Dec 9, 2016

The Space Capsule...

"Godspeed, John Glenn..."
Yesterday, John Glenn passed away.  It got me thinking about the influence of the space program in its early days.  Today we hear about a launch of some astronauts on their way to spend a few months on the space station.  To most people, it's a fairly ho-hum affair.  It was not so in the early '60's, when every launch had us glued to our television sets (with their massive 21-inch screens).

My twin nephews, Mark and David, were born in 1960.  When they were young, I sometimes built them Christmas presents.  One year, I built them a really nice puppet theater with custom lighting and curtains that opened and closed like those in a real theater.  They put on shows for kids in the neighborhood and at school, and friends of the family often gave them hand puppets as gifts to round out their sizable collection.  Eventually, the theater and the hand puppet collection became the property of St. Margaret Mary School in Slidell, Louisiana.

It was the gift I decided to build for another Christmas that I was thinking about today, reflecting on the life of John Glenn.  I decided to build the boys a space capsule.  I wasn't sure exactly what form this might take, but I knew it could be fun.  I was living with two other bachelors, Forrest Frueh and Jim Mouser.  They were the entire Business Law department at the University of Oklahoma.  We lived in a house with a large great room and they were accustomed to my "projects" taking form in that large space.

I started by imagining three large panels hinged for storage, but capable of being set up as a kind of open-back surround set, like the illustration here:

I envisioned the kids sitting side by side on little folding chairs in front of some intergalactic window.  I bought some 3/4" plywood and built the form you see here with a 3' x 5' panel in the center, and a 2' x 5' panel on each side.  I could begin to imagine it set up in the kids' bedroom in Slidell, where my brother and his family lived.  And I could probably transport it in my '62 Galaxie 500 convertible if I put the top down.  It seemed like a plan.

My next thought was that a space capsule had to have a window or portal from which the young astronauts could look out into space.  I purchased a fluorescent light fixture and an 18" ultraviolet lamp.  After mounting it on the top of the center panel, I cut a rectangular opening and mounted some black velvet in a frame molding, with the idea that I would paint space objects -- stars, planets, comets -- using fluorescent paint.  I felt that I might end up with lots of lighting effects and that the boys would use it in a darkened bedroom.  The view out the "window" with the UV light turned on would be spectacular!  At this point, here's what I had;

One day, probably in early November, I was driving to work on campus when I spotted a juke box lying in a gutter that had obviously been abandoned there.  I stopped, saw that it had lots of useful goodies on it, and wrestled it into my trunk.  That night, I took it home and started to dismantle it.  Little did the manufacturers know that they had provided me with a gold mine of useful space capsule hardware:

Juke Box Item
Space Capsule Application
Chrome Bars in front of Speakers
Zero-Gravity Hand Hold Bars
45 RPM Turntable
Intergalactic Gyroscope/Stabilizer
Coin Receptacle and Changer
Interplanetary Currency Converter
Selection Panel with Illuminated Letters/Numbers
Computer Display

In no time, I was removing practically every bit of hardware from the pathetic cast aside juke box.  I quickly disposed of the cabinet and began thinking of the details of how I would use the found goodies.

I manufactured a panel that resided beneath the window and mounted the tune selection panel there.  Underneath were a string of blinking Christmas tree lights that showed through the translucent plastic parts of the panel.  That became the on-board computer.  Now, it started to look like something scientific.

Soon, I had added other hardware.  I decided it needed noise, too, so I added a doorbell, door chime, buzzer, and buttons to actuate them.  After all, what's a space capsule without a few emergencies?  I painstakingly painted the black velvet, using a toothpick to paint the stars, a tiny brush to do the galaxy and planets (I chose Saturn and Jupiter because they were the most visually impressive.).  And then, I added labels to everything, so any observer could recognize an intergalactic stabilizer or currency exchanger.  Along with the hand holds, it looked something like this when finished:

I carefully dismantled the panels, including the separable wiring harness.  I had thoroughly tested the wiring and functionality of lighting and sound.  The weather turned out to be beautiful on the day I drove from Norman, Oklahoma to Slidell with the top down on my '62 Ford convertible and the three panels stacked next to me.  My brother, Willy, had agreed on an address where we would meet to store the space capsule for a couple of days before Christmas.

On Christmas morning, it was a huge success with the boys.  It soon migrated into their bedroom, where it occupied a prominent corner for a few months.  Mark and David would sit for hours jabbering about extra-vehicular walks and chatting with an imaginary mission control.  They were in a space world unto themselves.  Alas, it's noise-making capability was its downfall.  My sister-in-law, Joni, soon decided it would be quieter in the Mead household if the space capsule relocated to the boys' school.  Unwittingly, I had made another contribution to St. Margaret Mary.

No comments: