My geologist husband was brought to NASA to study the moon rocks. We arrived just before Apollo 8, which carried the first astronauts to orbit the moon. We had with us two daughters under the age of 2 and bought a “used home,” as the real estate agent put it, by a lake in Timber Cove. For the next five-plus years, we lived and breathed Apollo. My husband, Robin Brett, set up his lab in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, or LRL. I was a special correspondent for The Washington Post and Time magazine writing mostly on space but also about Texas.
Where the rest of the world measured time by the monthly calendar, we counted the days from space flight to space flight. Ten days to liftoff. Apollo 8, Apollo 9, Apollo 10. T-minus and counting.
Where the rest of the country grappled with the Vietnam War, civil rights and the burgeoning women’s movement, we waited for the space suits to be cut — because this told us who would fly on a future mission. While hippies with long hair marched in the streets, we were Crew Cut Nation, caught up in jet-jockey mystique, a military culture of few words, slow pulse under pressure, white shirts, checklists, sims (simulations) and yes-sir. YES, SIR!
I was imbued with the thrill of space exploration, the romance of walking on the moon. I interviewed astronaut chief Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, who made up the mission rosters but never flew to the moon himself.
To step out on the Sea of Tranquility — what does it all mean? I gushed.
“Abbie,” he replied. “Going to the moon is going from Point A to Point B in a transportation system.”
During the week, the men were mostly gone — to the Cape, to Edwards Air Force Base in California, to the rocket gurus in Huntsville, Ala., to Washington, or to the space center, working into the night.
Wives bonded and children played. My daughter was playing in the neighborhood with a boy whose father was set to launch to the moon. “My daddy is an astronaut. He’s going to the moon,” the boy boasted. “Yeah,” my daughter replied: “Your daddy is going to the moon to bring back moon rocks for my daddy!”
On weekends, we partied. We’d head to Gilley’s in Pasadena, the country music mecca with mechanical bulls and a huge dance floor where we did the slow waltz. One night, a girl grabbed the microphone and belted out “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?” The girl, Tanya Tucker, would become a country star. Gilley’s would feature in the movie “Urban Cowboy.” We returned to our bubble.
And the next mission. I’d sing a song to myself about Lunar Orbit Insertion: “Oh, how I yearn/for that LOI burn.” We formed a book club that become our extended family. Friendships deepened.
Once, after Apollo 12, the second mission to put men on the moon, a few months after the first, there was a spill in the LRL. The scientists, including my husband, were suddenly quarantined with the astronauts in case moon dust harbored some intergalactic disease. They were thrilled to play cards and tell guy jokes for the next few weeks. My friend and neighbor Jane Conrad — her husband, Pete, was the Apollo 12 commander — accompanied me to the LRL, where I was to bring a bag of essentials for my husband. One daughter hugged my knees. The youngest was in my arms. I stared at the airlock. Then I looked at our baby daughter. She would just fit in the airlock. I lifted her up. Jane looked at me in horror. I smiled. Then I shoved the bag into the airlock and hugged my baby closer.
Jane and I laughed. It was the thought that counted. Would have served them right to take care of a squalling, pooping baby for a while.
Behind the hero parades and NASA news releases about backyard barbecues, family life in the bubble was . . . more complicated.
Across the street from NASA was the Nassau Bay hotel, where every night in the bar, bikini-clad dancers in white patent-leather boots gyrated in cages — or was that another place at the Cape?
Meanwhile, the bubble mantra was “nominal” — engineer-speak for “according to plan or design — within acceptable tolerances.”
Apollo 8? Nominal.
Apollo 11? Nominal.
Splashdown parties? Nominal. Driving to the space center the next day for the early-morning press briefing, I’d see a few pairs of underpants strewn on the branches of trees. Within acceptable tolerances.
Apollo 17? Nominal.
Marriages? Not so nominal.
Once the Apollo program was over, we all scattered to different parts of the country. Divorce swept through our crowd. My husband and I returned to Washington and immediately split up.
So long ago, and yet.
Half a century later I am on an island in Maine. I look up in the night sky at the moon: Oh, how I yearn for that LOI burn. I can tell the grandchildren: We were part of something.
Read Abigail Trafford’s Dec. 20, 1972, story from The Washington Post on the end of the Apollo program: