[Note: I have merely recorded what Uncle Dave said. Any blame should be sent to him. He says he can be reached at PlayOnTheSubwayTracks DOT com.]
Hello boys and girls. This is your Uncle Dave here, presenting today’s history talk. There’s a lot of things that happened on this day in history. For instance, on this day, July 20, 1885, professional soccer was made legal in England. This led to a lot of people who would otherwise be productive to get hit on the head repeatedly by soccer balls, leading them to be unfit for anything other than delivering drivel on sports talk radio and television.
Before 1885, it was legal to play football, but not for pay, so soccer was dominated by members of the British upper classes and aristocracy who had nothing better to do. If you’ve seen members of the British aristocracy lately, you would realize that they had nothing in their skulls that could be damaged from getting hit in the head by balls. So their playing soccer was no big loss. But professional soccer changed that for the worse. It would also lead to spectators rioting out of boredom.
Then, today in 1917, came the Corfu Declaration, which established the Kingdom of Yugoslavia out of Serbia, Montenegro, and about fifty-five different parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The country would later collapse into about fifty-seven different independent nations, such as Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Hungary, Montevideo, and Westeros Crownlands, in the 1990s, making geography tests much harder. Let’s face it. Even the blight of professional soccer worked out better than the Corfu Declaration.
What else? On this day in 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Southern California, which connected Pasadena and Los Angeles, opened. This made it the first freeway in the United States, and was followed a few minutes later by the first traffic jam on an American freeway. Technically, a parkway is for recreational driving, while a freeway is purely for going from one point to another. This led to charges of false advertising against the designers for calling it a parkway, because there is no such thing as recreation on a California expressway. The designers countered that it couldn’t be called a freeway, because the people on it weren’t going anywhere. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and it became known by its present name, the Arroyo Seco Parking Lot.
If we’re going for historic anniversaries, we could commemorate the birth of Edmund Hillary in 1919. Hillary is best known for being one of the first two people, along with with Tenzing Norgay, to reach the summit of Mount Everest. At least that’s the story. We don’t have any pictures of Hillary reaching the top of the mountain. He claimed that Norgay had never used a camera before, and didn’t think the top of Everest was the best place to teach him how. This would lead to rumors that the entire conquest had been shot on a soundstage in Mumbai. It did not help when Hillary failed in his attempt to conquer the Arroyo Seco Parkway by driving its entire length.
But instead, we’ll go for fifty years ago, that magical day of July 20, 1969, when Gaylord Perry would hit his first ever major league home run. Also on that day, a couple of characters, Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin, would walk on the moon, and I think I’ll get to that, too.
Where did it all begin? Well, back in 1869, professional baseball became legal. Way back then, batters didn’t wear batting helmets, which means players would be hit in the head by baseballs and become unfit for anything except delivering drivel on sports talk radio. Unfortunately, there was no radio back then, so old-time players such as Jim Bunning went into politics to deliver their drivel. The worst cases went into the United States Senate, where their workmates might see them as having functioning brains.
For those of you unfamiliar with baseball, such as British soccer fans or anyone unable to stay awake through the top of the first inning, the pitcher is the person who throws the ball to the batter. There are nine players in the batting order, and eight of them are good at hitting the ball and reaching first base. The exception is the pitcher. According to Rule 178.05©, the pitcher must be a worse batter than Bob Uecker, who was so bad that his lifetime batting average is lower than [i]Mario Mendoza’s[/i]. You’d think that an athlete good enough to pitch in the major leagues could hit better than an 85-year-old like Uecker, but that’s not the case.
Baseball has another rule. If the batter gets hit by a pitched baseball, the batter automatically goes to first base. Your typical pitcher is so bad at hitting that his best bet at reaching first is to stick his head into the batter’s box and hope that the ball hits it. As you might expect, Jim Bunning was a pitcher. There are few people who can take such punishment, so a more typical at-bat for a pitcher consists of him closing his eyes and just moving the bat around randomly, because then he might accidentally hit the ball somewhere. Usually it’s into someone’s glove.
Most of baseball has the designated hitter rule, which means that the pitcher does not have to make any plate appearances, and can be replaced in the batting order by someone who can outhit an 85-year-old. It was introduced in the American League when Bowie Kuhn was Commissioner, which makes sense, because Kuhn was an utter disaster in every possible way. He thought that the designated hitter would increase the number of home runs, thus making baseball more interesting. He was wrong. Making the pitcher go to the plate and attempt to hit the baseball adds comedic value to what is otherwise a very boring game.
