The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s

In early January, after a whirlwind holiday trip to see our families in Illinois, the Lofty duo found ourselves trapped in Chicago. An untimely illness put the kibosh on a planned trip to Paris, and the year’s first visit from the Polar Vortex blanketed the city in snow and sub-zero air. The snow snarled and stopped air travel, preventing an early return to California, and the temperatures—it was -16°F on one day—prevented us from leaving the apartment for more than a few minutes at a time. Our Midwestern roots and instincts were no match for our blood, thinned by five years in Southern California.

Chicago of Today
Chicago in Summer

Absent books, a reliable internet connection, or the ability to get out and walk around in the Windy City that we love, we did the next best thing: we turned on the TV. We stumbled upon a cable channel that consists primarily of television shows from our childhood. One of the first shows that we watched was a two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. We each agreed that it had been decades since we indulged the cheesy-goodness that is TSMDM (Google it, we dare you).

The episode showing that evening was “Deadly Countdown,” and, as so often happens here at Lofty, we recognized that we were in for a bit of serendipity from the opening credits. Listed among the players were Jenny Agutter and Martin Caidin. Agutter has starred in dozens of movies and television series, but she is probably best known to science and science fiction nerds for her roles in Logan’s Run (1976) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). True fans of TSMDM know that Caidin is the science fiction author who created the character of Steve Austin in his novel Cyborg. Caidin’s vision for his own Col. Steve Austin was much darker and more casually violent, and it didn’t translate well to 1970s TV. The TSMDM version of Col. Steve Austin that we watched as children was a sanitized version of Caidin’s cyborg, but there was the author right there in the episode we watched.

To the Lofty Duo, Caidin is also known for his aviation enthusiasm. In addition to being a great popularizer of aviation through his writing, Caidin also owned, restored, and piloted the oldest known Junkers Ju-52. An ungainly tri-motor with corrugated aluminum skin, the Ju-52 served as both a German military and civilian transport in the years around World War II. Caidin sold his Ju-52 to Lufthansa in 1984, and the German national airline still regularly flies that aircraft.  Caidin was also involved with the founding of Valiant Air Command (VAC), an aviation museum dedicated to warbirds located in Titusville, Florida, near Kennedy Space Center (KSC). In fact, we’ve written about VAC on a number of occasions.

Pete Conrad's Spacesuit--does it look like Jenny Agutter's wardrobe?
Pete Conrad’s Spacesuit–does it look like Jenny Agutter’s wardrobe?

The plot for “Deadly Countdown” loosely centered on a space rescue mission to restore a failing missile warning satellite. Jenny Agutter’s character, Dr. Leah Russell, was the designer of the satellite’s so-called brain. In order to repair the satellite, Dr. Russell would have to be taken to it. Naturally, given Col. Steve Austin’s pre-bionic career as an astronaut, he had to lead the rescue mission. Caidin’s character appears as one of the heavies—named G. H. Beck—intent on stopping Col. Austin’s repair mission.

We were fortunate that both episodes of the two-part “Deadly Countdown” ran that evening so that we weren’t left hanging. It wasn’t nostalgic childhood memories of the bionic sound playing over fights—slow-motion affairs in which the villains often do more harm to themselves than the bionic man does—that kept us watching TSMDM that night. It was nostalgia of a different kind that kept us entranced: as opposed to the TSMDM episodes that are very obviously filmed on sound stages, this one appeared to be filmed at KSC, where the rocket would have launched in real life. In fact, scene after scene of “Deadly Countdown” reminded us of our time spent at the Cape and made us think about a way to get back for another visit.

Saturn V moving from VAB to Launch Pad
Saturn V moving from VAB to Launch Pad

Although the episode contained stock footage of Saturn Vs moving slowly on the huge crawler, there were also scenes in the Vehicle Assembly Building from the top of the Launch Control Center and of Agutter and Majors in very realistic-looking Apollo-era spacesuits. It seemed very likely to us that this particular episode was, in fact, filmed at the Cape with a great deal of assistance from NASA. The internet suggestion that Agutter wore one of Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad’s spacesuits during the episode hasn’t been verified, but it makes for a great story.

One moment of “Deadly Countdown” that had a very inside-access feel to it involved an emergency during the rescue mission’s launch countdown. After stopping the countdown, Col. Austin and Dr. Russell have to make a hurried escape from the Saturn rocket’s command module.  The fleeing astronauts go for a ride on a slide that leads them to a blast-proof room beneath the launch pad. In reality, just such a room, sometimes called the rubber room, exists beneath Launch Complex 39. Though we’ve never seen it in person, it’s turned up online in a number of blog posts and videos recently.

Eventually, our childhood memories of TSMDM did kick-in, and Anna ordered a single DVD containing four episodes via Netflix.  This one includes another space-themed episode, “Athena 1.” To read more about The Six Million Dollar Man in our next TSMDM post, click HERE.

13 thoughts on “The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s

  1. Thanks for this blast from the past and my favorite childhood TV show. Growing up, I wanted to be one of two things, or possibly both: an astronaut or a secret government agent, just like Steve Austin. I wasn’t alone. I still have a soft spot for the show’s earnest science boosterism–a rare thing on TV today, where science is so often purely sinister and scientists are socially inept objects of ridicule. I’m glad that you two are planning more dispatches about TSMDM, and that you’re continuing to write about science and space exploration, even in the current absence of a U.S. manned space program. Excelsior!

    1. Eric–

      There’s more TSMDM to come. We’re working on a post about the “Athena 1” episode, which included the appearance of a certain married couple for the first time as newlyweds.

      –Lofty Duo

  2. Great article, Anna and Doug! The Space Age influenced the pop culture of our childhoods in so many ways. . . many of which surprise me now to remember. Maybe that’s because it was such a integral part of the backdrop of our lives then, I took it for granted.

  3. Fascinating stuff about this definitely cheesy ’70s show! Your speculations do indeed make for a good story. I’m eager to read more.

  4. I accepted your dare and googled TSMDM! …and discovered the reason I know so little about this show was that it aired during my undergrad years at college when I had little access to television. I think my younger brother may have had a six million$ man lunchbox, though. Interesting that there were record albums with stories meant to be read with comic books. Bet you’ll hear cool space sound effects if you can track those records down, and find space onomatopoeia in the comics!

    1. Debbie–

      I’d forgotten about the stories told through record albums & comic books. I guess TSMDM was transmedia before transmedia was cool!

      I don’t remember having the lunchbox, but I had a TSMDM model kit that portrayed Steve knocking down the door of prison cell.

      –Doug

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