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'Fresh Air' Commemorates The 50th Anniversary Of Apollo 11's Moon Landing
We listen to archival interviews with Michael Collins, of Apollo 11; Alan Shepard, the first American in space; Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield; and Chuck Yeager, who first broke the sound barrier.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of man's first steps on the moon, courtesy of the NASA Apollo 11 mission, which remains the most astounding and most-viewed moment in the history of television. Today FRESH AIR is noting that anniversary by listening to interviews with astronauts and test pilots. During this hour, we'll speak with pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager, one of this century's astronauts, Chris Hadfield, and the first American in space, Alan Shepard. And we'll start with one of the astronauts from that Apollo 11 moon mission 50 years ago, Michael Collins.
While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, Michael Collins was orbiting in the Apollo 11 command capsule, waiting to take Armstrong and Aldrin back to Earth. Three years before that, Collins piloted Gemini 10 and walked in space, attached to his spacecraft only by a high-tech umbilical cord. Michael Collins wrote an autobiography, then wrote a book called "Liftoff" about the U.S. space program. That's when Terry Gross spoke with Michael Collins in 1988. She asked him about the very start of the Apollo 11 moon mission back in July 1969.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When you were strapped down in July of 1969 waiting to head for the moon, and you heard the countdown, what were you thinking about when you heard the countdown?
MICHAEL COLLINS: I don't like countdowns. I don't like - I think you're nervous enough without someone yelling in your ear. Ten, nine, eight, seven - it's totally unnecessary as far as the crew's concerned to tell them every last second preceding. I mean, we know. We have a clock right there in front of us, so we know pretty much when the thing is going to go. But it's a small point that - either way they want to do it is fine with me.
GROSS: When you were heading toward the moon, it was Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who were going to walk on the moon, and you were going to be in the command capsule circling the moon as they did their walk. Now, you confess in your new book that your big fear when you were alone in the command capsule was that you wouldn't be able to make contact with the other astronauts, and you'd have to leave without them.
COLLINS: Well, that's certainly true. I think a trip to the moon and back is a long and fragile chain of events. I think of it almost as a daisy chain. Any one link in that chain can break the entire sequence. But of all the links, the one that clearly, to me, was the most complicated and the most hazardous was the rendezvous, bringing them back up from the surface of the moon and having us meet at the proper time and place and join and go back home together.
GROSS: How did you know that it was going to work - that you were going to be able to meet up and return together? I mean...
COLLINS: Well, I...
GROSS: When was that moment...
COLLINS: I did not know.
GROSS: ...When you knew, this is it, we've made it? We've made it.
COLLINS: Well, I did not know. I was worried about it. It's - the rendezvous process is a relatively straightforward one provided everything goes exactly right. But if, for example, they don't take off from the moon on time, if they're late by a few seconds or a minute, then all kinds of bad things start happening, and you have to change your entire strategy for bringing the two vehicles together. Likewise, if their gyros, let's say - their gyroscopes were tilted a little bit, and they went up into some kind of a lopsided orbit, I might be able to go get them, and I might not. I had some extra fuel onboard, but it's very costly of fuel to change your orbit much, especially to change the direction of your orbit. And so there were just a lot of unknowns in my mind, at least.
And therefore, I was (laughter) pleased beyond measure to see them coming, like, right down the center line of the highway below me. I could see that the - from the - from my computer and from the information coming from their radar that things were going well. And as they got closer and closer, I started feeling better and better and more and more confident that we were going to carry the whole thing off.
GROSS: You wrote that when they returned, you wanted to give Buzz a big smooch on the forehead, and then you were too embarrassed, so you just shook his hand (laughter).
COLLINS: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So did you want to hear all about it when they got back in?
COLLINS: Yes. We had a lot of things to talk over but not much time because then that's a really busy period there. You have to transfer all their equipment back into the command module, get rid of old Eagle, come swinging around the moon. And at exactly the right time, you have to ignite your rocket motor to break the bond of lunar gravity and to establish yourself on a trajectory that's going to come slicing into the Earth's atmosphere a couple of days later - slicing into the atmosphere at exactly the right angle.
GROSS: It was interesting to me - when you came back down to Earth and you landed in the water...
GROSS: The capsule was upside-down...
COLLINS: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: ...For a while. And you had to be careful that you didn't get sick and throw up because what would the dangers have been if one of you had gotten sick in the suit you were wearing?
