Like all things magnanimous, there was a beginning preceding the real event which received all of the hoopla.
A spaceship, containing human astronauts, surrounded by smoke, and a crowd of well-wishers, roaring almost as loud as the launching sounds, took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This past Saturday we celebrated the occasion’s 50th anniversary.
Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, an historical event on July 20, 1969, had its beginning long ago in the open pit iron mines in northern Minnesota.
My ole buddy, Bill Chevalier, a colorful writer, and I, working out of the Minneapolis Associated Press bureau, covered many of these early flights/landings. The assignments were pioneerish, interesting, and memorable. Chevalier is retired and living with his wife of 65 years in Portland, Oregon.
The space age really started with open basket and gondola hot-air balloon flights. One of the early ones was by Cmdr. M. Lee Lewis and Cmdr. Malcolm Ross, who flew 34.5 hours in July 1958, and had a rough landing 40 miles west of Jamestown, North Dakota. A few others were Tracy Barnes, in an open basket, taking off from Minneapolis on May 11, 1964. Barnes said he flew to some 37,000 feet to break the previous record of 23,286. Barnes, in an attempt in April, failed when the wind ripped apart the balloon and the gondola.
The big one was a flight by Maj. David G. Simons, in the wee hours of Aug. 20, 1957. Earlier he put on a space suit, and climbed into the pressurized aluminum capsule in Minneapolis and hauled by truck to the open pit strip mine near Crosby, MN. There, at the bottom of the hundreds-of-feet deep mine, in darkness, the plastic balloon was filled with helium. The deep mine protected against dangerous ground-level winds. At dawn, Simons launched, rising skyward until he hit winds that blew him East, and as the helium heated, the craft rose high and higher. At some point, the west winds caught the craft and headed back west.
The flight lasted 32 hours, not counting the time from Minneapolis, and hit an altitude of some 102,000 feet – a world record. In our AP lede, we dubbed the piece of space where the balloon flew as the Edge of Space, which wound up in many headlines around the country. The capsule and balloon touched down in a field across the Minnesota-South Dakota border.
That historic balloon flight was the beginning of the Space Age, and everything switched to the Kennedy Space Center, and its later project of putting man on the moon. Simons’ capsule was a forerunner to later rocket-powered spacecraft, but served as an important part of the Air Force’s intensive R & D effort to protect the lives of later astronauts.
That also was the end of Chevalier’s (and my) balloon flight coverage. We would go down into the mine part way to observe. One night, a couple of the small press corps members went into Crosby and awakened a baker, and bought a birthday cake, and candles, and sang happy birthday as I blew out the candles, deep in an iron mine. The cake had beautiful white frosting, which gradually turned a reddish brown from iron ore dust, but we ate it anyway, After a launch, Chevalier and I would stay in the area until the balloon came back west. We would then follow, sometimes stopping in small towns, and sometimes lying on the trunk of my car staring into the sky as we watched the balloon. Locals walked by and stared. I often wonder why. We would then battle to get to the landing spot for interviews and pictures.
When Armstrong landed on the moon, (Who’d a thunk it possible), I spent the evening with his parents in Wapakoneta, Ohio, to get some pictures of them. Some time later, Armstrong returned home for a visit, and I was able to talk with him and get some pictures of the space and world hero.
Yes, that was an exciting period of history.