I’ve never believed Earth and the humans on it were the true center of the universe.
I’ve known that since the age of 5. Since the night of July 20, 1969, in fact.
We sat in front of a black-and-white TV, in a very 1960s living room in my folks’ rented house on the west edge of Ogallala.
I would start kindergarten a few weeks later. My brother was 2 years old. My sisters weren’t even born.
But I knew what we were seeing in the somewhat fuzzy images from more than 200,000 miles away.
The first human being was stepping on the moon.
It was very, very important.
The space program always had a place in our home. It was because my father, Ted, had a small role in it.
Both Dad and his brother grew up in Hastings and became engineers. Dad’s career focused on designing capacitors — tiny devices that store electrical energy — to be installed in circuit boards for all kinds of electronic products. He still consults in that field, part-time, in his late 70s.
When Dad graduated in May 1964 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — I was a month old — he went to work in Los Angeles for Rocketdyne, a major aerospace firm.
He stayed only two years. My mother, Lorrie, was homesick. But Dad found a job in Ogallala in August 1966 with TRW Capacitor Division (now American ShiZuki Corp.), descended from Ogallala inventor Robert Goodall’s homegrown electronics concern. (That’s how I became a western Nebraskan: by the grace of God.)
While we were in California, Dad was part of a team that tested Rocketdyne’s thruster engines for the Apollo lunar modules. The company also built the five F-1 first-stage engines that launched the behemoth Saturn V rocket in such spectacular fashion.
But Dad remained connected to the space program even when he returned with Mom and 2-year-old me to our home state.
TRW, also based on the West Coast, developed the lunar module’s descent engine and a backup computer system. And in Ogallala, Dad supervised a TRW engineer who designed a large capacitor for computers that controlled when Apollo’s engines started and how much fuel they burned. (That fellow later got to watch the Apollo 14 launch at Cape Kennedy on Jan. 31, 1971.)
Some 400,000 people had roles in putting astronauts on the moon. My dad, and more than one of his TRW colleagues in Ogallala, were among them.
Space stayed in our minds as I grew up. The original “Star Trek” series went off the air a month before Apollo 11. But Dad was a big fan. Becoming a Trekker, as the reruns played five afternoons a week on Denver TV, was only natural for me.
After all, the 23rd-century universe created by Gene Roddenberry (and refined by his Beatrice-raised producer, Gene L. Coon) grew from our reasons for visiting the moon and exploring the solar system with (to this point) unmanned probes.
“Star Trek” looked at what humanity could become and declared (in the words of David Gerrold, writer of the hilarious episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”): “There will be a future! And we must learn how to make it the best of all possible futures!”
So I eagerly awaited, after Apollo 17’s return during my third-grade year, our next moon trip or humans’ first trip to Mars or even beyond.
I just qualified for senior discounts, and I’m still waiting.
Ten years after the last moon flight, James A. Michener’s compelling historical novel “Space” addressed why Congress slashed NASA budgets and thus ruled out any missions outside Earth orbit since 1972.
One of Michener’s characters, a fictional U.S. senator, answered: “That was an easier world. In those days we believed we could do anything. We’re no longer that kind of people.”
Though we won the Cold War just a few years later, that has proved true in terms of space exploration.
Will I live to see humans return to the moon or land on Mars? I don’t know. I do know that many little boys and girls, now middle-aged men and women and older, learned to look toward the stars around their parents’ TVs.
I used my smartphone to draft this piece. It wouldn’t exist without Apollo and the type of work my dad has done all his adult life.
I’d like to think, with Gene Roddenberry and the astronauts who inspired “Star Trek,” that “the human adventure is just beginning.”