When President John Kennedy set a goal to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely, airlines were still flying DC-6s and Constellations. Few people knew anything about jet propulsion, leave alone rocket propulsion. Aside from the design of the actual spacecraft, a huge effort was required to build the launch pads at Cape Canaveral in Florida. None of the infrastructure existed to support the type of launches that would be required for such an ambitious project.
This was long before urban sprawl in Florida, much of the state was still swamp land. It’s hard to imagine now but Central Florida was barely a blip on the map. Before Disney and the Apollo program, there were no interstate highways in Central Florida and the city of Sanford was bigger than Orlando. Launch pads should be as close as possible to the equator to take maximum advantage of the rotational speed of the earth, so Wernher Von Braun & co chose Florida.
George Harper was one of the earliest and biggest contractors on the building of what we now know as Kennedy Space Center. Miles and miles of pipes and all sorts of mechanical construction was required for the fueling and launching of the spacecraft. The construction of the Space Center was a huge effort. Thousands of workers from “up north” migrated to Florida. I was told on some days highway 50 – the only route from Orlando to the east coast of Florida at the time – resembled a parking lot.
Soon the construction project ran into trouble. Workers from up north still had strong union ties, which were blamed for the delays in the project. Work stoppages and labor unrest ensued. The space program was so important to the government of the United States that President Kennedy dispatched his brother Robert to Florida to resolve the labor disputes but he was unable to do so. In the end Robert Kennedy told all of the major contractors on the project to get on the next airplane and fly to DC to meet with his brother, the President of the United States. Or else.
All of the major contractors, knowing well who their paymaster was, agreed and jumped on the first airplane to DC. Not George Harper. He was afraid of flying and would not get on any airplane for love nor money. But his work was so important that he could get away with it. He told the President’s brother: “You can fly up there and wait for me. I’m taking the next train up and I’ll talk to your brother as soon as I get off the train in DC.”
* * *
When I was younger I spent a lot of time in Florida and knew some old Apollo program veterans. I buzzed the Space Shuttle landing strip with students when it was still allowed prior to 9/11. I’ve watched the space shuttle launch quite a few times, flying just inland of interstate 95 in some raggedy old Cessna to get a good view. I knew a few rocket engineers, fixed some of their airplanes for them. I knew George Harper personally, the story above was told to me by a close friend of his.
My kids are studying space, environment and NASA in school this virtual semester. My oldest daughter is thrilled. She looks at stars at night, we watched Apollo 13 together and I told her to read about Margaret Hamilton. She asks all sorts of questions about physics and flying and spacecraft.
I don’t like to talk to my kids much about my previous life, before marriage, before kids. A lot of adventures but some years were rough. Today I sat down with my Brianna, I felt for once I had to tell her a story about my previous life.
You see, the kids in 5th and 6th grade were supposed to have an interview with a NASA engineer today. In the end the interview got postponed but all the kids were super-excited. Of course not everybody can talk at once, so a few kids were chosen to ask questions. Not to be all sour grapes but yeah, as usual it was the same kids again. The owners of the school’s kids and a few other super-special favorites. Again.
Brianna took it in stride (her mother not so much) but I pulled her aside and said, “Let me tell you a story, a true story nobody else in your class knows about NASA. I’ll tell you about the time George Harper rode the train to Washington.”