90,000 Miles to Me

26,525 Miles • Kansas’ Space History Treasure Trove

Driving through northeastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle was very windy.

Not windy, windy. 

As in air was moving strongly perpendicular to the direction of the van along a straight road. High crosswinds. Not a curvy road. Man, sometimes homonyms are a pain.

I also passed a lot of roadkill snakes. Partially flattened, with their dark red guts ground into the pavement around them.

An hour west of Wichita, Kansas, is a small city called Hutchinson, Kansas, which has a planetarium that this tiny, out-of-the-way city is very proud of. The Cosmosphere boldly advertises its three theaters, kids space programs, hands-on activity days, and much more! And oh, by the way, your general admission ticket will also get you into their history of spaceflight museum. It’s in the basement.

They completely undersell this museum! I thought I’d probably spend two to three hours there and drive on to Wichita, yet ended up changing my plans around to spend 10 hours in the museum over two days, and only saw half of what they have.

What they have is the most impressive collection of artifacts representing the history of world spaceflight that I have seen outside of the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.—not only from the US, but also from the former Soviet Union and Germany.

Their collection includes one of the Sputnik back-up satellites, a back-up of one of the spheres that the Soviets put on the moon, both a German V-2 and a V-1 rocket, one of the Apollo engines that was recovered from the Atlantic, the Apollo 13 landing capsule, a Titan missile, a Soviet RD-107 rocket engine (pictured at top) that gave the Soviets their lead in the space race, Alan Shepard’s Mercury Freedom 7 capsule, and more. I got to touch Freedom 7!

This Mercury capsule carried Alan Shepard to space and back on May 5, 1961.
America landed a person on the Moon first, but the Soviets were the first to land equipment on the Moon, including one of these small metal balls, which blasted apart during its descent to scatter the little pentagon-shaped fragments across the surface of the moon, testifying to the USSR’s primacy.
One of the Titan missiles that launched a small Gemini capsule and two cramped Americans into space.

Along with their remarkable collection of artifacts, they explained the history very well, including the USSR side of things that I’ve heard very little about before. 

I am a huge space and history buff, so a lot of the information wasn’t the first time I had seen it, but this time I felt like the pieces fit into place better and I now have a better understanding of how individual events influenced each other and what each of the parts mean in the context of the whole system.

Maybe the presentation helped connect the dots better, or the insecure part of me that before would have popped up and been, like, “I already know all this already,” felt more secure, so was more receptive to learning even more and making those connections now. It was probably some of both. 

For example, I could have told you plenty of facts about the end of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles and the German rocketry program and the V-2 rocket, and Wernher von Braun, and the space race etc., but hadn’t made the connection that the rockets that both the US and USSR used to begin their space programs were the same missiles—not just technology based on them, that happened later, but at first we both used the very missiles taken out of German V-2 factories in the first days of the end of the war. Which had been developed by von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers before surrendering themselves to America. Who were only funded by the NAZI government in the first place because of a seemingly insignificant loophole in the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI.

Although the treaty effectively dismantled the German military, it did not specifically forbid the development of ballistic rockets, and Hitler seized on this brand new and as yet untested and expensive idea to fund the pie-in-the-sky dreams of a club of amateur rocket enthusiasts, including von Braun, who otherwise would never have gathered enough materials or money in the midst of the post WWI depression to do more than play around, and who suddenly got to pursue their fantasies of space travel under the guise of building missiles for their government. 

So the entire world’s current space age, and the spin-off technologies developed to support it, and encouraged by it, such as plastics and the computer revolution, is largely a product of the wording of the Treaty of Versailles.

Yet whoever wrote that part of the treaty would never have, could never have, possibly anticipated what would come of an oversight so small that it wasn’t really an oversight at all. Rocketry was such an infant technology at the time, and mostly viewed as a quirky hobby for dreamers, that no one but those few dreamers had any inkling of what it could eventually grow into. 

Would rocket technology have been developed without this confluence of circumstances? Probably. Eventually. But without the desperate need of a highly influential backer commanding the resources of an entire nation to develop this very expensive and material intensive technology, it would have taken a whole lot longer and developed in a very different way, for better or for worse.

And computers and plastics? Probably. Eventually. But more slowly without the Cold War frenzy rallying two powerful nations to overcome challenges never before conceived of. Necessity is truly the mother of invention. 

Another connection I made was realizing how much of the US and USSR economies and national energies had been funneled into the space race and then the race to the moon, which might otherwise have made the tense standoff between our two countries a lot more volatile. It was like redirecting the energies of two fighting kids into a competition so they don’t just beat each other up. Without those space dreams, we could be living in a nuclear winter right now.

Or how, without the German development of the missiles in the first place, there might never have been a Cold War. Missiles and nuclear bombs might still have been developed—there were a few countries working on this independently around that time—but it would have played out very differently.

Yeah, so…I’ve been going through a bit of an existential crisis lately, and not for the first time, about how the seemingly small and insignificant events in life can have consequences completely disproportionate to the events themselves. Like how you might pop in to a bookshop on a whim and meet the man you eventually marry. Butterfly effect stuff.

Like how, in 1955, President Eisenhower planned to send a scientific satellite into space to study the atmosphere for the International Geophysical Year of 1957, but in the tense climate of the Cold War, he did not want this scientific mission to have military overtones by launching it with the military’s Jupiter-C missile, the next generation of the German V-2 rockets, although that was ready to go. Instead he funded a civilian rocket project called Vanguard, to develop a whole new rocket from scratch, which took three years and then exploded on launch in front of the eagerly assembled press, creating a huge publicity snafu. And in the time it took to develop a new, civilian rocket, the Russians were able to launch Sputnik I and then the dog Laika aboard Sputnik II, further embarrassing Eisenhower’s administration and the USA. 

