STORY LINK: "The Real Space Cowboys" book review


Riding the Range with the Space Cowboys

South Coast Plaza event draws hundreds, including many young people

by Michelle Evans


This past summer featured some extraordinary events surrounding the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Here in Orange County, probably one of the best events occurred on July 11 when the general public was given the opportunity to meet some real space cowboys: Scott Carpenter, Thomas Stafford, and Gene Cernan. There is a lot of spacecraft saddle time between them, including several days riding the range in a bucking and dust-throwing lunar roving vehicle on the Moon for Cernan.


The Omega Watch company supplied the timepieces carried by most all the astronauts who went into space. They started a special program a couple years back where they took these men on the road to share their stories. The kickoff program in California (and I believe the whole country) occurred at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in the summer of 2007, to which the Orange County Space Society was a huge part of that event. We literally did our largest space exploration display ever that day. This time around, however, we were able to just sit back and enjoy the trip with these spacefarers, and let Omega take care of the displays in our stead.


Ed Buckbee, an old friend of OCSS, served as the moderator of the panel of three astronauts. Ed was also one of the primary instigators behind the idea of the Space Cowboys Road Show to begin with, along with being the founder of Space Camp. His history goes all the way back to working with Werner von Braun in Huntsville, so he has a lot of retrospective to share himself.


On that July afternoon at South Coast Plaza, hundreds of people gathered for a chance to sit or stand, and hear of the exploits of Carpenter, Stafford, and Cernan. They shared their memories about every aspect of their arrival for astronaut training, through their missions into Earth orbit, and to the Moon. I think we are very lucky to have these men out there doing these talks to enthusiastic crowds as we may not have them all around much longer.


I was especially excited that they truly catered to the young people in the audience by making sure they were all able to come up and sit with them at the stage. I know many children were jostling for position prior to the start of the event, finding a spot to see above us tall adults, and had been fended off by mall security. For them to instead invite them forward showed the astronauts understood the importance of these young kids. They are just now making decisions about their futures and getting to sit at the feet of someone who has planted their boots on the surface of another heavenly body has got to be awe-inspiring for many. Who knows what they may accomplish because of that one simple act of generosity from the older generation?


One of the children who was able to attend was Sam Sisson, the son of John Sisson, who has given OCSS such a wonderful program as his “Disney in Space” presentation. Sam, his dad John, and also our OCSS board member Robert Kline, have shared their thoughts on the program with O.C.Space. Below are their comments.


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“Forty years since we landed on the Moon,” by Sam Sisson.


I have been trying to talk about this with people who were there and how much it influenced their lives. It was amazing to see how much it influenced the life of everyone. On Saturday July 11, I went and met three astronauts at a talk at South Coast Plaza and I enjoyed meeting them. This was a great experience and I believe America should now try to go to Mars.


Scott Carpenter, Thomas Stafford, and Gene Cernan talked about how NASA got men to the Moon with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Gene Cernan talked about what it was like on the Moon and told us of their missions. It was amazing to meet astronauts that had gone to and landed on the Moon. My favorite story was, when they were on the Moon one of them had carved his daughters initials in the moondust.


The three astronauts told me about their training program to go into space. They said all the tests were okay but one. It was a device that twirled you around in all directions [the MASTIF, or Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility]. Sometimes it moved so hard you could get hurt, like one guy who broke his arm. When he said this it showed me how much courage the astronauts have. It amazed me how hard they tried to prove the impossible to all. They sacrificed a lot for their job, not only physically, but also mentally, because they knew they had one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, as shown when one of the earlier mission’s test rocket had blown up. The Moon landing showed us that when humans work together we can do the impossible.


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“See the real thing, come see the real thing,” by John Sisson


For me it was a chance to see three personal heroes close up. I have not been to a lot of astronaut events and here were three guys whose adventures had been inspiring me for a very long time.


I went to the event most excited by seeing Scott Carpenter. For those of us of a certain age, the Mercury 7 astronauts were the ultimate in cool people. Even though Scott had to speak and move carefully, seeing him reminded me exactly of the feelings I had when we didn’t know if people could go up or come down safely. I remember how tense it was to wait for the success of a mission to be announced. I also appreciated the photographs projected behind Scott as he spoke, and memories of those great Life magazine pictures that I adored.


I also wanted to see Gene Cernan. There is just something about moonwalkers (even that phrase brings a chill to me). To see a man who has stood on Earth’s front porch and looked back on us; sort of like playing “king of the hill” as kids. Gene had won. I had just seen the “From the Earth to the Moon” episode about Apollo 17 the week before the South Coast event, so in some ways I was ready for him to give us a geology lecture about the Moon. Instead he reminded me how much of early NASA flight of which he had been a part. He had served on the Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17 missions, as well as back-up on Gemini 12 and Apollo 7. He shared his enthusiasm about how interesting spaceflight is to him personally. You could tell, here was a man who was a pilot first, but second, someone who did notice at the time that he had some amazing adventures. The whole talk by all three lasted just one hour, and I stood there unblinking at the glow of the Moon reflecting from their faces.


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“Watching history unfold,” by Robert Kline


I attended a 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission at South Coast Plaza (held at the Jewel Court in front of Macy's) in Costa Mesa. The event was hosted by Space Camp founder Ed Buckbee and had a panel of three astronauts representing the first three NASA manned spaceflight programs, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The astronauts were Scott Carpenter (Aurora 7), Thomas Stafford (Gemini 6 and 9, and Apollo/Soyuz) and Gene Cernan (Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17), the last man to walk on the Moon.


The event was held eight days before the exact date of this most historic event in history, July 20th, and was a crowded and standing room only affair. This was one event I was glad was crowded and could not find a seat to sit down, because this illustrates that public interest in human spaceflight, especially the Apollo Moon landings, has not waned. In fact, interest has increased, especially when compared to the very last couple months of 1969 and through the 1970s.


By standing up I actually got a better view of the astronauts than most people had who were seated, and made for some good picture taking! I remember going to events like this one for the 5th and 10th anniversaries of Apollo 11, and there were far fewer people attending these events then you see today. One good thing about the previous events was you could easily get astronaut autographs without question or long lines! However, no autographs were allowed at this event, probably due to the venue being a very large and popular mall, and the fact that it was very crowded.


Hopefully events like these will inspire the young to get an education, especially in engineering and the sciences, which still are too few today. Many kids were invited to take literally front row seats for this event, which I thought was a nice gesture, and an important one.

One sad thing about the event is that there probably is no hope of an American to walk on the Moon again in my lifetime. With the Obama administration poised to possibly cancel the Constellation program, which consists of the Ares I launch vehicle for the Orion crewed spacecraft, and the Ares V heavy lift vehicle (more powerful than the Saturn V that flew us to the Moon from 1968 to 1972), there may be little chance of seeing a return to deep space flight. Human spaceflight can galvanize a nation to a common goal, like it did for Apollo. So in the near, and maybe distant, future we can only look for inspiration from past spaceflights partly by going to events like these. I hope and wish I am wrong that we have to look only to past accomplishments for inspiration. We, as a nation, need to stand up and let our voices be heard in Washington. Tell them of the importance of going back to the Moon, and on to the asteroids and Mars.