Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Martha Gershun has won our essay writing contest on the theme of A Universe of Stories with "The Hatch".
Martha Gershun is a retired non-profit executive. Her first book, Care & Custody: A Novel of Three Children at RIsk, tells the story of siblings caught up in the child welfare system. Her second book, The Radical Altruism of Organ Donation, co-written with Dr. John Lantos, will be published next year by Cornell University Press. Her published essays and academic articles can be found at www.marthagershun.com.
“My dad works on spaceships. He makes the part they throw away.”
The caption, carefully printed in my still-maturing hand, stretched along the bottom of a crayon illustration of a rocket hurtling towards the sky, flames shooting out the back end. The assignment had been to make a picture that depicted your father’s job. The daddy work pictures lined the walls of Mr. Coviello’s sixth grade classroom at Emery Elementary School, greeting our parents as they arrived for Back-to-School Night.
I don’t remember what my father said when he saw my picture that night. I just remember both my parents telling the story many times in the years that followed. They got a kick seeing how Dad’s very important, very complicated, often very secretive work looked to their oldest child.
Dad worked for North American Aviation, one of the major aerospace companies that built the aircraft that laid the groundwork for our country’s space program. As each new plane went faster and higher, America’s space ambitions stretched, too, coalescing around the extraordinary goal of putting a man on the moon. North American Aviation won the NASA contract to design and build the Apollo command service module (CSM), the “mother ship” which would carry astronauts into space and put them into lunar orbit.
Then, in January 1967, tragedy struck during a launch test at Cape Kennedy. Astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were supposed to be the first crew to fly into space on Apollo. Instead they died on the ground when an electrical fire swept through their command module as it sat securely on the launch pad. The investigation that followed found many culprits. Chief among them was the CSM hatch, which the astronauts had been unable to open as the fire grew. With no escape possible, they were condemned to die in the flames.
NASA was determined to fix the problem, and my father joined the team charged with redesigning the hatch. The post-accident inspection had revealed a key problem: the inward-opening hatch was impossible to open in the high cabin pressure created by the fire.
With the Apollo 1 tragedy weighing on them, Dad’s team designed an outward-opening hatch, so future crews could escape if another emergency ever happened on the launch pad. Because that hatch would only be needed on the ground (no one would be trying to escape in space!), much of the apparatus was designed to be jettisoned at lift off, thus reducing the payload that had to be carried into space. My Dad built the part they threw away.
Dad worked on other NASA projects, too, most notably the heat shield that was required to keep the CSM, and the astronauts inside, from burning up during re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. But it was the hatch that was a microcosm for my Dad’s aerospace career.
Dad was a brilliant engineer, who had earned a prestigious place on the faculty at USC immediately after completing his Ph.D. in thermodynamics from the University of Minnesota. He had learned to fly airplanes in the Army Air Corps during World War Two and trained as a bombardier-navigator. He loved math and physics and logic problems, but, more than anything, he loved the idea of going into space.
As children, we loved the accoutrements of his profession – the many slide rules, which he taught us to use with infinite care; the heavy leather briefcase which he always put down by the front door when he came home each night; and the tricky plastic locks that sealed the handles of that briefcase when he traveled to confer with NASA officials in Washington. When I asked how locks that could be cut through with ordinary kitchen scissors could protect state secrets, Dad explained that the purpose wasn’t to keep someone from opening the briefcase when he traveled; it was to alert his superiors if, in fact, someone did. This was the Cold War, and spy craft was everywhere.
Dad was an endless champion for the space program. We were three hours ahead of East Coast time, but he would wake us up in the California pre-dawn to watch every launch on TV. His most prized possessions, after the slide rules, were the commemorative chunks of partially-burned heat shield, encased in clear lucite, handed out to the project engineers after a command module returned home. Some believed we needed to reach the moon in order to beat the Soviets. My dad believed we needed to reach the moon because we could.
But the era of adventure and exploration and scientific discovery didn’t last. After Apollo 11 successfully put a man on the moon in 1969, the country gradually lost interest in the Apollo program. Bit by bit the teams my father worked with at North American Aviation were disbanded, and his friends and colleagues found other work – in academia and private industry. Because my dad loved the space program so much, he refused to bail, holding on to the bitter end. By the time he was laid off in 1971 most of the “good” jobs teaching science, math, and engineering at the local universities and four-year colleges were filled by those who had left first. After a stint trading puts and calls in the commodities markets and teaching math at night at our nearby community college, Dad went to work for Bechtel Corporation, designing heat shields for nuclear power plants -- keeping heat in instead of keeping it out, as he liked to say.
But he was never the same. Dad had been a true believer, an aerospace engineer who found passion and hope and beauty in mankind’s magnificent effort to reach for the stars. It was inconceivable to him that America had decided to abandon that effort, dismantling the vast infrastructure built to pursue that holiest of missions. Like the emergency hatch, my father believed the space program had been built for all the right reasons. And now it had been thrown away.