COLLINS: Well, they were worried about our bringing germs back from the moon, and we were immediately put into a quarantine. First, we were in a small container aboard the aircraft carrier, and then that container was flown by airplane back to Houston. We were put into a quarantine laboratory there. So the point was whatever germs we brought with us - and we, in fact, brought nothing strange from the moon. But had we brought any germs with us, it was very important that we keep those germs locked up inside that suit with us so that if we'd had to, you know, unzip the suit and get ill, the possibility existed we might contaminate our home planet here.
GROSS: Boy, it would really be a hypochondriac's delight to come back from (laughter) a moon voyage and then imagine yourself coming down with disease no Earth person has ever even, you know, heard of yet (laughter).
COLLINS: Well, we thought the chances of that were extraordinarily remote. Neil used to try to explain it by saying if you multiply a very, very small number - that is the chances of our bringing any microbes back - against a gigantically large number - and that is the consequence of infecting the planet - what do you get? I don't know. You get a finite entity that's big enough to worry about, I guess.
GROSS: I want to ask you about another really momentous space accomplishment in your life. And that was in July of 1966 when you were, I think, the first person in space to leave the vehicle and make contact with another space vehicle. Is that right?
COLLINS: Yes. That was a spacewalk leaving Gemini - Gemini number 10 and floating over to an Agena, another unmanned vehicle that had been left in orbit and retrieving from that Agena an experiment package and then bringing it back to the Gemini. And that was a little strange and a little bit different. And that's not something that you can quite choreograph like you can other parts of space. You just sort of have to see how it goes as it goes.
And I had a few problems. I was trailing this umbilical cord, and there was - there were loose pieces of metal flapping off the end of the Agena. And I was afraid that the cord was going to get entangled with the Agena, and then I was going to get wound up in a horrible mess, a ball connecting these two spacecraft. And poor old John Young, who was back in the Gemini, would have no choice but to snip my umbilical cord and leave me up there. And so it was a little tense for a while.
GROSS: When you were doing your spacewalk, what could you actually see?
COLLINS: Oh, you can see wonderfully well. You have the whole world at your feet. Come roaring in over the Pacific Ocean, you can see in one glance all the way from Alaska to Baja, Calif. You can go across the United States in something like six minutes. And if you missed something, not to worry - you'll be back again in another 90 minutes and get a second look at it. This is true when you're inside the spacecraft, peering out a small porthole. It's even more true when you're outside and you - you've got this wide-angle view of the whole world below you.
BIANCULLI: Michael Collins speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. Fifty years ago tomorrow, he piloted the Apollo 11 command capsule as Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the moon. After a break, we'll hear another of Terry's interviews, this one with the first American in space, Alan Shepard. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest on today's show about space exploration is Alan Shepard, the first American in space. In 1961, Alan Shepard rode the Mercury space capsule to an altitude of 115 miles. Ten years later, after the nearly disastrous flight of Apollo 13 aborted its mission and barely got its astronauts home, Shepard commanded the next mission to the moon, Apollo 14.
In between those two space flights, Shepard was grounded for medical reasons but helped direct the space program as chief of NASA's astronaut office. Twenty-Five years ago when Terry Gross interviewed Alan Shepard about his then-new book called "Moon Shot," she asked him about his first spaceflight back in 1961. That trip was so brief he didn't have much time to experiment with weightlessness.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ALAN SHEPARD: My flight was only 16 minutes. We did have about 5 1/2 minutes of weightlessness. And the thing which we tried to cram into that 5 1/2 minutes had to do primarily with my ability to actually control the spacecraft, actually fly it like an airplane because we knew that so much of the early days of space depended upon the abilities of a pilot not only under primary conditions with no casualties, no failures but also to practice for situations where the pilot would have to take over in order to bring it back in safely. So most of the 5 1/2 minutes were devoted to my actually controlling the spacecraft and reporting how I was doing and that sort of thing.
GROSS: How were you doing?
SHEPARD: I did great, of course I would.
GROSS: I mean, how did it feel to control the spacecraft while being weightless?
SHEPARD: Well, it was a tremendous exhilaration, of course, of being up there in the first place - also the second place, that everything in fact - that everything was going well and then lastly, the fact that I flew it exactly as I was supposed to fly it.
GROSS: Was it what you'd most wanted - to be that first American in space?
SHEPARD: Oh, I think all of us wanted that. We were a very highly competitive group to start with. We were all test pilots. We knew that only one of the seven was going to get to go first. And you know, everybody wanted to go.
GROSS: During a launch pad test of Apollo 1, there was a fire, and three astronauts were killed - Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. What happened?
SHEPARD: Well, I think - let me generalize first. And I think what the situation was at that time was that we had flown successful Mercury missions. We had flown successful Gemini missions. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment, but there was also perhaps a little false sense of security, maybe a little bit too much pride, maybe a little bit overconfidence, if you will and desire obviously to get on with the moon landing to try to meet President Kennedy's schedule.
And we talk about this in the book in pointing out the fact that Grissom, who was designated to be the commander of that flight, was not at all pleased with some of the things he found in the manufacturing and the testing processes. And even though he protested rather strenuously, somehow the things that needed to be fixed didn't get fixed in time. And of course it is a tragedy in fact that Gus was killed in the fire along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
But on the other hand, at this stage in the game - although obviously it's traumatic to lose your buddies - all of a sudden, the NASA people and the aerospace contractor people said, hey, you know, this really - this thing really wasn't put together as well as it could have been. Maybe we were in too much of a hurry. There was some redesign. There was a hiatus trying to find out exactly what had happened. And with this redesign, with this reassessment, we created a spacecraft that was obviously so much better than the Apollo 1 spacecraft had been. Again, it was really, as a result of that fire, that all of a sudden, the organization said, yeah, folks, we really aren't doing as well as we could have been. And again, that resulted in a really fine program all in all.
GROSS: You write in your book that you felt you couldn't get too emotional about it and that you had to take the attitude - well, that's part of the business. Did you have to take that attitude for the benefit of the other men who were waiting to be launched?
SHEPARD: I think that all of us in those days, basically being test pilots, felt that was the way things go in our business. I mean, it wasn't the first of our friends that had been killed. A lot of contemporaries over the years of test flying had been lost, killed for one reason or another. So it wasn't the first time that had happened within our fraternity of test pilots. And as I say, it was emotional, but it's one of those things - well, you've got to find out what happened, correct it, and let's going on with the job, folks.
GROSS: You were grounded for several years because of an inner-ear problem. And then you were able to be cured through a surgical process that surprised everybody by working and working very well. So then you got to go to the moon, which you'd long wanted to do. Now, before you landed on the moon, you lost your radar, and mission control was thinking you should abort. But you didn't. Why didn't you want to abort?
SHEPARD: You got to be kidding. I mean, after going 230,000 miles, you're going to worry about a little radar. Come on (laughter).
GROSS: What, a little radar (laughter)? I mean, what was it like for you to maneuver the ship without radar? What was blinded without radar?
SHEPARD: Well, actually, let me just back up a little bit. We had a problem earlier on the way out where we couldn't dock with the lunar module. That was traumatic. We finally got that resolved. And off we went with permission to land. We started down. Well, we didn't actually start down, but we ran the computer down open loop, and it refused to go down because there was a bad switch. And so that was point number two. Either one of those would have ruined the mission.
So we were pretty objectively oriented when we came to the point where during the descent, one is not looking at the moon. You're looking away from the surface. And in order to be allowed to continue below around 13,000 feet or so, one has to have an update from landing radar. We were down around 20,000, somewhere along in there, and we were not getting updated on the radar. And we were being told from the ground that the radar wasn't working. We said, thank you very much. We understand the radar's not working. We can tell that. And they reminded us that if we didn't have landing radar in by 13,000 feet - we said, yeah, we remember all that stuff. And it was getting pretty tense and pretty close.
Finally some bright, young guy in the control center said, hey, this landing raider is working, but it's locked on infinity. Have them recycle. Pull the circuit breaker and see what happens. So we pulled the circuit breaker, and sure enough, the landing radar came in with a matter of, you know, maybe a half a minute or so to spare. We go on down and land. And we're shutting off the switches, and my co-pilot, Ed Mitchell, said to me, Alan, what were you going to do if the landing radar was not in at 13,000 feet? And I said, Ed, you will never know.
GROSS: Well, what did you plan on doing?
SHEPARD: I think I would have gone down at least to the point where we could have pitched over and taken a look at the surface because I had great faith in our ability to land from almost any off-nominal case. We'd practiced that in a simulator for hours and hours and hours. And so I had a feeling that if I could just see it and realize I wasn't running into any mountains or anything, that I probably would have gone down.
GROSS: What surprised you most about how the surface of the moon looked?
SHEPARD: I don't think we had any surprises about the actual surface of the moon, about the barrenness. We had looked at pictures of our landing site taken by previous missions. We had worked with the models that were made from those pictures. We knew the general configuration of where the craters were supposed to be. We knew the objective of our - of Cone Crater, which was the one we climbed up the side of to get rock samples. There weren't any surprises there.
The surprise I had was standing on the surface after we'd been there for a few minutes, having a chance to rest a little bit and looking up at the Earth for the first time. Now, you have to look up because that's where it is. And the sky is totally black. And here you have a planet which is four times the size of the moon as we look at it from the Earth. And you also have color. You have the blue oceans and the brown land masses, the brown continents. And you can see ice on the ice caps on the north pole and so on and just an absolute incredible view.
And then you say, hey, that looks a little small to me. It looks like it does have limits. It's a little fragile. You know, down here, we think it's infinite. We don't worry about resources. Up there, you're saying, gosh, you know, it's a shame those folks down there can't get along together and think about trying to conserve, to save what limited resources they have. And it was just very, very emotional. I actually shed a couple of tears looking up at the Earth and having those feelings.
GROSS: Alan Shepard, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHEPARD: My pleasure, Terry
BIANCULLI: Alan Shepard speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. He died in 1998 at age 74.
After a break, we'll hear from two pilots whose exploits respectively predated and post-dated the Apollo missions, test pilot Chuck Yeager and 21st-century astronaut Chris Hadfield. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE IS THE PLACE")
SUN RA: (Singing) Space is the place. Space is the place. Space is the place. Yeah, space is the place. Outer space is...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross continuing today's salute to space exploration. Fifty years ago tomorrow, the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed the first man on the moon. Our next interview is with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who spent more than a total of six months in space. While floating weightless in outer space in the International Space Station in 2013, Hadfield recorded a version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." It was turned into a video that at this point in 2019 has over 43 million hits on YouTube.
The same year he recorded that viral video from space in 2013 Hadfield published a memoir and retired from the Canadian space program. That's also when he was interviewed by Terry Gross. First, let's hear some of Hadfield's version of "Space Oddity."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")
CHRIS HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground Control to Major Tom. Ground Control to Major Tom. Lock your Soyuz hatch, and put your helmet on. Ground Control to Major Tom.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Commander Hadfield, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how many times were you actually out in space, out of the capsule or out of the space station?
HADFIELD: Well, I've been so lucky to have done two spacewalks. If you looked at your wristwatch, I was outside about 15 hours, which is about 10 times around the world.
GROSS: Now, during those 15 hours when you were doing spacewalks, was there always a technical reason to be out there? Was it always part of the mission? Or was it ever just...
HADFIELD: Oh, yeah, we don't go out...
GROSS: You don't go out just to, like...
HADFIELD: We don't go out recreationally (laughter).
GROSS: No, like, this is so cool; I'm just going to go outside and enjoy it.
HADFIELD: It's a really big deal to do a spacewalk. It's much riskier than staying indoors. It's complex. It uses up a lot of the precious resources onboard - uses up oxygen, uses up carbon dioxide scrubbers.
You know, we only go out when we absolutely have to, whether it's to build something that takes the ingenuity and dexterity of a person or if it's to fix something, if you had an emergency and you needed to fix something that broke. And those are the only reasons we'd go outside. And we train for it in a detail you just wouldn't believe to make it go right.
GROSS: Now, you write in your book that when you did a spacewalk, my No. 1 concern was to avoid floating off into space, which is a pretty major (laughter) concern.
HADFIELD: Seems like a good idea, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, so how are you tethered to - what was it? - the space station that you were tethered to?
HADFIELD: When I did my spacewalks, it was during space station construction. So the shuttle was docked to the fledgling ISS at the time. So you're either clipped to the shuttle or to the space station somewhere. There's little handrails and loops and things you can attach to. And you go from one to the other like a high-building construction worker or something. So you're always tied off so that if your hand did slip, you started drifting off into space - I mean, there's nobody could come rescue you, so you have a tether. And it reels out to about - to 50 or 60 feet long if it had to.
But you also wear a jetpack. Just in case that tether were to fail, you could pull down a handle on your right side. A little joystick pops out in front of you. You grab it. You turn it on, and then you can fly yourself with - it's just a simple system of a nitrogen tank and little thrusters, but you could fly yourself over, then grab back onto the mothership.
GROSS: One of the exercises that you basically put yourself through in preparing to be an astronaut is what you describe as, what's the next thing that will kill me 'cause there are so many things that can go wrong and be life threatening in space. Give us a sense of what that what's-the-next-thing-that-will-kill-me training process is like.
HADFIELD: Terry, I found it to be so helpful in my regular life. But of course as an astronaut, especially during a launch, half of the risk of a six-month flight is in the first nine minutes. So as a crew, how do you stay focused? And how do you not get paralyzed by the fear of it?
And the way we do it is to break down, what are the risks? And a nice way to keep reminding yourself is, what's the next thing that's going to kill me? And it might be five seconds away. It might be an inadvertent engine shutdown, or it might be staging of the solid rockets coming off. Or it might be, you know, some transition or some key next thing. We've already, say, had one computer fail, and we've had one hydraulic system fail. So if these three things fail, now we're - you know, we need to react right away, or we're done.
So we dig into it so deeply. And we look at - OK, so this might kill us. This is something that would normally panic us. Let's get ready. Let's think about it. And we go into every excruciating detail of why that might affect what we're doing and have a plan and be comfortable with it and practice it.
GROSS: And you say in order to make this work, you have to neutralize fear.
HADFIELD: Yeah, but, I mean, it's not like astronauts are braver than other people. We're just, you know, meticulously prepared. We dissect what it is that is going to scare us and what it is that is a threat to us, and then we practice over and over again so that the natural irrational fear is neutralized and your first reaction is not just to scream and flee with your hands waving over your head but in fact to go, hey, we thought about this. And I know that this is dangerous, but there are six things that I could do right now, all of which will help make things better. And it's worth remembering, too, there's no problem so bad that you can't make it worse (laughter) also. So you have to practice...
GROSS: Thank you (laughter).
HADFIELD: ...And learn, what's the right thing to do? But given that, it actually gives you a really great comfort. It's counterintuitive, you know, to visualize disaster. But by visualizing disaster, that's what keeps us alive.
GROSS: You had to do some technical work in space. What are some of the problems of working in a weightless, gravityless atmosphere?
HADFIELD: It's really non-intuitive. But having grown up and adapted and expected everything to behave like it does on Earth - you know, if you drop your hammer, it falls to the floor. If you let go of a little, tiny washer, it doesn't float up and back behind your ear. Something like a fuse, you know, just in a fuse box - you know how it works on Earth. There's a little too much electricity. We don't want to burn up the house. So this little, tiny fuse - there's a little skinny bit of metal in the middle. And it gets hot and melts. And then it falls away, and it breaks the electrical circuit, right - nice, simple earthbound design.
Well, if you have a fuse like that in space, of course, the little fuse will get hot and melt, but it won't drop away because there's no gravity. So the current will continue to flow through the fuse until something else gets hot. So something as simple as a fuse or a fan on a projector or all kinds of stuff where you're counting on convection and gravity - they all have to be rethought. And it catches you unawares all the time.
Trying to do up my shoe to go running on the treadmill - you know, it's so easy on Earth. You bend over, do up your shoe. But if you think about it, when you're doing up your running shoe, you are using both hands and one foot. And so there's nothing to hold you in place anymore. You always sit down or lean on something on Earth.
But in space, suddenly you're this uncontrolled, 180-pound mass bouncing off everything else because you're just - you've got no free hands anymore, and you're just trying to do up your shoes. So something as esoteric as designing cooling systems for standard equipment or something as prosaic as just doing up your shoes - you have to rethink it all in order to not be clumsy but also to be successful, like, when you go to a new environment like that.
GROSS: Would you describe what it's like to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere?
HADFIELD: It's like riding inside a blast furnace. You come into the upper atmosphere, and it gets to 3,000 degrees on the outside of the ship. You can see the orange and yellow flames licking around your vehicle. You can hear the metal responding to the heat. In the Soyuz, the little Russian capsule, you can actually hear the banging of the big shield - the big heat shield on the bottom as it slowly erodes away from the heat and pieces of it fly off like sparks across your window. And it's an interesting thing to ride through.
HADFIELD: You know, it's - it makes you think, riding as this little bubble inside a blast furnace. The Soyuz - it's a very simple, rugged, tough little design, and it's more like riding a meteorite. And if you do it - everything perfectly, you come in with a lot of vibration and about four times your weight with 4G. So after being weightless for half a year, that's - it's really unfair to...
HADFIELD: ...Have to get squished like that. And if it goes a little bit wrong, it reverts to a mode where you don't fly it at all. It's just ballistic. And then you pull about 8G or 9G. And then the parachute opens very violently. But then you're just coming down under a parachute, but you're bracing yourself for that last second, which is impact with the world. And, you know, the Soyuz craft weighs tons, and you're lying on the floor of it on your back. But the Russians do tell you, remember; before you land, stop talking so you don't bite your tongue off.
GROSS: Oh, God.
HADFIELD: That's how violent the landing's going to be. And it hits the ground. There's little retrorockets that fire, and they cushion it. But it still hits the ground like a car crash. And we land in - on the prairies of Kazakhstan, and so it's always windy. So you don't just come straight down and go plunk. You hit the ground, and then you tumble end over end in this little thing. And finally it rolls to a stop.
GROSS: You know, an interesting thing about talking with you and reading your book - like, one of the extra qualifications that you brought to your work as an astronaut is your ability to be a reporter, to describe so well what it is you've seen and then send us back reports...
GROSS: ...You know, for those of us who aren't experts, send us back...
HADFIELD: Space correspondent, yeah.
GROSS: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: No, it's a wonderful thing. So thank you for all that. I wish you all the best. And thanks for doing this interview.
HADFIELD: Thanks very much, Terry. It's been tremendous fun, the whole thing. It's a wonderful adventure, and I count myself so lucky to have been a part of it.
BIANCULLI: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His memoir was titled "An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth."
After a break - one last interview on our FRESH AIR in space show with test pilot Chuck Yeager, whose daring flights blazed the early trail in our country's efforts in the race to land a man on the moon. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOVAK PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "SYMPHONY NO 9, OP 95, B 178, 'FROM THE NEW WORLD'")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We'll complete today's salute to space exploration with an interview from 1988 with General Chuck Yeager. Author Tom Wolfe in his book "The Right Stuff" called him the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff. Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II. After surviving many dogfights, he took another risky job testing high-performance aircraft and rapidly earned the reputation as America's top test pilot. He was the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. He made that historic flight on October 14, 1947 in an X-1 aircraft, which he rode 40,000 feet high traveling over 660 miles an hour.
Let's start with a clip from the movie "The Right Stuff," based on Tom Wolfe's bestseller. Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RIGHT STUFF")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey there, Yeager.
SAM SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Sir.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We were just talking to Slick here about the sound barrier.
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Is that right?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And we feel that the X-1 is ready to have a go at it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We think the X-1's got the answer to go beyond Mach 1.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If there is any beyond. So what do you think, kid?
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Well, I'll tell you what. Half these engineers have never been off the ground, you know? I mean, they're liable to tell you that the sound barrier's a brick wall in the sky that'll rip your ears off if you try to go through it. If you ask me, I don't believe the damn thing even exists.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Waitress, a drink for Mr. Yeager here.
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) No, thanks. I've got one.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So do you think you want to have a go at it?
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I might.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But since, as you say, this sound barrier doesn't really exist, how much...
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) How much you got? I'm just joking. The Air Force is paying me already. Ain't that right, Sir?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, sure, Yeager. But...
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) So when do we go?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, how about tomorrow morning?
SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I'll be there.
BIANCULLI: That was Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in the film "The Right Stuff." Terry Gross spoke with Chuck Yeager in 1988. She asked him about breaking the sound barrier and about the plane he flew to do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: The plane that you broke the sound barrier in, the X-1, had a nose cone that was designed like a bullet. How come?
CHUCK YEAGER: Yeah, because they knew that bullets flew faster than sound, and the ogive, or shape of the fuselage, of the X-1 was shaped like a .50 caliber bullet. And that's just common sense because like I say, we were flying in the area of unknowns.
GROSS: Was it comfortable where you'd have to sit in the...
YEAGER: Well, no. It was very uncomfortable. And the reason was we had no source of power in the X-1. We used compressed nitrogen gas to do all the work, like raise and lower the gear and pressurize the liquid oxygen tanks, which incidentally - they had no seat in the X-1. You sat with your back against the bulkhead which contained the liquid oxygen. And the temperature of the liquid oxygen was 290 degrees below zero. And it was one of the coldest cockpits I've ever been in in my life.
And you sat on the floor. And your knees were higher than your rear end so you could pull high Gs without blacking out. And you couldn't see too well out of it. But you've got to remember it was a research airplane, and it was built in 1944.
GROSS: Well, when you were flying it, what indications would you have? What kind of meters would tell you...
GROSS: ...When you had actually broken the sound barrier?
YEAGER: Well, I had an altimeter that told me how high I was. I had an indicated airspeed, and that told me how fast I was going through the air in miles per hour. But the one thing that we relied on was a Mach meter that told us what our percentage was in relationship to the speed of sound. For instance, Mach 1 is the speed of sound at the altitude you're flying. And if you're going point 0.9 Mach, that's 90% of the speed of sound.
