Thursday, September 3, 2015

Watching Missile Launches on Classroom TV

I moved to Faculty Lane in the summer of 1960, when I was eight years old. During my first year there, the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States began.

In 1961, the Soviet Union launched two missiles carrying cosmonauts in orbits around the Earth. The first was Yuri Gagarin on April 12, and the second was Gherman Titov on August 6. The USSR did not announce these flights beforehand. Rather, the flights were announced only after the missiles were launched.

I remember hearing about the first flight. I was living on Faculty Lane and my Dad told me that he had just heard on the news that a Soviet space vehicle was flying around the Earth. I was amazed by this idea. It was dark outside at that moment, so I went outside and looked into the sky and tried to see the vehicle. I imagined that I actually did see it.

In the following days, I learned that the Soviets called an orbiting space vehicle a sputnik and the pilot a cosmonaut. I think these were the first Russian words I learned.

The USA used different words -- satellite and astronaut, so the two countries initiated also a competition in terminology.

Between the first two Soviet flights, the USA launched its first manned missile, with pilot Alan Shepard, on May 5, 1961. The capsule was called Freedom 7, which was part of a larger project called Project Mercury. So, we kids got excited about this international competition and learned all the various names.

Unlike the sneaky Soviets, the USA announced all its manned space launches beforehand. Therefore, the teachers at St John school were able to bring televisions into the classrooms so that we pupils could watch the launches live. Here is a video of the launch that we watched.

This was the first time the public heard a launch countdown (10-9-8-7 ....) and cool expressions like "all systems are go".

I remembered being dumbfounded when I learned that this US flight lasted only 15 minutes and did not go into orbit or even into space. We were way behind the Soviets.

During the following few year, our teachers would interrupt our lessons and bring a television set into the classroom so that we could watch US missile launches live. I remember watching the launches of John Glen on February 20, 1962, and of Walter Schirra on October 3, 1962. (I do not remember watching the launch of Scott Carpenter on May 24, 1962.)

One of the guys in our class -- maybe Scott Brinkmeyer or Roy Churchill -- maintained a scrapbook with lots of newspaper articles and became quite knowledgeable about the US space program. He brought his scrapbook to class and showed it, and I was impressed.

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