There’s been a lot of coverage and there will be a lot more: 50 years ago right now, three astronauts in a cone-shaped thing attached to a short cylinder were on their way to the moon. Two of them would land there, get out and walk around, pick up some souvenirs, and return to Earth.
It is impossible to overstate the sheer achievement of our landing people on the moon and getting them back home. In my view, it is also impossible to overstate the tragedy of our having abandoned the moon three and a half years later. Imagine Columbus, having discovered the new world, planting a flag and coming home, never to return. Our touching the moon and then running away is something unmatched in human existence, and not in a good way.
But we can discuss that some other time.
For now, let’s think about this: three guys – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins – got into the tiny payload of the biggest rocket ever built, itself not exhaustively tested, to be launched into Earth orbit, whence they would fire another rocket to take them to a fast-moving object a quarter million miles away. They would orbit it and two of them would get into a contraption made of material not much thicker than tinfoil, land it on the moon, launch it from the moon, meet up with the orbiting gumdrop, fire their rocket again, this time aimed for Earth, risk burning up in the atmosphere, and parachute into the Pacific Ocean, to be picked up by people in boats and helicopters.
All of it was controlled by less of a computer than you’re probably carrying in your pocket today, and all of it had to go perfectly or two of them, perhaps all three, would die terrible deaths.
And everything involved had been designed from scratch in less than a decade.
My favorite nonfiction book is “Apollo: The Race to the Moon”by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. With all the tension of a first-rate adventure novel, it details how thousands of people shouldered the impossible task of getting Americans to the moon. It’s out of print now, but available on Kindle. I could not recommend it more highly.
(I know about the book because I was given a copy of it by an acquisitions editor at Simon & Schuster, the big publishing house. She phoned after hearing me interviewed by Jeff Young about the space shuttle on WABC radio. Later, over lunch she gave me Murray and Cox’s book and suggested that I do for the shuttle what they had done for Apollo. She left the publishing house before I could put together an outline, and that’s probably a good thing. I would not have been able to write such a book, in part due to my own limitations and in part because the space shuttle program was nowhere near as heroic as Apollo was.)
The book details the multitude of problems met and solved by those who were inventing what my late friend Bill McInnis called “the art of space engineering.” The group who thought it impossible that the U.S. could get to the moon and back before 1970 included everyone at NASA.
It was assumed that lives would be lost in the effort, possibly many lives. After all, people were often killed in the testing and refinement of a typical fighter jet airplane, and the systems involved in a moon flight were orders of magnitude more complicated.
But to the moon and back we got, with only three Apollo-related astronaut deaths. And those, of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee on Jan. 27, 1967, were due not to some unforeseen engineering problem but to simple stupidity.
The Apollo 204 fire, in an Apollo command module sitting on the pad atop an unfueled Saturn 1b rocket, took place because engineers forgot how oxygen under pressure makes just about anything into fuel that burns furiously, a fact known to any high-school chemistry student of the day. As a result of the fire, the Apollo spacecraft had to be redesigned, with new ones built and old ones rebuilt.
It is remarkable that less than two years after the Apollo 204 fire, three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 broadcast Christmas greetings from lunar orbit
On my wall is a picture of Earth that Thomas P. Stafford took from orbit around the moon. He autographed it for me one afternoon that we spent talking about how he and master astronaut John Young flew the lunar lander to less than 50,000 feet from the moon’s surface. That flight was Apollo 10, in May 1969.
Later, I’d have the chance to discuss lunar exploration with Harrison Schmitt, the next-to-last guy to walk on the moon. That conversation took place here in Athens the summer of 2015, when the International Space University held its summer session here. Schmitt was excited about the potential of our exploring and exploiting the moon; I despaired that we would ever return.
But for now we should be celebrating the pure, magnificent achievement that was taking place 50 years ago today.
Day after tomorrow we’ll remember the amazing moment a half century earlier when human beings from the planet Earth for the first time set foot on land that was not planet Earth. I remember watching it, after a scout meeting, at the home of Jim Lunsted, a friend whose family had a big color television. (The live moon video, it turned out, was in black and white. Oh, well.)
It cost a lot of money to go to the moon, but the expenditure paid off, as well-run space programs always do. For instance, it was the moon program that led to mass production of integrated circuits. That, in turn, made it possible for IBM to use off-the-shelf components when it introduced the IBM Personal Computer. And that made it possible to make personal computers at prices actual persons could afford.
The benefits of the lunar program were far greater than Tang and memory foam.
Let’s step away even from that what’s-in-it-for-me consideration. Let’s consider the guys who were willing, even eager, to strap themselves into a very uncomfortable little room which they would call home for a couple of weeks, to then be launched into space far beyond the possibility of rescue should something go wrong, with the very real possibility that something would indeed go wrong.
Let us ponder who and what we were then, and perhaps cast our eyes downward that we are not that any more.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.