IF ONLY I COULD BE AN ASTRONAUT

If you’re due for a page turner, you should pick up Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. Jeffrey Kluger, a Senior Writer for Time, recounts the moment in 1968 when three astronauts did what others had never done—leave the earth’s orbit and head for the moon. It’s a story of tenacity and courage, the sort required of anyone traveling into space. Yeah, and so?

Traveling back from Chiang Mai, while reading this book, I can’t help but notice the similarities in my own space travel—and no one is writing some hardback about it. Okay, maybe I am only 32,000 feet up in altitude, and maybe I am not traveling 233,707 miles—but still, it requires a certain nerve to fly economy. And no, I am not enjoying the same spaciousness Borman and Anders and Lovell enjoyed aboard their Apollo capsule. At least they could float around and occasionally head to the lower bay and get into their sleeping bags. The best I can do is recline my seat .001 millimeter and try not to touch the stranger next to me.

In the book, Kluger discusses the meticulous preparations just before leaving their quarters to board the craft. I certainly cannot relate to their protocol. But they weren’t required to go through airport security to get on their flight. All they had to do was wave to the crowd, ride up the gantry elevator, and walk the gangway to the white room surrounding the spacecraft. If only it were that easy for me. There is the stress of going through an identity check, stripping part way down, creating havoc with your carry-on to get to the laptop, and getting the wand treatment at the end—with the herd pushing and shoving behind you. And doing this at least three times on this particular trip, knowing there’s no one to wish you well and help you with your shoes on once you have completed the gauntlet and emerged on the other side.

It is true they faced the unknown, and again, I can relate. Selecting an aisle seat, you never know if the persons next to you have small bladders. On a 12-hour segment, the endless unbuckling, pausing the movie, unplugging the earphones, and getting out of your seat, can be unnerving. I don’t recall Frank asking Ed to move when he needed to go to the urine station. And then there is the unknown of what will be served when the flight attendant hands you your tray. You can’t tell me that food served on an airplane is superior to what the astronauts ate. I’m guessing their palates were quite satisfied. Still, I am grateful for the pretzels.

During their training, the astronauts were subject to the whims of the simsups (short for simulation supervisors). Their job was to make the astronauts’ lives miserable. Situated in an enclosed part of mission control (I am guessing behind bullet proof glass) these devious pests would, without warning, create some form of disaster—like kill communications once the astronauts left the earth’s orbit. Or overburn their engines and give them three minutes to sort this out.

Again, I feel a real connection. Anyone who flies at least, say, once, realizes that the airlines have hired similar supervisors. You have arrived at the airport at 11:00 pm to catch a 1:40am flight from Chennai to Frankfurt, worked your way through customs, lingered in a dismal lounge, waited for your zone number, and now you are about to board when—the  crew suddenly walks off. Apparently the plane is unfit for flight. And no one announces what one is to do (this actually happened to me four years ago).

I am sure simsups were behind this. Flights cancel, leave late (screwing up your next flight), lose your bags, or overbook, leaving you odd man out. Quick, what are you to do? Most likely there are people behind glass mirrors watching. And though I could be wrong, I think the stress level is right up there with spacemen in flight simulators. After all, what we face is real.

Like these three, I also look out the window to see the earth. But while they are able to see Florida and Gibraltar and almost all of South America at once—and marvel at the wonder–all I see is a dull horizon. That is before the person next to me pulls the window shade down.

I could go on. Reading about their flight itinerary, I notice it was a direct flight. My present journey has four legs, three airline changes, and interminable waiting in the airports. Here one encounters mind numbing announcements. It’s true that airports have gone through serious upgrades in recent years. The airport I have just departed from in Taipei is quite impressive. Each gate is choreographed with a particular theme. At one gate, you are sitting in a library, and in the next you are surrounded by nature. I waited at C1, the ”Music Waiting Lounge,” next to “Skyline Lounge” adjacent from “Hello Kitty.” I am sure some of this is intended to bring some relief from the constant drone of departure messages: “Eva Air, Flight 2940…departing for Bangkok, is now boarding. All passengers are kindly requested to please proceed to gate 34.” No matter how soothing the voice—the endless noise leaves scratches on my mind.

Reading Apollo 8 does help pass the time, and I am amazed at their accomplishments–but so? It’s good to know I can truly relate.

 

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  • Hilarious John–but I understand your pain…and it’s real, no? I will forever have a new view of those pesky TSA folks–simsups. Perfect!

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