Reaching for the stars


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



In the early summer of 1969, 50 years ago, America waited for the most spectacular adventure of all time to be completed.

Earlier in the decade, President Kennedy had issued a challenge to America’s greatest scientists. In September, 1962, at Rice University in Houston, speaking to over 40,000 people, President Kennedy challenged America to greatness. Specifically, he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because that goal will serve to organize the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

His challenge fired the American imagination and determination. We would win the space race.

I was nearly 12 years old when that challenge was issued. Only seven short years later, Kennedy’s dream was about to become reality. We were ready to launch Apollo 11 with astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. They would cross the vastness that separates us from the moon. America waited for the countdown.

My first year of college at Miami University was behind me. I had started college as a journalism major, but like many freshmen, I was easily distracted by the joy and freedom that was offered by college life.

My grades were good enough for me to return for my second year of college, but I knew I needed more direction and determination to succeed. So, I decided to wait a short while before continuing my education.

Many of my friends were in the same boat, but a few had excelled in their studies. Stephen Gates was one of those who excelled. Steve always exceeded expectation. He was one of the smart ones.

If Steve had been cast on the “Big Bang Theory,” he would have been a cross between Leonard Hofstadter and Howard Wolowitz. He was very likable, very smart and fun to hang around with. He excelled in our school’s annual Science Fair projects. He was president of the Science Club.

If any topic was related to science, Stephen could figure it out.

I was also in the Science Club, mainly because I liked listening to really smart people talk about really important things. I was a less of a science nerd and more of a writing and literature geek. I love reading and writing and I love history and current events.

So, for my junior high school science fair project I focused on Gus Grissom’s space flight.

On July 21, 1961, Grissom blasted into suborbital flight aboard the Liberty Bell 7. His flight was a success. It lasting only a little over 15 minutes, but unfortunately, the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule sank upon landing. I was totally fascinated by that flight.

For my science project, I contacted NASA Mission Control Center and asked for as much information as they could provide me.

Amazingly, I received transcripts of the radio communication between Gus Grissom and mission control. They also sent me pictures of the cockpit layout of Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 space capsule. I was able to replicate the cockpit with cardboard, tape and markers.

Then I able to re-enact some of the flight while reading from the actual transcript. I loved it. So did the judges. It was my best science fair ever.

On the evening of July 20, several of us gathered at Stephen’s house. In Ohio it had been a warm, quiet, uneventful Sunday; filled with anticipation as Apollo 11 orbited the moon in preparation for the historic landing. We watched and listened as Walter Cronkite provided the hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute descriptions of what was happening 240,000 miles away.

We held our breath as the Lunar Module approached the lunar surface. The words “kicking up dust” took our breath away. We realized just how close our astronauts were to the surface of the moon; so close they could kick up dust. Finally, those historic words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

As we sat on the floor in the Gates’ family room, a collective sigh escaped everyone. We didn’t even realize that we had all been holding our breaths. Finally, they were safely down.

Americans had landed on the moon – July 1969.

A few hours later, at 10:56 p.m. we heard Neil Armstrong say those historic words. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

We lost contact with each other, but years later I was told that Stephen Gates finished college and started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. In that position he was able to work directly with NASA in the exploration of space.

Americans returned to the moon six more times. Gene Cernan was the last man to walk on the lunar surface in December, 1972, just 3 ½ years after men first stepped on the moon.

We need to challenge ourselves again. We need to accept a challenge that is hard – not easy.

Once more, we, as a country, need to organize our energies and skills to explore and to accomplish something great, something that will fill us all with pride.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist