It was 50 Years Ago Tonight I Decided to Become an Astronomer

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Ever since I can remember I loved science. All sorts of science. My mother was a substitute teacher. Before I went to kindergarten she would bring home books from her third grade class and teach me to read. My favorite book was the science text book. I particular enjoyed reading about dinosaurs. When you like dinosaurs, you tend to like fossils and rocks. When you like fossils and rocks, you tend to like volcanoes and earthquakes. When you like volcanoes and earthquakes, you tend to like hurricanes and tornadoes. When you like hurricanes and tornadoes you tend to like weather and atmospheric phenomenon. When you like weather and atmospheric phenomenon, you tend to like planets and stars.

Yep, I liked science. But of all the flavors of science, I liked astronomy the best. Growing up in Buffalo, I just happened to be in luck. In 1966, SUNY launched a pioneer program in what could only be described as one of the first distance learning experiments in the country. Called University of the Air, the pilot program contained only two courses with credite and was available only to the Buffalo and Albany campuses. The courses would be aired on the local PBS station. Now here’s the twist: one of those courses was an astronomy course called Eye on the Universe. Channel 17 (WNED-TV) in Buffalo broadcast it under the title “Basic Astronomy” and I watched it religiously. I remember an old man taught it. He was kind of boring. The facts weren’t, but he was. There was always a commercial featuring Carl Sagan that asked you to “Give to the College of Your Choice.” It was then I decided to go to Cornell. I wanted Carl Sagan to teach me astronomy.

So, did I want to become an astronomer when I was barely six years old? Did I want to become a science before I went to kindergarten?

No.

I was still a kid.

I wanted to become a football player.

You see, the Bills were winning AFL championships back then and everyone treated them with awe. We all wanted to be a leader like Jack Kemp. We all wanted to ground out those tough yards like Cookie Gilchrist. We all wanted to hit with bone-breaking eye-popping power like Mike Stratton. Yep, if you were a kid in Buffalo in the mid-1960s, you wanted to be a football player.

But very quickly my father informed me those football players didn’t get paid too much. In fact, they got paid so little they had to find real jobs just so they could live and feed their families. So, no, I didn’t want to be a football player anymore. I just wasn’t practical. I need to do something I could earn a decent living on. So I decided to be a race car driver.

Race car drivers had to be rich. They had to earn enough money to buy the car they were driving. They had to earn enough money to pay for all those mechanics in the pits that helped them. They had to be rich. So I figured race car driving was for me.

Now, there’s something about me that you gotta know. I’m not too different than most people. Most people wouldn’t purposely put themselves in harm’s way. It’s not that we’re chicken. It’s just common sense. Call it “the survival instinct.” Football, besides not paying a lot, could get you hurt. Everybody got hurt, the best players, the worst players, even the guys on the sidelines who didn’t move out of the way fast enough when the play came their way. Race car driving, well, nobody was hitting you. That was a safer sport.

Then it happened. I saw a car race on TV and there was an accident. It didn’t look that bad, but my father said the driver was killed. I didn’t believe it. The next day in the sports page, I brought up a picture of the wreck and showed it to my father. “See, dad,” I said, “I was right. He wasn’t killed. He was just injured. It says it here right in the paper. ‘The driver was fatally injured.’ So he didn’t die. He was just fatally injured.” I don’t remember my father laughing when I told him that. I don’t remember if he even cracked a smile. What I do remember was that was the day I learned what “fatally injured” meant. That was also the day I quick wanting to be a race car driver. Too dangerous.

So I had to pick a less dangerous career.

That’s when I decided to become an astronaut. How cool could that be?! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?! I could combine my job with my favorite science – Astronomy! Life couldn’t be much better.

Until Part 2 of The Green Hornet Episode “Corpse of the Year.” Now, back then, everyone was either Superman or Batman. I, being the budding young contrarian I have become, refused to follow the crowd. There was a new superhero on TV: The Green Hornet. Less campy than Batman, less serious than Superman, The Green Hornet was the happy middle. I watched it faithfully the one season it was on.

Most episodes of The Green Hornet were one-shot deals. None of this “stay tuned for the next exciting episode to see what happens” that had become the hallmark of Batman. Unfortunately, in its short one season span, The Green Hornet had a three two parters. The second one occurred in January 1967. Part 1 of “Corpse of the Year” aired January 13, 1967. In it, someone posing as the Green Hornet, going so far as to even drive a replica of the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, is menacing employees of the Daily Sentinel throughout the night. The cliff hanger ends as the imposter drives up to Britt Reid (i.e., the real Green Hornet), declares he will kill Reid, and fires his gun.

A six year old has only so much patience. We might not be as “immediate gratification” as kids today, but we were close. The following week, January 20th, 1967, the Green Hornet didn’t air. We (yes, my faithful little brother, though a confirmed Batman fan, tagged along side me to watch The Green Hornet), has to wait a two full weeks to watch the “exciting conclusion” of this story. Making things worse, we were told to lower the sound on the TV, as our parents were entertaining another couple at the kitchen table just a few feet from the television.

The suspense of the episode was building until, about halfway through, ABC News interrupted the program for a special bulletin. There had been a fire aboard the Apollo launch pad, killing at least one person. As an astronaut in training, this interested me, perhaps a bit more than the fate of Britt Reid. At least they didn’t say the person killed was an astronaut. I rose from seat and waddled over to my parents and interrupted them to repeat the announcement, then returned to The Green Hornet, already in progress.

Moments later ABC News broke in with another special bulletin. This one confirmed the dead person was indeed, one of the three astronauts aboard the spacecraft. Once again, I waddled into the kitchen with this update. It was less of an interruption than me initial report. By the time I got back to the TV, The Green Hornet was over and The Time Tunnel had begun.

The Time Tunnel was another one of those series that appealed to young science-oriented youths like me. It also had a splash of real-life history, which was always good, in the appropriate doses, that is. The episode on the evening of January 27, 1967 – “The Walls of Jericho” – had a bit of a biblical theme. We were never able to watch the entire episode. Shortly after it had started, ABC News interrupted the show for more (and final) time. The news was the worst. ABC News was now reporting all three astronauts –  Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee – “within seconds” in a fire that consumed their Apollo test capsule. I didn’t need to report this to my parents and their guests as they has become silent when they heard the frank “We interrupt this program for a  special news bulletin.”  For the rest of the evening they discussed the tragedy, ABC News discussed the tragedy, and my brother and I, well, I don’t remember what he did. I do remember what I did. I crossed off “astronaut” from my career list.

Too dangerous.

I had only one remaining option, but I didn’t “officially” choose to become an astronomer until I entered second grade later that fall. On the first day of class I was greeted by a wall-sized Rand McNally map of the solar system. Painted like a 1950s science fiction back-drop, the muted colors called to me like the Sirens of Lorelei (though I wouldn’t know what those were until I watched “The Lorelei Signal,” the fourth episode during the first season of the Star Trek animated series (air date September 29, 1973).

Those colors. How those colors sang to me. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t want to resist. Whatever vows a seven-year-old can legally take, I took. From that point on I knew I would become an astronomer.

Postscript: I neither attended Cornell nor became an astronomer (at least in terms of how I earn my paycheck). I did major in physics and astronomy at Yale and I was offered a fellowship to obtain a PhD. in astronomy at Boston College (I turned it down). Why did I choose Yale over Cornell? Simple, my favorite color is blue.

Years later, I obtained a copy of that Rand McNally solar system map.

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