Superheroes are portrayed in comics and movies as muscular, athletic and larger than life. So I expected to see such a figure on the sunny June 1991 day when I met a real superhero at the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Fla.
Instead, 5-foot-8-inch me was eye to eye with Jim Irwin, one of 12 men who walked on the moon.
I knew that three Husker football-size people wouldn’t fit in an Apollo space capsule or lunar lander, but a part of me believed people with oversized accomplishments should be oversized.
Irwin, an Apollo 15 crew member in late summer 1971, spoke at a memorial service that was part of the 1991 National Federation of Press Women Conference.
We were at the then-new Space Mirror Memorial, a huge square made of polished black granite panels that reflect the sky. Engraved on a few panels were names of people who died in space-related activities, including the Apollo 1 crew lost in a Jan. 27, 1967, training fire and Challenger crew who perished in a Jan. 28, 1986, launch explosion.
The first moon landing mission, Apollo 11, was 50 years ago this week.
It’s impossible to accurately describe that time to people born after 1969 or too young then to have 50-years-ago memories now. Most Americans and millions of other people around our troubled world shared a common interest while watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin park the lunar lander and step onto the moon.
The impossible was possible.
In a Smithsonian magazine excerpt from his new book “ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon,” Charles Fishman wrote that when President Kennedy decided in 1961 that the United States would put men on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had no rockets to launch astronauts that far, no computer portable enough to guide spaceships to the moon or its surface, no spacesuits and no tracking stations to communicate with a crew en route.
I was age 13 on Apollo 11 launch day, July 16, 1969, and knew little about what was involved in going to the moon. Older me knows the “we’ve never done this before” mission’s success required knowledge and skills contributed by thousands of people, most working behind the scenes.
Even though earlier Apollo flights tested the new spacecrafts, equipment and procedures, many things could have gone wrong during the Apollo 11 mission: a missed design or manufacturing flaw, broken part, miscommunication, miscalculation of flight pattern or re-entry angle and so on.
Over the next 3½ years, there were five more successful moon landings and the near-fatal Apollo 13 mission, a reminder to everyone that going to the moon is extremely difficult and dangerous.
When I look at the moon, I’m amazed to know that American footprints are up there.
That includes Irwin’s footprints — and tire tracks. While on the moon July 30-Aug. 2, 1971, during their Apollo 15 mission, he and David Scott were the first astronauts to drive a lunar rover.
The 12 moon walkers signed many things during the years. So I know Irwin’s autograph, along with “Apollo 15” and his drawing of a quarter moon, on a framed piece of the 1991 NFPW memorial service program is priceless only to me.
The writing and artwork are below the John Gillespie Magee Jr. poem “High Flight.” After retiring in 1972, Irwin created the High Flight Foundation, an inter-denominational religious organization.
Irwin died of a heart attack on Aug. 8, 1991, less than two months after he told NFPW members that his moon mission enhanced his faith in a higher power. The poem’s last line clearly had deep meaning to the man who once stood on the moon: (I) put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Lori Potter is a Hub staff writer.