Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Junk Man & The Moon - “Salvage 1”, The “Vulture”, & Andy Griffith

1979 rolled around and was looking somewhat dreadful where my love of space was concerned. Not only was I a sophomore, which is hard enough, but it was looking, to me at least, like space was slipping from too many peoples' collective radars. The shuttle program was woefully behind schedule. Any talk about space colonization within government circles, and in most circles actually, had been subdued, almost defeated. We were still months away from President Carter's "malaise" speech, but for most of America, that was definitely the feeling.
Within my own life at that time, it was pretty damned descriptive. 
Even as a young person, I knew that if you wanted to keep such a big idea going, you had to keep it in the public eye. I was hoping that "Star Wars" would do that for space, and to a degree it did. The summer of 1978, however, saw the release of "Capricorn 1", about a faked Mars missions; a movie that used Apollo hardware no less, and was more than just a veiled hint that the lunar landings might have been faked. 
That didn't help.
When "Battlestar Galactica" premiered during the fall of 1978, I was, once again, hopeful. The movie, and the first few episodes, were really good. But then, it started to get somewhat, well, silly. 
Around this time, I was buying "Starlog" magazine on a fairly steady basis. I didn't catch every issue, so I was a bit surprised one night when sitting through an episode of "Galactica" that I see a commercial for a movie coming up on our local ABC affiliate on the night of January 20th. 
That's how I remember it, though it was actually "Salvage1". It starred Andy Griffith, an actor who was crucial to my growing up. For a long time, he was the dad I wanted. Him and Mike Brady, actually. There were also some other actors in the movie, names I didn't recognize, but with faces that looked familiar.
And the 20th was that Saturday.
We didn't have a VCR. They were very expensive, something my working class family could not afford. But I did have a nice GE Mini-Cassette recorder. A two hour movie meant I would need two C-60 tapes. As I had always done, I could always listen to it, and play the video back in my mind. 
It's ironic, as around the same time, my interest in model rocketry had grown deeper, and a lot more serious. I had a new Estes' Tilt-a-Pad that needed to be broken in. From a neighbor, I purchased an older Electro Launch pad that needed to be tested (these were old, even in 1979). As for rockets, I had four ready to fly; an Avenger, an Icarus, a Streak, all Estes, and an MPC ASP. This movie was simply whetting my appetite to start launching. 
When the movie came on, I wasn't sure what to expect. As it turned out, it was pretty harmless entertainment, especially for a sixteen year old. It was the sort of movie that was pretty typically 1970's. Some said that the plot was very similar to Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon"; I never saw a similarity. The plot was still interesting, though. Salvage yard owner Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) hears that there might be money to be made by salvaging the equipment leftover on the Moon from the Apollo missions (forget the legality of that). He decides to put together a team and build a rocket from bits and pieces that can be bought surplus, as well as material from his own junkyard. The rocket would be known as the "Vulture". 
For the show, a full sized Vulture was made, and it looked... interesting.

To get to the Moon, they would use a powerful propellant known as "monohydrazine". I was already familiar with unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine, as it was half of the propellant combination used in the Titan II and III series (the other half was nitrogen tetroxide). Monohydrazine was an extremely powerful substance, with, as they like to say in rocketry, an extremely high specific impulse. A drop was able to send a heavy engine block quite a ways into the air. Since this fuel was so powerful, it would allow the Vulture to use a very slow acceleration. Normally, a rocket needs to have fairly high acceleration, obtaining escape velocity for lunar missions, or orbital missions if you aren't so adventurous. The Vulture would simply go straight up, steadily gaining speed and altitude until it was within the Moon's gravitational influence. At that point, it would turn around and decelerate. One of the features built in to the Vulture was an accordion main fuel tank. As fuel was depleted, it would create more room for cargo. Pretty clever. The Vulture was unique enough to earn a spot in Ron Miller's "The Dream Machines".
Anyway, the movie had fairly common plot devices, such as the federal agent trying to put a stop to the mission, a problem during the mission, awkward humor. And I really liked it.
And as with "Battlestar Galactica", the series that followed disappointed me. There were a total of eighteen episodes, and I watched only a handful.
Over the next few months, my own rockets would punch their own tiny holes in the sky. That summer would see some space oriented science fiction movies, most notably "Alien". Also that summer, the space shuttle Columbia would be ferried cross country, and lose many of its temporary tiles, making many question whether it was a even good idea. In July, the American space station Skylab would finally lose its battle against gravity, and would break up over western Australia.
My own, very modest attempts would climb into the very lowest part of the troposphere, and I would listen to my recording of "Salvage", and wish it had been more than it was. 
Still, I liked the movie. At least what it represented. 

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