July 30, 2009
What is most astounding about the Apollo 11 moon landing is that it happened 40 years ago. What is most depressing is that so little has happened since.
In 1969, if you're old enough to remember, you played music on phonographs and reel-to-reel tapes. You shot photos on Kodachrome. You warmed up food on the stove. You wrote letters in longhand or on a typewriter, made your "CC's" with carbon paper, added up figures in your head or with a pencil. If you needed information, you went to a library. To tune in Walter Cronkite, you twisted the rabbit-ears.
And if you tuned in on July 20, 1969, what you saw were blurred black-and-white images, broadcast from a quarter-million miles away, of one man making a small step and mankind making a giant leap.
Or so he thought.
When Neil Armstrong planted that first boot-print in the lunar dust for all eternity, he believed he was a Columbus — not just the first, but the first of thousands. When Cronkite was rendered speechless on TV as the lander touched down — all he could say was "Wow!" — it was because he saw the heavens opening to us, as the earth opened to Europe nearly five centuries before. The Apollo mission was the cornerstone of a new era of daring and hard-fought exploration reaching to the stars — Per aspera ad astra, the Roman proverb that was inscribed on the plaque commemorating the death of three astronauts in the launch- pad fire on Apollo 1 in 1967 and that also graced the packs of Pall Mall cigarettes all those technicians in Mission Control were nervously sucking up as the lander made its approach.
In promoting his vision of manned space-flight in 1962, President John Kennedy had said much the same: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills .... And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."
When the Apollo 11 module Eagle landed, most of us who watched it thought that way. Our collective imagination ran high, like it ran in other times of intense exploration, from the conquest of the American West to that of the earth's frozen poles: first the moon, then the moon-base, then Mars, then Jupiter, then beyond. Everything seemed possible, because the seemingly impossible had been accomplished almost flawlessly and in so short a time: the first American satellite to orbit the earth had gone up just eleven years before.
The depressing part of the 40th anniversary commemoration is the realization that it all basically ended 40 years ago. Apollo was not the cornerstone of space exploration, it was the capstone. America had poured its ingenuity, daring, and resources into the moon-landing, fulfilled Kennedy's promise, beat the Soviets cold — and then didn't know what to do next. The trajectory of exploration, if not the trajectory to the moon, was lost. There were five more lunar landings over the next couple years, but they led nowhere: the astronauts picked up a few buckets of moon-rocks but otherwise spent their time hitting golf balls and clowning for the camera.
Apparently, NASA had not seen much beyond Apollo. In 1969, at the request of President Richard Nixon to present a long-range plan, the agency's Space Task Group recommended space-stations to study the earth and to launch payloads for a permanent lunar base and manned probes of the planets, serviced by reusable spacecraft. What America got instead was a runt of the idea: not a project named after constellations and Greek gods, not a Mercury or Gemini or Apollo, but ... the Space Shuttle, as mundane and repetitive as an airport-hotel bus, and several orbiting stations going round and round, with nothing going up and out.
Even as the Eagle was landing, the mood of the country was changing. Rioting and assassinations had scarred America the previous year, and young senator Ted Kennedy had met his Chappaquiddick just the day before. The anguish of Vietnam, which Cronkite had called a "stalemate," was stalemating the aspirations of the people, and Watergate eventually checkmated them. In the introspection, self-doubt, and inner conflict, the outward vision evaporated.
Forty years later, NASA is drawing up plans for a base on the moon, using vehicles remarkably similar to those of the Apollo mission. (A splendidly illustrated description of the proposal is in the August issue of Astronomy magazine.) President Obama has pledged to support lunar exploration, but what will come of it? This generation has enough of its own Vietnams and domestic troubles to blur any vision of the stars.
In his 1962 speech on space exploration, John Kennedy recalled George Mallory's response to skeptics asking why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there."
Today, there's no there there.