Gaylord Perry was a very good pitcher. He even made the Hall of Fame with his pitching. As is the case with any great pitcher, he was an utterly terrible hitter. There’s a stat called OPS+ which measures how good someone is at hitting. An average major league batter has an OPS+ of 100. Perry had a lifetime OPS+ of -10. That makes him 110% worse than a typical hitter. He was so bad that, just by showing up at the plate, he could cause his team’s run total to go down.
How bad was Perry at the plate? Back when he started playing, way back when the Giants were still playing home games at a cricket ground on Staten Island, way back when nobody had even imagined the existence of Yugoslavia, his manager, Jim Murtrie, told him that they would put a man on the moon before Perry would hit a home run. (A later manager, Alvin Dark, would repeat this to Perry in front of some other players.)
Let’s skip ahead to the 1950s, when there were two major military powers. One was the United States, which had escaped mass destruction during World War II by being separated from its enemies by thousands of miles of ocean. The other was the Soviet Union, which would later dissolve into ninety-two nations such as Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Poland, Molvania, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Turkmenistan, Ossetia, Daggerstan, Kalashnikov, Iberia, and Stanistan. Back then, it was divided into ninety-two Soviet Socialist Republics, but Russia was the only one which mattered. The Soviet Union, also known by its initials, USSR, did take major damage during World War II, but it had billions and billions of square hectares of land, so the Germans were unable to conquer the nation before the Russian winter started on June 25. One lesson of history is that nobody defeats the Russian winter.
Now who’s the wiseacre saying Genghis Khan defeated the Russian winter, even though his Mongol Hordes came from the Gobi Desert? Well, Antarctica is a desert, too, and it’s freezing. Mongolia is so high up that its winters are almost as cold as Siberia. Moscow is warmer than Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Genghis didn’t have to fight the winter. He was used to it. Nobody else outside Russia was.
But the Germans couldn’t destroy all of Russia, so the USSR still had plenty of industrial sites left, especially in Siberia. So, by 1955, both the USSR and the USA were ready to conquer space.
The United States did not have to divert resources to rebuilding, so one might think they had an advantage going into the Space Race. However, for some reason, the government placed Werner Von Braun, best known for his imaginative redesign of London’s urban layout during the early 1940s, in charge of the program. Hiring an urban designer was an odd choice. Meanwhile, America’s actual rocket scientists and engineers were placed in charge of redesigning urban areas. The buildings they created were functional, but, since these were engineers, they had no sense of artistic taste, and the buildings resembled vast heaps of concrete. Critics called it brutalism, and it was ugly. To this day, their pictures are used to induce vomiting. That would be pictures of the buildings, not pictures of the critics or the engineers.
The Soviets, on the other hand, hired Sergei Korolev, an actual rocket scientist, to head its space program. Also, it could test technology designed for the cold, vast emptiness of empty space in the cold, vast emptiness of Siberia. The United States didn’t have such a place. Some jokers suggested Alaska, but, as anyone can see by looking at a map of the USA, Alaska is out in the Pacific Ocean, next to Hawaii, so that wasn’t an option.
Therefore, it was no surprise when, in 1957, the Soviet Union was the first nation to put a satellite in orbit. The scientists originally wanted to launch something called Object D, which would weigh three thousand pounds and carry on scientific instruments. Then, someone at the Kremlin said, “Who cares what goes up as long as it’s something? They never remember who came second.” This is not true. A lot of people can tell you the Chicago White Sox came in second in the 1919 World Series, but how many know the winning team? If you’re bad enough, like the 1962 Mets, they’ll remember you if you finish last.
Back to the Kremlin’s request. The rocket scientists realized a metal ball that goes “Beep Beep Beep” would qualify as something. It didn’t actually have to produce any scientific data, which made their task a lot easier. That something was [i]Sputnik[/i], which is Russian for “little potato,” even though, at two feet wide, it looked more like a giant metal watermelon.
At this point, the United States had to do something. A 3-pound piece of metal about the size of a real potato is something. They called it [i]Vanguard 1A[/i], and, when launched in December 1957, it sure was something. The rocket carrying the satellite went up four feet, then went back down to earth and burst into flames. At this point, the satellite itself popped out and rolled about 100 yards on the ground for a spectacular touchdown.
After the [i]Vanguard 1A[/i] fiasco, it became obvious to even United States Senators that a program to place rockets in space should be run by rocket scientists, not urban designers. Thus, in 1958, there were rocket scientists present for the launch of Explorer 1, which was the first satellite to do something useful. The data it collected led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belts, which are out in space and trap radiation.
The satellite itself was designed by scientists at Caltech, which is located in Pasadena. They had originally hoped to design a device which could send a man all the way to Los Angeles on the Arroyo Seco Parking Lot, but there was no way through that traffic jam, so they decided rocket science was simpler and directed their attention to sending a man into space.
