July 20, 2009
It's hard to believe that four decades have passed since the historic triumph of Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon, while Michael Collins tended the command module circling above the moon. As a young science geek in the 1960s, I was completely enthralled by the manned space missions. I vaguely recall the Mercury missions, and built plastic models of the Gemini capsule and the Apollo command module and lunar module. Young people these days have nothing remotely comparable to inspire them, and it's sad that we live in an age of diminishing horizons and lowered expectations. So, I thought it would be helpful to recount the crucial steps leading up to that epochal moment.
It's easy to forget, but for most of the 1960s, the Soviets had a clear lead over the United States in the space race. John Glenn was the first American in orbit (February 1962), but that was nearly a year after Yuri Gagarin had accomplished that feat. The Soviets later put the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, and conducted the first "space walk" outside of the capsule, but their rendevous and docking attempts were marred by frustrations. In April 1967, during the first test of the Soyuz spacecraft which was designed to go to the moon, the cosmonaut died when the parachute failed to open properly.
This tragedy came soon after the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed Astronauts White, Grissom, and Chaffee in January 1967. Many people thought that President Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade was no longer possible. But somehow, the engineers at NASA, North American Rockwell, and Grumman picked up the pace, fixed the defects, and Americans returned to space in the successful Apollo 7 mission in October 1968. Apollo 8 circled the moon at Christmas 1968, as Frank Borman read the opening lines of Genesis. That was incredibly moving. Three months later, Apollo 9 tested the lunar module in earth orbit, practicing docking maneuvers, and in May 1969, Apollo 10 did likewise in lunar orbit. Against all odds, every mission achieved its goals, setting the stage for the climactic Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.
The tension as the launch date approached was overwhelming, and it's amazing that human beings could perform under such extreme conditions of stress. But all the rocket stages did their jobs, and after a three-day trip of about 200,000 miles, the astronauts arrived in lunar orbit on July 20. The descent to the surface was nerve-wracking as the puny on-board navigational computer overloaded and had to be rebooted (!), while the fuel dwindled away to less than one minute reserve. I was watching live on TV, of course, and made sure my younger brother John [age 5] was watching so that he would be able to say he remembered that event later in life. All we could hear was numbers being read off [altitude, velocity, etc.], and then "Contact!" Neil Armstrong's first words after touching down were: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." WOW!
The grainy TV images from Apollo 11 were disappointing, but in future Apollo missions we could see much more clearly what was going on. I recall on one of those missions they had a TV camera pointed at the lunar module was the ascent stage blasted off. AWESOME! Sadly, they canceled the last three planned Apollo missions, but there were six successful lunar landings altogether, plus the aborted Apollo 13 mission. In the years the followed, NASA did three Skylab missions, the first U.S. space station, one joint U.S.-Soviet mission, and after a six-year U.S. space hiatus, the Space Shuttle program got underway in 1981. At first all was going well, but then came the Challenger disaster in 1987, and more recently the Columbia disaster in 2003. Two space ships lost out of a fleet of five is not a very good record.
Last week's launch of the Space Shuttle was marred by another foam insulation problem, which is what doomed Columbia. The fact that the Space Shuttle never lived up to its expectations in terms of economy and reliability has discouraged many Americans about our future in space. But as Russia, China, and possibly India or other countries contemplate manned space flight missions, we can't fail to keep our collective eyes skyward. I'm not convinced that either a Mars mission or another lunar mission is what we need right now, but we simply cannot abandon the exploration of space. America's very identity lies in taking on new challenges and, in Captain Kirk's words, "going where no man has gone before." Corny or not, it's part of what we as a nation are, and we cannot deny our destiny.