Posts Tagged Apollo moon missions

Apollo 45

Apollo_11_bootprintThis week marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and people are posting their recollections of that event under #Apollo45.

I wasn’t born until well after the last moon mission took place, but the story has been conveyed so vividly that I almost feel like I experienced it firsthand.

The footage of the Saturn V rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Neil Armstrong’s iconic words, and the image of an American flag on the moon’s surface have all been burned into my consciousness.

Yet the whole event seems unreal. It’s still hard to believe that massive rocket propelled the tiny Apollo spacecraft to the moon, and that the entire complex operation worked not just once, but multiple times, ending with the safe return of the astronauts even when technical problems on Apollo 13 made that outcome seem unlikely.

The United States hasn’t accomplished anything on that scale since the last moon mission in 1972, so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people believe the whole thing was faked.

Obviously, it wasn’t but the Apollo missions may turn out to be a historical fluke. There’s plenty of enthusiasm for continuing the journey into space with a return to the moon, or even a mission to Mars, but the country can’t seem to muster the political will to make that happen.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in his excellent book Space Chronicles, the Apollo program was a product of defense interests as much as scientific interests. The Cold War was raging, and the Soviets needed to be beaten.

While the U.S. has plenty of problems now, none of them rise to the quite existential-threat level of impending annihilation by a communist superpower. The stakes are just too low.

A renewed space program could have many benefits in terms of pure science or even jump-starting the economy, but those are just too ethereal, and the fact that U.S. astronauts can hitch rides with the Russians while maintaining national dignity proves that space is no longer an arena for geopolitical chest thumping.

So will future generations have to accept that Apollo was unique to its time, an inspiring product of a terrible conflict that threatened to destroy the world?

Perhaps another momentous event (say, the arrival of a Vulcan survey ship) will galvanize Earth’s population again, but until then it seems we’ll have to remain content with memories of past triumphs.

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America needs a new spaceship

It’s been one week since the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the final time, and I still have not gotten over it. Some people were glad to see the Shuttle go; they say that making it America’s only space vehicle limited space exploration to the crafts’ range and payload capacity. But they’re missing the point. America’s space program has always been about showing what the nation can do when it needs to prove to other nations that it is better than them.

When we got to the 1960s in high school history, the teacher said he was not going to teach the Space Race because it did not have a long-term impact. He was right: NASA was born of Cold War desperation. The Soviets had launched Sputnik and the United States needed to do something to keep from falling behind technologically. Americans were afraid the Commies would use their mastery of space to train scientists and develop technologies that could render the West uncompetitive, or unleash a hellish rain of nuclear projectiles.

Cold War paranoia drove the Space Race, encouraging the government to fund research, build bigger rockets, and ultimately send humans to the Moon. Now that the Cold War has been over for almost two decades, it is difficult to understand why we bothered. Space exploration has yielded few tangible benefits besides bragging rights and memory foam. Given that, and the fact that an iPod Nano probably has more computing power than an Apollo Command Module, it is easy to see why so many people don’t believe we were ever on the Moon.

Without the Cold War, NASA seems like an expensive luxury, something Republican Congressmen would scoff at. Most people don’t pay attention to Shuttle launches, but the few who see them in person say it is an unbelievable experience. Science may be important, but that awesomeness is still an important part of why the United States sends people into space.

Astronauts and NASA boosters get dewy-eyed about pushing the limits of human endurance and knowledge, and this has something to do with that. The Space Shuttle and NASA’s other manned missions have pushed human limits but, more importantly, they did it in full view of the American public and other nations. They showed that America could build the most complicated machine in history, and routinely blast men and women into orbit with it. The space program shows that the U.S., government and citizens, can accomplish difficult tasks many thought impossible, even if they have no bearing on the daily lives of the average person.

That propaganda role may seem unnecessary in the post-Cold War world; radical Islamist terrorists don’t care about how many rockets we have. However, with China poised to overtake the U.S. in the all-important economic category of buying stuff, and anxiety over the debt ceiling, there is no better time for an expensive, complicated (possibly job creating) technological exercise. It’s time to stop pointing out the reasons why America can’t do things so we can start doing things.

The Space Shuttle’s time may have come, but it is still a sad moment. It’s sad because the Shuttle will not be replaced with something better; that it won’t be replaced at all. The United States will not have a vehicle to take astronauts into space; we have essentially stepped backwards. To maintain our national pride, America needs a new spaceship. Call me when the Enterprise is ready.

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