Artemis 1 moon mission stirs memories of Iowans’ ties to space exploration
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test, Nov. 16, 2022, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA)
It is amazing what takes up room in our memory.
Yes, our basement can accommodate stacks of storage bins and shelves lined with boxes filled with what we politely assure our spouse is “important stuff” from our life. Our memory is no larger than our head, but long-forgotten details are tucked away there amid the cobwebs.
Those details are brought back to life by the unlikeliest of events. For me, one of those occurrences was the launch and then the landing of the Artemis 1 spacecraft a few weeks ago.
I am a kid of the 1950s and ‘60s. So, naturally, it should not be a surprise that I have long been fascinated with space exploration, although I was too frightened by heights to climb trees or enjoy roller-coasters.
This kid spent hours sprawled on my stomach in the family living room during those breathtaking early years of human space travel. I scoured the Ottumwa Courier and Des Moines Register for articles. My most important link to the distant events was our black-and-white television, which was about the size of a washer or dryer today.
Last month, like the little boy from Bloomfield, I was up past midnight when Artemis 1 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 16, lighting up the Florida sky. Before it returned to Earth on Dec. 11, this un-crewed capsule traveled 1.3 million miles and orbited the moon for six days.
The trip was a big step forward in what NASA plans will be the return of American astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2025. Humans have not been there in half a century, not since the last Apollo landing in December 1972.
The news of Artemis 1’s voyage has unearthed memories from my cranial storage space, many that were expected but some that came out of the blue.
Of course, my Iowa pride swelled as I thought about the native sons and daughters who have played key roles in space exploration.
That includes the experts at what now is called Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids. These men and women designed and built the communications gear used on space missions.
That also includes more astronauts and NASA ground controllers than you might think. Among them are Steve Bales, the school janitor’s kid from Fremont, who played a pivotal role in the final, hair-raising minutes before the first moon landing in 1969, and Peggy Whitson, the farm girl from Beaconsfield, who has spent 665 days in space, more time than any other American, man or woman.
Another memory Artemis brought to the surface was of James Van Allen, another kid from southern Iowa. Van Allen was a product of the Mount Pleasant public schools, Iowa Wesleyan College and the University of Iowa, and he was responsible for turning the university into one of the world’s leading space research institutions.
It was Van Allen who designed and built the scientific instruments that were carried into space in January 1958 by Explorer 1, the first satellite to be successfully launched by the United States. Explorer weighed only 30 pounds and was less than 7 feet long, and its rocket was dwarfed by the massive missile that carried Artemis 1 into space.
Van Allen studied the scientific evidence collected by the Iowa instruments on Explorer 1 and the next Explorer to orbit the Earth. He concluded there were bands of radiation trapped around the Earth by its magnetic field. The existence of these cosmic rays was one of the biggest discoveries of the early years of space research — forever putting the name of the explorer from Mount Pleasant in the history books, alongside the ocean-going explorers from centuries long past.
I was fascinated by the Van Allen Belts, as they came to be known. I eagerly followed every news report about space in the popular school newsletter called “My Weekly Reader.”
When Van Allen died in 2006 at the age of 91, his death was reported around the globe because his pioneering work in space exploration led him to be called the father of space science.
The human mind has a way of hanging onto odd memories. One of mine involves Van Allen.
During my four years at the University of Iowa, I did not live in a dormitory. It was too expensive. Instead, during my freshman and sophomore years, I rented a bedroom in houses five blocks up the street from the classroom and laboratory building where Van Allen worked.
During my sophomore year, my room was on the second floor of an elderly woman’s home on North Linn Street. She rented a bedroom to students like me to supplement her Social Security income — just as her parents brought in extra money during the Great Depression by renting that spare bedroom to students.
She informed me that in the late 1930s, my room had been rented to a polite, serious-minded young graduate student named James Van Allen.
He did not leave any stray scientific knowledge in that room when he moved on after obtaining his master’s degree and Ph.D. Or, at least, I found none there.
But the two of us did have other similarities than just the room we occupied. Looking at photos of his office in Van Allen Hall, my family would feel obligated to point out that he and I had desks that could safely be described as cluttered.
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