Lifelong friends Bob Russ and Bill Poznanski climbed inside the makeshift spacecraft on Aug. 16, 1971, and didn't come out for 12 days.
By Jamie Wiggan
Just like many other young boys growing up in the early 1970s, Bill Poznanski and Bob Russ were captivated by the enchanting blend of science and adventure that marked the early years of American space travel.
The best friends’ interest went a step beyond their classmates, though, and they found a way to show it. After months of preparation, the duo, aged 11 and 12, slipped inside a homemade space capsule Aug. 16, 1971, and didn’t emerge for a full 12 days.
During their imaginary voyage – where they loosely tracked the flight plan of the Apollo 15 mission – the boys survived on food supplies brought on board by family, friends and curious neighbors.
The wood-frame capsule they sheltered in stayed firmly planted in the backyard of Russ’s childhood home in Sheraden. It was fitted inside with bunk beds and an improvised toilet, but it lacked much else in terms of practical comforts.
Despite such close quarters, they recall just one short fight and only rare moments of boredom.
“It really cemented our relationship,” Russ said.
Inspiration for the mission came via a school teacher who told a story in class about a student group in another state that set a record by staying in a model spaceship for 10 days. Russ and Poznanski reckoned they could go two better, setting themselves the challenge of a 12-day voyage.
Now in their sixties, the one-time boy astronauts held a small reception in the backyard of Poznanski's childhood home on Aug. 28, marking the 50-year anniversary of their “touch-down.”
Several neighbors and other childhood associates came over to reminisce over the backyard space antics that once brought a TV crew and a small stream of curious strangers to their quiet city neighborhood.
Bill Poznanski and Bob Russ reminisce with a former childhood neighbor during a 50-year anniversary celebration of the space flight.
“It’s bittersweet,” Russ recalled. “There are a lot of people who are gone now.”
One of whom is Russ’ father, Robert, who devoted the summer to helping the boys construct the capsule, using mostly salvaged materials.
“A lot of fathers built their children treehouses; this was a treehouse in the shape of a spaceship,” Russ said.
A baker by trade, Russ senior was an accomplished home handyman, who conceptualized the design and helped them source materials on a low-cost budget.
He got involved after returning home one day to find his tools strewn across the lawn beside the failed beginnings of a spacecraft the boys had attempted to build on their own.
Initially unimpressed, he later encouraged them to try again with his help. And so began a months-long summer project.
The pre-teen boys poured over books in the library for inspiration and assisted with construction tasks under Russ senior’s instruction.
Other children from the neighborhood would often stop by, too, and pitch in with the work.
Both said the 12 days, along with the long weeks of preparation, proved a formative moment in their development, instilling a firm sense that anything can be achieved through will and persistence.
“The lessons that he taught us with that project remain with us today,” Poznanski said.
Poznanski went on to study music education at college and began his career teaching at local public schools including the Montour and Pittsburgh systems, before switching to the film industry.
He now splits his time between New York and New Orleans.
Russ earned a degree in architecture and spent the first part of his career working in New York City before later returning to the Pittsburgh area with his family.
Recognizing their fortunate childhood, Russ and Poznanski are now exploring ways they can draw on their space adventure to inspire future generations.
“If we could do something like that back then, you wonder what we could do for some kids nowadays,” Poznanski said.