My Astronaut Days of Yore
This is not a photo of the Gemini command module (CM) that I encountered
at the Glen L. Martin Institute of Technology in the 1970's.
Glenn L. Martin Institute of Technology (now the A. James Clark School
of Engineering) at the University of Maryland.
While surfing around on some NASA websites
today, I suddenly had a recollection of an experience from way back in the 1970's that
probably puts me in an exclusive club of space program enthusiasts.
During my junior high and high school years, class work always seemed to be interfering
with my activities involving building and flying model rockets and airplanes. My grades
duly reflected that fact. Most off time then was filled with transforming balsa trees
into flying objects, with the help of a straight-edge razor blade, some sandpaper, Duco
cement, and butyrate dope. Add in all the accessories from Estes and Cox that my paper
route would afford me, and I managed to gain quite a bit of experience in the art of
If you look at my high school year book, the "Future Plans" inscription under my pathetic
photograph mentions something about attending the University of Maryland (I lived in
Annapolis then) for aerospace engineering. The only problem was that at the time, I could
not factor a square if my life depended on it. In fact, my only knowledge of a square
was in relation to the number of shingles on a roof top. I had not yet managed to make
the critical connection between higher math and engineering. That would come later while
serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Determined to at least be able to truthfully say that I had indeed gone to the University
of Maryland, my good friend and flying buddy, Jerry Flynn, and I would make occasional
trips to the
Glenn L. Martin Institute of Technology*, located on the University
of Maryland campus. In one of the buildings were many laboratories filled with some of
the most magnificently cool pressure chambers, wind tunnels, materials testing contraptions,
machining equipment, jet engines, sections of airplanes wings, and as good luck would
have it on one memorable occasion, an honest-to-god Gemini space capsule (command module
It stopped me in my tracks when I saw it. There, sitting in "launch position," securely
strapped to a wheeled platform, was one of the 2-man Gemini capsules that had actually
flown and been recovered from the ocean (Mercury capsules were 1-man, Geminis were 2-man,
and Apollos were 3-man). Unfortunately, I do not recall which mission it belonged to.
The ablation shield that protected its passengers from being cooked alive had clearly
seen torturous re-entry heating, and burn marks streaked the upper sides of the craft.
According to a placard on the mount, this vehicle was on loan to the school for study
purposes. The University of Maryland is only a few miles from NASA's Goddard Space Flight
in Greenbelt, MD, so there was/is a lot of sharing of facilities between the two institutions.
No doubt that played a role in securing the Gemini space capsule.
One interesting aspect about our visits to the Glen L. Martin building was that rarely
was anyone else present (maybe an occasional janitor). We literally had unfettered access
to everything the aerospace wonderland had to offer. It is a good thing that Jerry and
I were entirely trustworthy and careful to not disturb anything. That some vandal could
have so easily stolen valuable artifacts or sabotaged important research work is frightening
in retrospect. Hopefully, security is much tighter today. We freely toured the facilities,
peeking into test chambers, looking over scribbled notes and drawings, and thumbing through
Now, even though we were respectful of the facilities, we absolutely could not resist
the beckoning, siren call of the open door on that Gemini space capsule. With the greatest
of care, Jerry and I each squeezed our way into the two seats of the capsule (I did get
dibs on the left seat, where the commander sat). In utter disbelief of the moment fate
had provided us, there we were, "sitting" feet skyward in the very vehicle that had a
decade ago sustained the lives of our heroic astronauts. That we were unworthy of occupying
those seats did not occur to us at the time (attribute it to youthful ignorance). We
might have even called a countdown and made corny blastoff noises, but I like to think
not. At 17 years old, we might have done just about anything. One thing we did not dare
do was to shut the capsule door whilst seated inside. I could just imagine the newspaper
headlines about some professor discovering the suffocated bodies of two morons in a Gemini
space capsule on Monday morning.
So there you have it, that experience inducted my friend Jerry and me into that very
small club of lucky people who have ever actually sat inside any type of space vehicle
that had actually been in orbit around the Earth. My only remaining hope now is that
this mea culpa is protected by a statute of limitations for such acts that would prevent
any University of Maryland security agent from knocking on my door with an arrest warrant.
* Now the A. James Clark School of Engineering – he must have
donated big $$$ to warrant the name change.
Posted June 2, 2006