To the Moon and Back: A Father and Daughter Find Hope Writing About Space Exploration


Jenny and her father find connections in writing about space 46 years apart.

A few weeks before I left Oregon for Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) here in Maryland, I was on the phone with my dad. We were chatting about all the exciting and challenging work I was preparing to begin.

Apollo 8 crew's famous Earthrise photo. Image Credit: NASA.

Apollo 8 crew’s famous Earthrise photo. Image Credit: NASA.

He paused for a moment; then he told me that NASA had been a game-changer in his career. I froze. Oddly, I hadn’t made the connection until that moment. I didn’t think about my father’s experiences when I applied for a summer internship as a science writer at Earthzine.

To be honest, I was more focused on the fact that I’m actually kind of old ‰ÛÒ I wondered if it would be ridiculous for me to even consider submitting an application. As a 41-year-old undergrad preparing to graduate and start a Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing, a summer internship at NASA seemed absurd for some reason. But sometimes one of the benefits of being ridiculously busy is that there isn’t always time to overthink things and second-guess decisions, so I went for it. There wasn’t time to think about life coming full circle or the odd reality that this institution could potentially impact two generations of my family in unforeseeable ways.

In 1968, my father, Henry J. Holcomb, was writing for The Houston Post. He was one of five reporters assigned to cover the Apollo 8 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean from the USS Yorktown CV-10. The WWII era Essex-class carrier left Pearl Harbor 10 days before the command module was scheduled to return to Earth after orbiting the moon. Leading up to the splashdown, he watched the crew conduct drills with a dummy capsule, flew on a weather reconnaissance flight, took a helicopter over to the USS Arlington (a communications ship) and swung in a bosuns bucket over to a destroyer that was also part of the recovery fleet. ‰ÛÏI got off the ship every way one can, except falling overboard. I was learning everything I could about the mission,‰Û he said.

On Dec. 27, my dad stood outside the helicopter that brought the astronauts onboard the ship from the command module in order to capture their first words as they were hurried past the crew and off to the infirmary for examinations. He remembered, ‰ÛÏas we walked across the deck, Jim Lovell talked quietly to his crewmates, Borman and Anders. Lovell spoke of a sight no human before him had ever seen: ‰Û÷When I looked out the window and saw the Earth getting smaller and smaller, I wondered if we’d ever get back.’‰Û

Left to right: Borman, Holcomb, Anders, and Lovell on the deck of the USS Yorktown. Image Credit: AP Photo/Bob Schultz.

Left to right: Borman, Holcomb, Anders, and Lovell on the deck of the USS Yorktown. Image Credit: AP Photo/Bob Schultz.

It turns out that his preliminary efforts mattered. When the Apollo crew departed the ship, bound for Houston via Honolulu in a small piston-engine aircraft, ‰ÛÏthe captain surprised us by announcing that the communications room would close in one hour,‰Û my dad said. This meant that the seaman who was assigned to help him had to run each page, as it was completed, up roughly seven flights of stairs and across a huge hangar deck to the Teletype room. ‰ÛÏThe round-trip took the seaman a bit longer than it took me to write a page. All the preparation I did really paid off in terms of writing under pressure,‰Û he added.

His experiences as a daily newspaperman for 45-plus years shaped the advice he gave me while I was, and still am to some extent, growing up. Listening to his stories (and the occasional unsolicited tidbit of fatherly advice) helped prepare me for navigating many of my own life’s adventures, from my first career running restaurants and catering events to going back to school as an adult ‰ÛÒ to being here at NASA today.

USS Yorktown Teletype machine (now missing a keyboard) used to transmit my father's stories to The Houston Post. Image Credit: Henry J. Holcomb.

USS Yorktown Teletype machine (now missing a keyboard) used to transmit my father’s stories to The Houston Post. Image Credit: Henry J. Holcomb.

A few weeks ago, having missed the NASA orientation for college students in order to attend my own graduation, I filed into the auditorium at the GSFC Visitors’ Center with 70 more-than-eager high school students (further cementing any lingering fears about the ludicrous notion of interns with graying hair). GSFC Director Christopher J. Scolese spoke about the history of this place situated on more than 1,200 acres of land in Greenbelt, Maryland. He added that Goddard has, quite possibly, the largest concentration of scientific expertise in the world.

Scolese said that Building 3, Mission Operations, was where all communications have been routed for every NASA human space mission dating back to Apollo. Recently, GSFC Deputy Director Rick Obenschain, who has been at the center since 1966, explained that Goddard built all the transmission and ground stations, and ran all the networks. ‰ÛÏEvery bit of data that went to or came from any human space flight, up to and including today, has gone through Goddard Space Flight Center and our equipment,‰Û Obenschain said.

Building 3 at GSFC. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman.

Building 3 at GSFC. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman.

I am struck with the largeness of it all ‰ÛÒ with the fact that I am here now, finding unexpected links to events that transpired before I was born. With the windy road that I took to get here, 46 years after my father crossed paths with NASA in ways that would alter the trajectory of his career, as it is likely to alter mine.

But what is it about all of this that gives me hope?

By 1968, Vietnam, anti-war protests, civil rights marches, and the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobbie Kennedy were weighing heavily on the minds of Americans. These events shaped the conversations I had with my parents many years later as they tried to explain a complicated world to a small, curious child. Writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998, my father recalled, ‰ÛÏAt the very tense moment when Apollo 8 emerged from the dark side of the moon, where it had been out of radio contact, astronaut Frank Borman read the creation story from Genesis. The reading brought lumps to the throats of a nation reeling from the year’s urban riots and assassinations.‰Û

What gives me hope is looking back and seeing that even in the midst of all this turmoil, scores of people banded together accomplish what had to have felt truly impossible at the time. ‰ÛÏA non-scientist said we can put a man on the moon and bring them back by the end of the decade,‰Û Obenschain remembered. ‰ÛÏThat was the most absurd thing you’d ever seen. Nobody had the foggiest idea how you could do it, but it was exciting and nobody had the guts to tell President Kennedy that it couldn’t be done, so we did it.‰Û

We sent three courageous souls out past the boundaries of what we, as a society, had ever known, and they came home safely.

Today, we are a nation divided. Political polarization makes it increasingly feel as if compromise is a thing of the past. Addressing climate change will require the kind of collaboration that transcends partisan politics. In order to do this, I believe we’ll need to accept what was articulated beautifully by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell when he wrote, ‰ÛÏThose of us who have had the privilege of observing our Home Planet from afar all marvel at the beauty, the peace, the serenity that comes with seeing Earth in its setting among the stars. The boundaries that divide us into different cultures with different ideas, rules and values are not visible.‰Û

What gives me hope is looking forward with the knowledge that, even in the midst of today’s seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we have never stopped searching for new ways of knowing the world around us and our place in the cosmos.

Scientists at NASA and all over the world are working tirelessly to acquire the knowledge that we will surely need if we are to not only survive, but perhaps also thrive in spite of the collective challenges we face as a species. I see this firsthand in my interactions with people at Goddard. Especially when I meet folks like Obenschain whose enthusiasm for this work is difficult to ignore.

Obenschain laughed and said, ‰ÛÏPeople come to me all the time and say ‰Û÷gee, what was it like in the good ole days?’ But the good ole days are a time when individuals are making the biggest contribution and we are expanding our knowledge. I say the good ole days are today.‰Û

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