This Vanguard satellite is one of the backup units built for the ill-fated Vanguard I launch. This specific unit was scheduled to be launched on a later Vanguard mission, but the program was canceled before that could happen. 

Yet those very embarrassments were what committed this nation to the horrendously expensive stunt of putting a man on the moon as practically synonymous with patriotism instead of being heavily criticized, its funding cut partway through, and reported on as a waste of national resources, as our press and fickle attention spans would otherwise surely have done. 

The Sputnik I on display is an actual backup unit obtained from the Russian manufacturing company that built the original satellite. “Sputnik” means “satellite” or “fellow traveler.”

Or how, when NASA spokesman John Powers was awakened at 4am asking him for NASA’s reaction to the flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, he replied, in part, “We’re all asleep down here.” That innocent comment in the middle of the night to an event he had no idea about, was quoted satirically as an analogy for the government’s attitude toward the Russian space threat. Even a simple comment can be taken the wrong way and held against you for years.

Or how a little, innocent thing you did once in middle school, that is in no way bad, that you are even proud of, can get a little girl teased mercilessly for years. Do you see where this is coming from?

Okay, not all of it is that one incident in middle school, it was a lot of things, over years, like how I would make a comment in my autistically-direct way and be laughed at and not understand why, or how someone would even take offense when I did not at all mean it that way, and then I would have to explain myself and that often made the matter worse. 

Plus, I’ve seen enough sci-fi alternative reality scenarios to intensify the importance I have placed on every small thing I’ve done for many, many, years. You never know what little thing might make a big difference, after all.

If you have any perspective to provide on any of this, feel free to chime in.

Anyway.

I spent the entire first day at the museum just on the history of the German rocketry program and early Cold War up to the formation of NASA and erection of the Berlin Wall. That’s partially because I read slowly without my Irlen glasses, and also because I was reading everything, and there was a lot to read! And I kept going back to previous exhibits to check facts or tie things together in my head even more.

Something else I found fascinating was that, when the curators at the museum were taking apart the V-2 rocket to restore it for display, they found inside it a metal cylinder with two documents recording the quality control inspection results of the different parts of the rocket as it was assembled.

It doesn’t at all surprise me that the Germans would have made systematic quality control inspections, but it made me laugh hilariously that they put the inspection documents inside a metal container labeled specifically for that purpose, inside of the thing that they were about to shoot off with the intention of it exploding. Wouldn’t those be better off in a file somewhere?

The canister on the right contained the two documents on the left, indicating that the rocket had passed all of its quality control inspections.

The next day I went back and spent another five plus hours and only got through the Mercury and Vostok missions. I browsed the Gemini, Apollo, and Apollo-Soyuz sections, but since I know a lot more about those, and was reaching information overload, I decided to call it.

I would love to go back someday and spend another two days going through the rest.

Heading east on the 54 towards Missouri and my best friend, I passed lots of live and roadkill turtles, many roadkill armadillos, a couple roadkill snakes and one roadkill turkey vulture.

Those unfortunate turtles and snakes and armadillos made the seemingly small decision to cross the road at just the wrong moment with consequences that they had no ability to foresee. What am I overlooking that I have no ability to understand or predict? Of course I can’t answer that, but the question plagues me anyway.

So if I can’t predict how any of my actions are going to turn out, how can I plan anything? And if I can’t foresee the possible consequences of my actions, how can I take responsibility for any of it? And if I can’t take responsibility for what I do, how can I think of myself as a good person?

Eisenhower had excellent intentions in wanting the country’s first ventures into space to not have military overtones, but that blew up in his face. He was able to make other decisions later that put the US on a faster track to space, including founding NASA, but although his intentions were laudable, he was and is still hounded mercilessly by the press and historians alike for his lack of foresight on the importance of rocket technology.

And I am still beating myself up emotionally over a multitude of mostly minor things that I’ve done or failed to do over the years that turned out in ways I could not have foreseen and therefore… Therefore what? Therefore I wasn’t good enough? Probably.

I’m not talking about accidents or mistakes, because those I can usually come to terms with even though I might feel sad about what happened. I’m talking about making good decisions with all the right intentions and doing everything correctly and it still turning out badly or hurting myself or someone else, or simply having a less than optimal result, even when it isn’t objectively bad in any way.

It’s already a well-established fact on this blog that I am way too hard on myself and make much too big of a deal out of many things, but just telling myself that it isn’t a big deal doesn’t actually help.

Alternately, there are things that really do need to be made a bigger deal out of that many people ignore or don’t want to hear, and seeing that reinforces the whole situation and drives me nuts.

I keep thinking that if I can just anticipate every possible outcome and plan for each of them as well as I can with the information I have at the time, and work hard and do my best, that everything will work out, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. And telling myself that I did the best that I could have, isn’t very comforting.

So I clamp down and try to control myself more and more, because I realized long ago that I can’t control the rest of the world, so I try to control myself ever more, and, well, that doesn’t make anything better, it just gives me more material for emotional abuse when I’m not perfect.

In the last year I have let go of a lot of my hang-ups and needs to control various aspects of my life, but this is still a big hurdle for me. 

I also drove through Fort Scott again, on the Kansas-Missouri border. It was the first time I’ve crossed paths with a previous season’s journey apart from personal places like home and friends. I even drove on some of the same streets as last year, right past Fort Scott itself.

Did I know I was going to come through Fort Scott again? Nope. Do I care? Not really, because nothing unfortunate happened, so I have no reason to beat myself up for being short-sighted. But if I did…

* * *

26,052 Miles • New Mexico's Grassland
27,701 Miles • Reflections on Overworking, from Kansas to Ohio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.