Hill woman gets dizzying taste of life as an astronaut

Local Life August 8, 2014 0 Comments

by Meredith Sonderskov

On a recent train from New York to Philadelphia, I noticed a man seated across from me wearing a t-shirt that read “Johnson Space Center NASA Houston,” possibly because of all the recent publicity on the 45th anniversary of the U.S. astronauts’ moon landing.

My mind flashed back to early summer 1964 (good grief, 50 years!) when I was one of a group of women from Louisiana and Mississippi who were invited to be the guests of the U.S. Air Force to tour the Houston, Texas, Space Center and Cape Canaveral, Florida, now known as Cape Kennedy.

Our common denominator was that we were all members of state boards of the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters. At that time, both the Air Force and NASA were competing for precedence in space exploration.

Our group from Baton Rouge gathered early in the morning at a downtown hotel and boarded a bus that took us down the Airline Highway (there were no interstate highways yet) to the New Orleans Airport. There we joined others getting onto an Air Force plane, specially equipped for VIP travel, (propeller driven, not a jet) and flew to our first destination, Houston, Texas.

Upon arrival, we were taken to Brooks Aerospace Medical Center where we were given a tour of the facility. At one point, the officer who was guiding the tour asked for a volunteer to ride in the centrifuge. No one raised a hand, so the officer asked for the youngest person, and a number of fingers pointed to me.

I had just had my 31st birthday. The next thing I knew, I was being strapped into a seat at the end of a long pole. The words “Ready, set, go!” had never had such impact. I was spun around for no more than a minute, if that long, but it seemed like a lot longer. Fortunately, we had not had lunch yet or I probably would have lost it.

After recovering my balance, we were escorted back to our plane for the flight across the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast, near Orlando. While on the flight we were served a delicious steak and salad lunch.

At Cape Canaveral the first thing we were shown was the capsule that John Glenn flew in on our first orbital flight (February,1962). It was resting on a small concrete pad with a plaque in front. We were all surprised at the size of the capsule; it looked smaller than a Volkswagon Beetle. (I believe that capsule is now hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.)

From there we went inside a large building that housed the computer. This computer was about 100 feet long and at least three stories high. I am not exaggerating. I have been told that today’s “smart phones” have more power than was in that 1964 multi-storied technology.

At the end of our tour we gathered into an auditorium where a high ranking officer spoke to us about the importance of the space program. He then referred to the eventual moon shot.

“Picture this,” he said. “You are standing at one end of a football field with a BB gun. On the crossbar of the goal at the other end of the field is a brand new tennis ball, swinging from a six foot long cord. You don’t want to hit the ball; you want to hit the FUZZ on the ball.” And that is just what the astronauts did when they made the first moon landing 45 years ago in July, 1969.

That adventure to Houston and Cape Kennedy was certainly one of the more memorable events of my 81 years on earth.

Meredith Sonderskov, 81, grew up in Chestnut Hill, attended Springside School, graduated in 1951 and went on to Smith College, majoring in American Studies. She had three sons while married to her first husband for 23 years. They lived in Baton Rouge, LA, from 1958 to 1965, where she was active in the civil rights movement, ran for the local school board and lost. Her opponent labeled her a ” Yankee carpetbagger.” (“I guess I was,” she said.) She later managed book stores, sold real estate, taught modern dance and social studies and worked on the staff of three Girl Scout councils. Her son, David, died of cancer at age 37 in 1993, and son Brian died at 56 from a massive heart attack on July 10 of last year. Sonderskov married again in 1997 and now lives with her husband in a Chestnut Hill apartment. She has three grandsons, ages 9, 6 and 20 months. She is on the boards of the C.H. Historical Society and the C.H. Free Library and several committees at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

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