Forty years ago, I was a twelve-year-old boy whose voice had yet to change living in Endwell, New York. Like most Americans I was glued to my TV set because what appeared to be the most monumental event in the history of mankind was underway: man was about to land and walk on the moon! 1969 was a crazy time. It made no sense that such an epic achievement was taking place amongst the chaos of The Vietnam War (which was going badly), assassinations and great civil unrest. Fortunately, absconded in our upstate New York suburb we were largely insulated from these events. We could however gaze into the night sky, look at the moon and marvel that our species was about to land and put a foot on the lunar surface.
On July 20th, 1969, the day astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the network coverage was nonstop. All the networks had continuous coverage but like most Americans we were tuned into our CBS affiliate. Why? Because the moon landing was being covered by trusted news anchor and space nut Walter Cronkite. Between many commercials from The International Paper Company (“where good ideas grow on trees”), Uncle Walt and his space buddies (which typically included astronaut Wally Schirra and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) gave us the inside scoop. They were amply assisted by the CBS animation department, which created animations of events that we could not see live, like the landing of Eagle on the moon. (As I recall the simulated landing happened at least thirty seconds before the actual landing.) Americans may have been culturally divided but on July 20th, 1969 we were all watching TV or listening to the radio. It was not just America; it was the entire world. This triumphant event was simply not to be missed.
Yesterday, veteran CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite finally passed into the great hereafter at the ripe old age of 92. Wally Schirra died in 2007 at the age of 84. Arthur C. Clarke is still among the living at age 90. America’s space program, which reached its zenith on July 20th, 1969 is now nearing its nadir. The space shuttle is about to be retired. A next generation vehicle to take Americans into space is years away, at best. This means that soon for the first time since the 1960s the United States will have no way to put a man into space.
In many ways, July 20th, 1969 will probably be seen as the United States of America’s greatest moment. Since then America has felt like an empire in decline. In 1969, the universe seemed within our grasp. If we could put a man on the moon, we said, why not a man on Mars? Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, called for putting men on Mars by 2031. In reality, we could put a man on Mars by 2020 if we summoned our collective will. It would actually not be that large an engineering enterprise, at least compared with putting a man on the moon. In ten years, we went from Alan Shepard’s suborbital spaceflight in a Mercury capsule to putting a man on the moon. During the 1960s, we discovered that as a nation we could focus on what seemed like this crazy national goal and within a decade actually achieve it. In 2009, we struggle to even summon the will to limit our nation’s greenhouse gases.
What the hell happened? Part of the problem was that after the moon landing there seemed to be no satisfactory encore. Subsequent landings seemed anticlimactic, even though the later landings were far more interesting. By December 19, 1972 with the end of the Apollo 17 mission, our interest in exploring the moon largely ended. NASA tried to reinvent itself as a more practical agency. It reused surplus Apollo hardware and sent Skylab into earth orbit. The Skylab launch was the last time a Saturn V would rocket into space and I was five miles away to witness it. NASA then created the space shuttle as a next generation reusable space vehicle. Unfortunately, the space shuttle proved to be a great idea in theory, but not so much in practice. It was complex, hard to maintain and magnitudes more expensive than anticipated. At one point NASA was saying they could get cargo into orbit on the shuttle for $200 a pound. Each shuttle flight now costs in the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Today, marginal crowds of tourists will show up for a shuttle launch. By becoming commonplace, shuttle launches have lost their fascination. In fact, our manned space program today is a product of 1970s engineering. The people who inspired us to marvel in the space program, like Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra, are largely dead or retired. With so many pressing needs and our government vastly overextended, there appears to be little will to reinvigorate our manned spaceflight program.
Our modern triumphs in the manned spaceflight program these days are somewhat muted and amount to the International Space Station, now actually close to completion. This is just as well because the space shuttle is the only vehicle big enough to ferry its largest components. The ISS too is largely being taken for granted. Its research is of marginal value. It is most useful simply as an exercise in learning what is required for people to live in space for long periods. It turns out that piecing together an international space station in orbit is hard work. It is also challenging to keep it in orbit. Rocket and satellite debris careens around in near earth orbit. The ISS needs occasional boosts so it doesn’t fall back into earth. What is its future? You would think that after investing about a hundred billion dollars we might want to keep it orbiting, but NASA has plans to de-orbit the ISS in 2016. Apparently, it cannot find the money to maintain it beyond then, so it might as well fall back to earth. With the shuttle’s retirement, we have to depend on Russian space capsules to service the ISS anyway.
The truth is the nation’s manned spaceflight program is on critical support. It is not clear that there is the political will to ensure that the United States maintains a manned spaceflight program at all. We have had great and sometimes stunning success with unmanned spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. Unless the dynamics change quickly though, the future of manned spaceflight may belong to the Russians and the Chinese.
We simply have lost interest. But perhaps, if enough Americans take the time to appreciate the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, we will summon our collective will toward more manned space exploration of our universe.