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Excerpt: 'Final Countdown'

Book Cover Image 'Final Countdown'

"Do you drink Tang?" National Public Radio's Madeleine Brand once asked me.

I get that question occasionally.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s might remember Tang, which was the orange-flavored powdered drink mix the astronauts supposedly took with them to the moon as the United States battled the Soviet Union to put the first man on the lunar surface. As NPR's resident "space expert," I contribute about an hour's worth of stories each time a shuttle blasts off. That's in addition to whatever unmanned spacecraft NASA launches from the Cape, or missions the Russians, Europeans, Japanese, and now the Chinese undertake. That often leaves colleagues and listeners with the impression that I eat my meals through a plastic tube, NASA style.

That's not precisely the case. But in the late 1960s, I admit, I was one of those kids waiting for Tang to make its way onto store shelves. My folks were under strict instructions to keep an eye out for the jar that had the small plastic Apollo lunar rover, or moon buggy, shrink-wrapped onto it. No buggy, no sale.

Project Apollo was the stuff of pop culture back then as well as a driving force in grocery stores. Local moviegoers lined up to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, and actress Barbara Eden incurred the ire of network television censors by baring her belly button on I Dream of Jeannie. Her costar, Larry Hagman, played an astronaut, and the show was set in Cocoa Beach near the launchpads of the Kennedy Space Center. The city commemorated the connection by renaming one of its roads I Dream of Jeannie Lane.

My father was an air force chief master sergeant, and my family was stationed in Alaska when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon during the historic mission of Apollo 11 in 1969. The two men opened the hatch on the lunar module called Eagle around 10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. That meant most schoolkids had to stay up late to watch the first man walk on the moon. At our home in Anchorage in the Alaskan time zone it was four hours earlier, and we were just sitting down to dinner when the phrase "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" was uttered for the first time.

In 1971 my father was transferred to Patrick Air Force Base, which sits just south of Cape Canaveral in Florida. That meant the exciting notion of being in the middle of the space program that put Tang on store shelves and Barbara Eden's navel into the nation's consciousness. I remember walking into my backyard to see Apollo 14 blast off with Mercury pioneer

Alan Shepard as a member of the crew. Unfortunately, Neil Armstrong had already beaten the Russians to the moon two years previously, and budget cuts were already chipping away at NASA. Instead of wading into a vibrant space program, I was a witness as time was running out for Apollo.

There would be just three more lunar landings. After that, the U.S. space program would surrender the moon. Astronauts who dreamed of kicking up the gray lunar soil would be reduced to fighting for a seat on the Skylab space station. The only alternative was one of the three crew positions on the last Apollo capsule, which would dock with a Russian-built Soyuz spaceship. Long after that came the troubled space shuttle. For me, it was like discovering the Beatles just as the Abbey Road album was coming out and Paul was thinking about Wings.

© 2007 Patrick Duggins, University Press of Florida

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