How Writeaways brought together a 13-year-old Italian boy and his astronaut idol for the anniversary of Apollo 11.
Around suppertime on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk, Filippo Cambiaghi and his 13-year-old son Michelangelo will be glued to a screen in their home in Rome, watching as their hero, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, lifts off for space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome complex in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.
Filippo and Michelangelo are the husband and son of Claudia, from whom we rent a villa in Tuscany every year for Writeaways.
Last summer, Mimi was teaching at Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico, when Luca Parmitano just happened to be vacationing with his family. (Ghost Ranch is near Abiquiú, where our 2019 Writeaway will take place.) Luca is one of just a handful of Italian astronauts working for the European space agency, and we were a little star-struck. He was happy to oblige when we asked if we could get a photo taken with him. Luca also mentioned, in passing, that he would be commanding a flight to the International Space Station sometime in 2019....
It occurred to us later that Claudia and her family might enjoy seeing the photo, so we emailed it to her.
Her response was swift and overjoyed. It turned out that her husband was a huge Parmitano fan, and she asked if we could get Luca’s autograph for him. So we approached him later and asked, rather sheepishly, if he would mind signing a napkin or something.
Oh, he said, he could do much better than that. He would be happy to arrange for an autographed copy of his official photo, in his space suit, to be sent to Rome. You could practically hear the cries of joy all the way from Italy.
“Sorry if I disturb you again,” Claudia wrote soon thereafter, “if it is possible in the autograph to write the name also of my son (Michelangelo). I told him about the surprise for his father and he is tormenting me that he would like it to be also written his name!!!”
Luca smiled and said that would be absolutely no problem.
“My son is very very happy!!!!” Claudia replied when she heard the news. “His eyes brilliant this morning for the happiness.” Gelato for everyone!
In the end, we arranged for four photos, including one each for Michelangelo’s friends Giorgio and Tommaso.
Reliving my boyhood
All of this brought back for me powerful memories of my childhood in the 60s, when astronauts were rock stars. Cynical adults viewed the arms and space races as sides of the same coin, but as kids, we knew the difference.
One week, we lined up on the school playground, color-coded evacuation cards strung around our necks, for nuclear attack drills we only vaguely understood and which seemed to go on forever. A nuclear holocaust would have been over before any of us could board a bus—or even duck and cover.
The next week, jammed in front of jumpy black and white TV sets, we would watch one of the Mercury astronauts (we knew all their names) soar into space. My father bought me star charts and a home telescope kit, complete with lens grinding and polishing tools. We visited the planetarium at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory. My cousin Keith converted his backyard into a launching pad for homemade rockets. The school playground became our moonscape.
By 2019, we expected to be living on the real thing.
The answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was always “astronaut.”
By the time Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Rome-born Michael Collins, launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, the dreams of an exhausted world hung on NASA’s plain yet exhilarating bulletins, respites from the drumbeat of troubling news in that strife-ridden decade.
I was 15 when Armstrong walked on the moon four days later. In preparation for that “giant leap for mankind,” my friend Ron figured out how to capture the blurry TV images on film by setting the camera’s shutter speed to match the cathode ray tube’s refresh rate. We huddled on the floor of our tiny den, hoping a vacuum tube didn’t fail.
TV Guide heralded the flight as “one of the most highly anticipated events in world history,” akin to Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. “What might be just as incredible,” it went on, “is the idea that the world will see man's most famous footstep live from the moon. Live!” Even strait-laced CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite broke into a boyish grin when Eagle, the lunar module, landed.
I doubt our appreciation of the moment would have changed even if we’d known how close to catastrophe low fuel and other problems had brought the landing. Risk and adventure were the name of the game.
We were ready to go.
Space, 50 years later
Parmitano, 43, from the Sicilian city of Catania, will be the first Italian to command a mission to the International Space Station since it began hosting residents in 2000. With him will be Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov and American flight engineer Dr. Drew Morgan.
It will be Parmitano’s second trip for the European Space Agency. Michelangelo was seven during the first flight—my age when Alan Shepard went up in Freedom 7. Recently, Michelangelo’s father bought him a new gadget for his telescope, to bring him yet closer to Parmitano and the ISS in orbit.
Parmitano is no stranger to the risks that have cost 30 astronauts and cosmonauts their lives. In 2013, during his second space walk of that first mission, he almost became the 31st in a most unspace-like way, by drowning, when his helmet began filling with water. The resourceful engineer and Italian Air Force lieutenant colonel told me he gulped water until he could make his way, virtually blind and unable to hear commands, back inside the space station.
The experience made him a legend in Italy, but Americans and others over the age of 60 will also recognize the special brand of idolization on Michelangelo’s face, holding his prized, autographed photo of Parmitano.
Early visions of the golden anniversary of Apollo 11’s “small step for man” included the launch, by 2019, of American astronauts aboard a next generation U.S. space vehicle—the first since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Technical problems have pushed that goal into 2020 at the earliest, so for the time being NASA will continue to rent seats on Soyuz rockets. There would be no manned American-made space ship launched on the 50th anniversary.
As I reflected on all the hype and build-up toward July 20, I recalled Luca’s comment about commanding a space flight this year. So I looked it up, and learned that the date of Parmitano’s ISS Expedition 60/61, originally slated for July 6, had been fortuitously rescheduled just two months ago for July 20 at NASA’s request.
The result is that the Apollo 11 semi-centenary will, perhaps inadvertently, fortify a pride once thought uniquely American on the banks of the Tiber, where stars in the eyes of a 13-year-old Italian boy have revived my memories of a time when a world as star-crossed as today’s rediscovered its common humanity.
-- John Yewell