And the day that I actually broke Mach 1, I sat there and watched that Mach meter build up, you know, since we'd been up to about 94 - 0.94 or 0.95 Mach number on the previous flight. And I watched it build up. And when it got up to about 0.96 - and then the buffeting was quite heavy on the airplane. It was shaking pretty bad. But then at that point, the Mach meter went off the scale. And if I extrapolated, you know, it would be about 1.06, but the Mach meter only went to 1.0.
But when it did, all the buffeting smoothed out, which was an indication that we had, you know, supersonic flow over the whole airplane, meaning that it was flying at supersonic speeds. And when this happened, we made the first sonic boom there at Edwards. And that's about the way it happened.
GROSS: Could you hear the sonic boom...
GROSS: ...From the plane?
YEAGER: No, you're in the airplane, which is - in a pressurized cockpit. And of course you've got a helmet on, an oxygen mask. And no, you're making the shockwave. It's on your airplane. And it - you don't hear a shockwave or sonic boom.
GROSS: When you realized that you'd broken the speed of sound, that your mission was accomplished, did you stay up in the air a while and just have a good time and celebrate?
YEAGER: I didn't have - no, you can't stay up there because see; a rocket, you burn out all of your fuel. It don't know how to last 2 1/2 minutes. And then you're gliding down to make a deadstick landing on Rogers Dry Lake out there at Edwards - or then Muroc air base. But I - sure I was elated. I did a couple rolls. And when I got down, since I was pretty well beat up from a horseback riding accident a couple of days before, I was kind of bushed. And also, you're sitting in that cold airplane. You really get cold soaked. And it's good to get out into the warm sun.
And, you know - and also, that program was classified, so it's not exactly as the film "The Right Stuff" depicts it. But we knew it was classified, and just a couple - three of us had a little party that night - I mean, big party if you want to call it that.
GROSS: What were the reasons for classifying it? Why was it so top secret?
YEAGER: Because of what we found out. And the reason was, if you recall, once we got into the region of the speed of sound, we lost our elevator effectiveness. Now, Terry, this may get a little technical, but all airplanes - light airplanes - if you looked at them, they have a horizontal stabilizer or a tail. And on the trailing edge of that horizontal stabilizer in the elevators are flippers. And when you move the control stick back, that elevator goes up. And that's what controls the altitude of your airplane. It makes the nose go up or go down.
And when we got into - up to about 0.93 Mach number or 93% of the speed of sound, we lost the effectiveness of that elevator on the X-1. And we couldn't control our airplane. But we had built the capability into the X-1 of moving the whole horizontal stabilizer, or a tail plane. And we found out that lo and behold, we could control the X-1 through Mach 1 with that horizontal stabilizer.
Now, it was interesting to me. When that happened, we found that out. Then of course we started building flying tails on our airplanes that - our combat airplanes that were built three or four years later. And it was amusing to me to find out that the British and the French and the Soviet Union didn't find out that little trick for five years. That was the reason it was classified and rightly so.
BIANCULLI: Chuck Yeager speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY EMMANUEL'S "BLUE MOON")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1988 interview with General Chuck Yeager. As a test pilot, he broke the sound barrier, set speed records for flying and flew some extremely dangerous test missions.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, this is a very exciting time when you were flying these test missions. You had a few close calls, though, when you were flying the X-1 and the X-1A. There was one time - I think it was in the X-1A, which was the follow-up plane to the X-1 - where you had gotten too high and...
YEAGER: Well, too fast, Terry. The X-1A only made four flights in it. But on that particular flight, I'm setting at some, you know, 80,000 feet, going at 2.5 Mach number or at 2 1/2 times the speed of sound or around 1,600 miles an hour. And we found out in that - during that flight that the tail was not big enough on the X-1 to stabilize it. Like, the vertical stabilizer and horizontal stabilizer didn't keep the airplane going straight ahead when we got out beyond 2.3 Mach number. And the airplane just swapped ends and went through some wild gyrations.
And back in those days, we didn't have ejection seats, so - and you were pretty well locked into the airplane and couldn't get out. So you have to ride it down. And yes, I was a little apprehensive about where I was going to hit in the High Sierra's out there, but fortunately I stayed with the airplane and had enough instinct to recover from an inverted spin and then pop it out of the normal spin and find Rogers Dry Lake and come back and land. And I tell you, it was a wild ride. But the way I look at it, you either do or you don't. And you know, if you don't, you live happily ever after, so...
GROSS: Well, you know, you describe what it's like to see the ground coming up at you at a thousand feet per second. That's a pretty dramatic image. How do you react? I mean, how can you think clearly...
