Thursday, June 28, 2007

A little of the Right Stuff

This may seem to be off topic, but bear with me. My blog is about becoming a pilot, and this story is about how being a pilot has changed me.

I'm in Florida on business, and today I went to the Kennedy Space Center. It turned out to be a very powerful and surprisingly emotional experience, and part of that is because I now feel some kinship with the astronauts. That may come across as arrogant or lofty - I don't mean it that way. Being a glider pilot is in no way as important or as daring or as tough as being an astronaut. But... they're pilots, we're pilots, and I think I feel maybe 1% or 5% of what they feel. That's not much, but I think it's dramatically different from how I felt before taking the stick and learning to fly. Let me explain.

  • First off, I grew up in the 60's with a deep interest in the space program. I knew as a non-athletic kid with thick glasses, there was no way I was going to be an astronaut, but science was in my blood and I followed the Apollo program closely. I built the models, I read the NASA newsletters, I watched the moon landing in 1969. One of the command module pilots has the same last name as me (it's a pretty unusual name), and so I always wondered if he was related, and was secretly proud of my possible slight connection to the space program. So to visit the place where it all happened was already a thrill.

  • Every time I looked in a capsule or cockpit exhibit, I found myself looking with pilot's eyes for the familiar controls, looking at the visibility through the windows, the tiny space available, and imagining how it would be to fly it. The Mercury capsule has about as much space as our PW5. Being in the Gemini capsule with one other pilot would be about the same as being in our Blanik, although they're side-by-side instead of tandem.

  • The exhibits and the films and simulators at KSC are fabulous, really well done. They're powerful, patriotic, inspiring, and really show the dedication of the people on the ground as well as those in the capsules and shuttles. To walk around and under the giant Saturn V and the others is truly amazing.

  • Each of those craft had a pilot, and at some point the pilot flew the beast for the very first time. I think the experience of my first solo flight, and especially my first flight in a single-seat glider (where no instructional flight was possible), gave me a sense of the bold steps the astronauts took. Those experiences made the impact of the space flights so much more real. One of the astronauts described the feeling of being strapped in, ready to go, waiting for the launch to occur, and thinking that he had done all the preparation he could do... now he just needed to fly it and do his best. Exactly!

  • There's an IMAX 3D film called Magnificent Desolation about being on the moon. Some of it's up close, it's in your face, it's big and it's extremely realistic. We've all seen the video of the lunar module and the astronauts... they're all fairly close shots. But this film has some shots (no doubt artificial) showing the tiny LM as nearly a speck alongside a big lunar mountain... very small and very far from home. I thought of a photo I have of a glider climbing the face of a big mountain in the Sierras. The glider is so small against the mountain you have to look to see it. It's not me flying in that picture, but I've done some similar flights, not quite so dramatic. But still... the sense of isolation, of being tiny surrounded by something huge, is very powerful.

  • There's a scene in MD where a moonwalking astronaut leaves a photo of his family, perhaps to be found by someone else someday. His kids were 5 and 7! Imagine the risk he was taking and the sacrifice he was making! I can't really relate to that... I do fairly low-risk recreational soaring. But there is always that element of having to rely on myself, my preparation, and the training I have received, to get myself home. Even a 30-mile cross-country flight is a long way from home the first time.

  • There's a feature called Astronaut Encounter wherein an astronaut gives a speech in a theater, with a slide-show backdrop, and then greets visitors and takes pictures with them. Imagine the serendipity: today's astronaut was the command module pilot who might be related to me! You can bet I was near the front of that audience. Later I introduced myself and he was surprised, and told me there's another fellow with the same name who runs a major NASA research facility. So maybe I'll do a little more research into the possible family link. Amazing - and one more event that added to the emotional impact of the day.

OK, so I'm rambling a bit, and you might think I'm stretching the association between a pilot and and astronaut. But I felt it. One in a thousand is a pilot, one in 10,000 is a glider pilot, one in a hundred thousand is a test pilot, one in a million is an astronaut. What pilot would not aspire to flying to the moon? Learning to fly is about finding out if you yourself have a little of the Right Stuff - these guys have tons of it. Knowing what little I know made me feel so much more in awe of their accomplishments, and I would not have felt that if I had never taken an aircraft up by myself as a pilot.

As always, I invite readers to share their comments and experiences.

No comments: