The Last Apollo

My wife and I spent two weeks in July on the road. We paid a visit to my older daughter in Kansas City and then visited some colleges that my younger daughter is considering after she graduates from high school in the spring. On the way to Kansas City, we stopped in to visit my wife’s aunt in Hutchinson, Kansas. While there, she took us to see the Cosmosphere.

As interested as I am in space exploration, it may come as a surprise that I’d never heard of this place. It turns out the Cosmosphere houses the world’s largest combined exhibition of US and Russian space vehicles anywhere in the world. As I understand, the Cosmosphere grew from a planetarium established on the Kansas State fairgrounds in 1962. It houses artifacts from Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, Russian Vostok and Vokhod space capsules and the Odyssey command module from Apollo 13. It also has the training mock-up for the last Apollo flight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

This mission holds a special place in my heart for several reasons. As I mentioned in my post on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, I was too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around on the moon live, but I did sit glued to the television set watching the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the famous handshake in space between American Thomas P. Stafford and Russian Alexei Leonov.

One element of this mission that fascinated me was that after years of hearing about the famous “space race” between the Americans and the Russians, this was the first time I’d had a chance to really see pictures of a Soyuz space capsule. It was so different from the American craft and it was green! It was the first time I could remember seeing a spaceship that wasn’t white, gray, or silver.

The project would lay the foundation for the working relationship that would ultimately lead to projects like the International Space Station. In fact, to this day, Soyuz space craft are still the workhorses that take people to and from the space station. I recently learned that during training for the project and during the mission itself, all the Americans spoke Russian while all the Soviet cosmonauts spoke English.

In later life, I’ve come to appreciate astronaut Deke Slayton’s story from this mission. Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, immortalized in the movie, The Right Stuff. However, Slayton was grounded and never flew during the Mercury program because of an abnormal heart rhythm. As I understand, his condition is not dissimilar from my own. Slayton went on to become a manager of the senior manager of NASA’s astronaut office. Watching footage from Apollo 11, we see Deke Slayton helping Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins aboard their famous flight. At long last, Slayton was cleared for flight status in the 1970s and the Apollo-Soyuz test project was his chance to go to space.

Soon after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project I enrolled in a model of the month club. The company would send you a new model every month to build. One of the models I remember depicted the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in space. I hurried through the build, excited to make it. I remember globbing on paint and glue. Even my peers at the time said I did a terrible job. The model was ultimately lost to time. After returning home from our travels, I discovered an old kit of that model for sale online. I bought it for old time’s sake and put it together much more carefully. I even took extra care to make sure I matched the colors to what I saw in the Cosmosphere as best as I could.

This model is a keeper. Apollo-Soyuz reminds me that first steps toward cooperation can build dividends in the long run. It reminds me of Deke Slayton and that he would eventually overcome a health problem that grounded him. It reminds me of a visit to a cool museum with my family. The model itself reminds me that you can fail the first time you try something and then be satisfied when you learn from your mistakes and try again.