YEAGER: Well, you don't...
GROSS: ...Under those circumstances when you're just, like, seconds away from...
GROSS: ...Actually meeting the Earth?
YEAGER: That's - you don't think. As I mentioned here a few minutes back in the broadcast, you really don't think about the outcome of anything. You concentrate on survival at the time. And you do everything you can to save your tail. And that's what I was doing - trying to fight the airplane to recover it from the spins. And my pressure suit was inflated. I was pretty well beat-up because of high-G loads and rattling around an airplane and not - I didn't pay any attention to the ground 'cause, you know, nothing to do about hitting it anyway.
GROSS: Now, you say that some pilots end up crashing because they take too long to decide whether to jump or land when the plane has gotten out of control.
YEAGER: Well, accidents in aircraft - you know, there's human error involved in accidents about 75% of the time. And this could be pilot error or maintenance error or design or something. It's - anyway, human element enters into it. And in the early days when we started flying jet aircraft and we put ejection seats in them, then when a pilot gets himself - he always tries to save an airplane. And that was one of the transitions - when we first put ejection seats in our fighters, that gave us the capability of saving the pilot, but you lost the airplane.
Now, one thing that a pilot hates to do is to leave an airplane because he tries to save it. And the way you save a crippled airplane is by deadsticking it or a flameout landing, meaning try to get the airplane on a road or an airplane when you haven't got any power. In order to do this, you have to be very good, number one. And number two, you've got to have a very good surface to land it on. And most pilots will try to get the airplane down on a runway. But since they don't have any power, they may screw up their pattern or miscalculate on their pattern, then at the last minute see, well, I can't possibly get this airplane down safely. I'll eject. But by then, they're too low for their egress equipment to work or the parachute or the ejection seat. So you lose your pilot and your airplane.
So we went through a period of time back in the '50s when we had to really discipline pilots. A, if you lose your engine on this airplane, you eject, period, and don't fool around with trying to get it down in a deadstick landing.
GROSS: You trained a lot of men who became astronauts. Do you regret that you missed the period where you could have become an astronaut yourself and gone off into space?
YEAGER: Well, I didn't miss the period. Actually, I was primed for the space program which started in 1959. The only problem was in order to apply for the space program or the first Mercury astronauts, you had to have a degree. And I didn't. I had a high school education, so I wasn't qualified, and I didn't apply. Had I been qualified, I probably would have applied. But I didn't because I wasn't. And - but I was perfectly happy with doing the research flying that I'd been doing in the X-1, the X-1A and the other aircraft there at Edwards.
Yeah, it'd be fun to fly an airplane like the shuttle. I don't - I wouldn't particularly care about riding in a capsule like the Mercury, Gemini or the Apollo capsule back in the old days, but the shuttle - that's a different story. It'd be fun to fly. But on the other hand, it'd be a waste of money to train me.
YEAGER: Well, I'm too old.
GROSS: Oh, I see, OK.
YEAGER: You couldn't get a lot of longevity out of me, see?
GROSS: I have one quick question for you.
GROSS: I know I've been woken up several times in the middle of the night, especially when I was a child, by sonic booms. And I was wondering if that ever happened to you.
YEAGER: No, I - noises don't scare me. Yes, I suppose I'm hardened to it. And one thing - very few people hear sonic booms today because there are specified quarters for flying faster than speed of sound in, and you don't hear them too often. So...
GROSS: No wonder I only remember it from childhood (laughter).
YEAGER: That's right.
GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for talking with us.
YEAGER: OK, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Chuck Yeager speaking to Terry Gross in 1988.
That interview concludes our salute to space exploration and pilots and astronauts with what Tom Wolfe called "The Right Stuff." Tomorrow night marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon as part of NASA's Apollo 11 mission. Wherever you are tomorrow night, take a moment to look up and remember and wonder.
Monday on the show, our guest will be Dr. Haider Warraich, cardiologist and author of the new book "State Of The Heart." He'll talk about the recent breakthroughs in ways to prevent and treat heart failure, and he'll also tell us how medicine's understanding of healthy blood pressure and good cholesterol is still evolving. Hope you can join us.
For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISHED ON THE MOON")
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I wished on the moon for something I never knew, wished on the moon for more than I ever knew. A sweeter rose, a softer sky on April days that would not dance away. I begged on the stars to throw me a beam or two, wished on the stars and asked for a dream or two. I looked for every loveliness. It all came true. I wished on the moon for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org
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