When I Thought My Dad Was an Astronaut

I bet a lot of space enthusiasts can recall a single event that sparked their interest in space exploration. I know I certainly can but it ended up being based in part on an innocent misunderstanding of what my father did for a living – something that would be forgivable in a very young child.

Back in the mid-1960s before my parents bought their first house, we lived on the first floor apartment of a triple-decker in Lawrence, Massachusetts. One morning when I was probably about four years old, my mother sat me down in front of our black-and-white television set and turned on coverage of a rocket launch after my father (pictured above years later wearing my new Star Team space helmet on Christmas Day 1970) had left for work. At this this point in time, I had no grasp of what was going on in the American space program but I did understand that “some spacemen were going into space”. That was enough to keep my attention. In retrospect, given the circumstances and where we were living, the launch I was watching was probably CBS coverage of one of the Gemini missions around the first half of 1966 or maybe late-1965 at the earliest.

A frame from television coverage of a Gemini launch of the sort I would have watched when I was about four years old.

In any case, I was glued to the set as the countdown progressed and finally saw the rocket liftoff for orbit with a pair of astronauts on board. Now this is where the misunderstanding comes in: given that my father had left for work a short time ago and I had just watched a couple of astronauts launched into space on TV, by the impeccable logic of a four-year-old, my father must be an astronaut – quod erat demonstradum! Obviously I had no idea that this Gemini mission was to remain in orbit for a few days so it did not raise any flags in my mind when my father returned home from work that evening like he always did.  But even when I found out at some later time that my father was actually a field service engineer working for IBM, it really did not matter. I had no idea what a “field service engineer” was but I did understand what an “astronaut” was.  And I had witnessed a Gemini launch after my father had left for work, after all.

My interest in space exploration sparked by that rocket launch I had watched was subsequently fueled not only by television coverage of new space missions I occasionally caught and other friends interested in space as well but also by a steady diet of children’s television science fiction shows like Lost in Space, The Thunderbirds, Space Angels, and many, many more that inundated the airwaves when I was young. And even as my belief that my father was an astronaut faded over time as my understanding of the space program developed and evidence to the contrary piled up, my interest in anything space-related continued to increase.

My late-father’s IBM identification card that he used on field service calls in the 1960s.

While my father was not an astronaut, he did have the sort of job that helped support the kind of industries that did play a role in America’s space program like tens of thousands of other ordinary Americans did at that time. As an IBM field service engineer, his job was to maintain and repair the peripheral equipment used by IBM computers such as teletypes, punch card readers, tape drives and other electro-mechanical and electronic support hardware required by those early computers. And while such equipment was commonly used by banks and other large institutions in that era, I do recall my father talking about working on-site at various defense contractors, universities and other high-tech companies that used IBM equipment in Massachusetts’ fast-growing industrial parks straddling Route 128 – the sort of places that did do aerospace-related work. In fact my current employer, Visidyne, was founded in 1969 and is still located in an office park within sight of Route 128.

As I got older, my parents did their bit to encourage my interest in space in particular and science in general. In addition to buying me space-related books, toys, and models as well as telescopes, microscopes, weather stations and the like, they let me watch television coverage of the Apollo missions. The one event that I still vividly recall from those early days was my parents letting me stay up well past my bedtime on the night of July 20, 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon. My father also made the occasional audio recordings for me of some of key space missions (this was well before the era of the VCR) including a recording of the launch of Skylab 2 over 41 years ago which I still have squirreled away in my archives.  And, of course, I can not forget the ultimate “encouragement” when my parents kept a roof over my head as I went to the local state university to get my degree in physics which made my science career possible.

Although my interest in space exploration was sparked by the misunderstanding of a four-year-old, it led me down the road to a career in science and writing about space that I enjoy to this day.


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Related Reading

“The Coolest Rocket Ever”, Drew Ex Machina, March 30, 2014 [Post]

“Plans for a Command Module of My Own”, Drew Ex Machina, May 31, 2014 [Post]

“The Angry Alligator and the Snake: The Mission of Gemini 9”, Drew Ex Machina, June 6, 2016 [Post]


Related Video

While I have no idea which Gemini launch I was watching 48 or so years ago that sparked my life-long interest in space exploration, this video of CBS television coverage of the launch of Gemini 9 on June 3, 1966 is surely a candidate and, if anything else, gives a sense of what I would have watched at four years of age.