotes significant attention to control rooms, with at least two full-scale replicas. In one room, visitors gaze down at the actual consoles used to run the moonshots of the Apollo program. Tourists get to watch a simulated launch, during which intercoms buzz with conversations about fuel-tank pressurization while the floor shakes with the re-created thrust of a Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn V, which stood 363 feet tall and had more thrust than a carrier full of fighter jets, was the largest, most complex machine ever built. And it was designed and assembled by a bunch of dudes who probably never got a whiff of quarterback or homecoming king in high school. The bold, athletic guys in sweet spacesuits sat perched on the business end of a behemoth created by an army of geeks no one had ever heard of.

Want to send a few superstar pilots to the moon? Give the geeks a few billion dollars and wait for them to come up with this candlestick.

The geeks of NASA wore white coats labeled with names like “Boeing” and “IBM.” They saw the world through black horn-rimmed glasses and smoked a steady chain of Marlboros between sips of bitter coffee. They were sending the equivalent of an ICBM across 240,000 miles of space, hoping to hit a moving target and return the human payload back to Earth at the precise angle that would keep them from burning up in the atmosphere. And all of it was run by a command center with less computing power than your iPhone uses to check tomorrow’s weather. Many of their calculations came from sliderules, those funny devices that I’ve never even seen used in real life, let alone learned to run myself.

In the 1960s, American astronauts were some of the planet’s most famous men. Life magazine didn’t do cover stories on the nerds, even though it took roughly 400,000 of them to put Neil Armstrong’s bootprint on the moon. In truth, the nerds really were almost the entire show in the beginning, when astronauts mostly amounted to guys strapped into cans and shot skyward. (The astronauts, all former hot-shot test pilots, were keenly aware of the fact that on those first flights, a monkey could just as easily do their jobs.)

Still, the guys at the tip of the rocket, not the ones building and controlling it, got the press and the Corvettes. There was, of course, was some justice in this. The nerds weren’t the ones betting with their lives that a rocket built by a conglomeration of government contractors would actually work as promised. But a little attention wouldn’t have hurt.

The Kennedy Space Center tour puts visitors into the actual control room where Team Pocket Protector controlled the millions of moving parts of the Apollo missions.

Eventually it came in bursts. In Apollo 13 (which was taken from the book Lost Moon by astronaut Jim Lovell), the crew-cut guys at Mission Control figured out the variety of jerry-rigged devices and electrical tricks it took to get the flyboys home from the dark side of the moon. And in the recent book Rocket Men, Neil Armstrong, the one astronaut so transcendent that almost everyone can still name him, talks about driving by the NASA workshops at night, noticing how many people were still at work on the insanely complex device that would carry him to the moon. He knew, he said, that the entire operation was possible only because every single one of those people believed that their small part of the massive system was the most important job in the world.

That attitude might be the single most important inspiration we all can take from a tour of our space-going history. Only a handful of humans can ever dream of looking back at the earth from space. But every nerdy one of us can aspire to treating whatever we put our hand to as the greatest mission of our lives.

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