Once both nations put pieces of metal into orbit, the next step was obvious. Would it be possible to put pieces of metal on the moon? The Soviet Union started the Luna program with this in mind. In 1959, it launched the [i]Luna 1[/i] probe, intending to land it on the moon. The Soviet program showed that it was capable of matching the American program’s achievements when [i]Luna 1[/i] missed the moon entirely.
The moon is over two thousand miles in diameter. That’s the distance between Perth and Sydney, from one side of Australia to the other. Missing the moon is like missing Australia. How on earth do you miss Australia? The Soviet rocket scientists replied that the probe was out in space, and Australia is on earth, so, if you go into space, of course you’re going to miss Australia. Fortunately for them, the intelligence of your typical Kremlin official was about the same as your typical Senator, so they got away with the excuse.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the folks at NASA were thinking about putting living creatures into space. The rocket scientists had some Senators in mind while designing the technology, but their bosses didn’t like that. They wanted the beings to come back to earth while still alive, but there was no incentive to bring back the Senators safely. The bosses wanted the most humanlike creatures around for test runs, and the scientists came back with some lawyers. “No, no,” the bosses said. “We are looking for primates, not rodents.” The scientists relented by sending Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey, and Miss Able, a rhesus monkey, into space on May 8, 1959, and bringing them back to earth 16 minutes later.
How about sending an actual person into space? Scientists didn’t know how weightlessness would affect human beings. Technically, space is not zero-gravity. Let us imagine an elevator from the Otis corporation, the company that gave us the motto, “Good to the last drop.” Imagine some vandal cuts the cords so that everything falls at the same rate due to gravity, and stole the handles so nobody could stop its fall. If you were on that elevator, you would go splat when it hit the ground. But, if you were to release a rubber ball in front of your face on the way down, that rubber ball would remain in front of your face for the rest of your trip, because the ball, the elevator, and your nose would be falling at the same rate.
It’s like that in orbit, where everything is falling down, except that the satellite is going sideways fast enough for it and everything in it, including you, to stay the same distance from the earth. If you’re on the satellite, it looks like everything is floating. So scientists have to redesign everything. Take orange juice, for example. On earth, if you don’t finish drinking it, you can put it on the table. Then, when your sibling knocks it over, all the juice goes down onto the floor, and he, she, or, usually, it, successfully blames it on you. On those early trips, there was only one person in a satellite, so there was no way to shift the blame. That was one difference. Another is that the juice won’t stay in the glass, so it makes its way into everything, including the computers, and the pulp is really hard to clean out. This is why food companies developed Tang.
Also, the rocket scientists had to do something even harder. They had to send computers into space on the satellites.
What’s so hard about that, you ask. Finally, someone asks me a good question. Back in the 1950s, computers were gigantic. They had to be placed on the ground floor because they were too big to fit into the elevators. They would take up all the space in a school cafeteria. To get them to solve a problem, computer programmers had to punch holes in cards, feed the cards into a computer, and wait a couple of hours for the computer to solve the problem. It was so boring that computers were considered women’s work. But when something in space is going six miles every second, which is even faster than your average taxi driver goes, people can’t wait hours for a result. With the time of their taxi trips and the bills they give me, they have to go that fast in order to charge so much money. Anyway, computers had to be made smaller to fit into the capsules, and they had to be made much faster.
This made computer programming more prestigious, and, while some women like head software engineer Margaret Hamilton were able to continue on the project, men were able to drive most of the women out. Since Hamilton also played the Wicked Witch of the West on [i]The Wizard of Oz[/i], where she had to listen to munchkins singing, they couldn’t come up with anything to scare her out. Nowadays, the computer on your cell phone is one million billion quadrillion times faster and smaller than the one that would send people to the moon. However, they still haven’t made one that can survive having Tang spilled on it. So much for progress.
The Soviets became the first person to send a person into space in 1961, when they sent Yuri Gagarin on one orbit around the earth. The Russian equivalent of hockey’s Stanley Cup is the Gagarin Cup, so you might guess the mission wasn’t a complete success. As a hockey player in the era before helmets, he had been hit in the head on the ice so often that it was impossible to determine what damage, if any, occurred to the brain in space, and, because he had lost most of his teeth, the scientists had no idea how edible space food was. If you’ve ever eaten freeze-dried ice cream, you know the answer is, not very.
Before Gagarin’s flight, President John F. Kennedy had suggested getting rid of the American Space program because it was just too expensive. However, after the flight, he had to make sure the Americans beat the Soviets in something associated with space. While he had briefly considered using rockets as a way to conquer the the Arroyo Seco Parking Lot, Werner Von Braun talked JFK into sending a man to the moon.