Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Apollo 11: Fifty Years Later and I Feel Cheated

The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon is upon us. Rightly considered perhaps the greatest technological achievement of all time--and one that was completed from start to finish in less than ten years--I am happy to be in the minority of living Americans who witnessed the first steps on the Moon live on television. It was amazing.

It was especially amazing for a kid who was not quite 12, but who had, like many others at the time, immersed himself in the space program for his entire life. I remember watching the Mercury and Gemini missions on our faithful old black and white Magnavox TV. I read everything I could get my hands on about the space program. I put together model airplanes and later model rockets. By the time of the first Moon landing, my parents had splurged on a new color TV (G.E., if memory serves), but the Moon walk of Armstrong and Aldrin was broadcast in black and white, so it did not matter.

To a kid, Neil Armstrong was the perfect American hero, but, then again, so were all of the astronauts. Not only were they cool guys, they almost all had kids like my brothers and me. They all trained hard, seemed fearless, and, at least as presented by NASA, all were perfect role models. 

As fast as the space program moved, it moved too slowly for my juvenile sensibilities. For one thing, we needed to beat the Russians--the bad guys who caused us to "duck and cover" under our desks in elementary school. Waiting for the Moon landing seemed like waiting for Christmas morning--it took forever. When the Moon landing finally happened and the mission unfolded flawlessly, it seemed almost too good to be true. NASA could accomplish anything! 

After Apollo, the next stop had to be Mars and the other planets. Star Trek in real life was possible. Lost in Space, another TV program from the era, was set in 1997 and they were  headed to Alpha Centauri. Even that did not seem too far-fetched after Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon. But the best thing was the certainty that the future was going to be even more amazing than Apollo 11. By 1997 we surely would  have been to Mars and maybe to other planets. Even better, by 1997 I would just be turning 40, which was about my Dad's age at the time of the Moon landing. Dad did not seem too old. And who knew where we would be by the time I became really old, like 60? The solar system--and maybe beyond--was to be my generation's oyster!

The adventures and advances that seemed predestined in July of 1969, it sadly turns out, never happened. As this is written, no person has ventured outside of low Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Embarrassingly, our country cannot even put a person into low Earth orbit without hitching a ride on on Russian Soyuz rocket, a spacecraft of 1960s vintage that seems downright primitive compared to Apollo. This has been the case since the last Space Shuttle launch nearly eight years ago. This lack of capability is even more embarrassing given that Apollo was perfected and flown to the Moon in slightly less than eight years.

Thus, I feel cheated and our country should feel cheated. The "one giant leap," as Armstrong so aptly put it, has been squandered. In fact, we have gone backward. The extent of the regression is perhaps best put in context by comparing the 50 years before Apollo 11 to the 50 years after. In 1919, only 16 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, we were flying airplanes made of wood and cloth. By 1936, Douglas had introduced the DC-3, a metal monoplane that can fairly be called the first modern airliner. By the 1940s, the first jet military aircraft were flying and, in 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. The B-52 bomber was introduced in 1955, is still in service today, and is expected to be in service for decades to come. Shortly thereafter, Boeing's 707 launched jet passenger service domestically and internationally. 

And after the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957 and shook our country out of its complacency, Alan Shepard's first Mercury suborbital flight happened in May 1961, followed by John Glenn's first orbital Mercury flight in February 1962. Then came Project Gemini, where we truly learned to "fly" in space. Next came Apollo 7 in 1968, the intervening Apollo flights, and the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. In short, the 50 years before Apollo 11 were marked by never-ending progress.

The 50 years after Apollo 11 are not so good. Other than the remaining Apollo missions which ended in 1972, we have not accomplished much in space. Our attention was diverted for 30 years by the Space Shuttle, a flawed and somewhat dangerous craft that was impressive only for its size. The Shuttle, unlike Apollo, never accomplished what its designers said it would (it was never a truly reliable "space truck," as had been represented). The Shuttle never ventured beyond low Earth orbit and much of what it carried into space could have been put there by other launch vehicles. The worst thing about the Shuttle was that it completely stunted development of other, more capable, manned systems. It is not surprising in the least that the current designs proposed for returning Americans to space resemble Apollo, not the Shuttle. 

The rest of aerospace has also not had an impressive run since July 1969. Other than incremental improvements in fuel efficiency and noise, modern airliners are no more capable than the 707s and 727s that flew then. Americans travel in the same way, and for the most part less comfortably, than in July 1969. Concorde was retired 16 years ago.

By now you are probably asking, "OK, I understand that you feel cheated out of your science fiction-like future, but what is the real cost?" The short answer is that we can never fully know, but it is a lot. First, we lost a primary impetus for young people to pursue what we now call STEM in their studies and careers. Apollo made it cool to study math, science and engineering. At its height, Apollo supported 400,000 jobs, many in engineering and manufacturing. If the space program had remained on the front burner instead of being treated as an afterthought, it is certain that we would have many more scientists and engineers and more high paying jobs in those fields. Those who complained about the cost of Apollo (which was many times less than the cost of the Vietnam war) seemed to assume that the funds were burned up like rocket fuel when, in reality, they supported the education, training, advancement, and employment of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, mostly in private industry.

Second, we lost a huge driver of beneficial technology. As the fiftieth anniversary approaches, books and articles have chronicled how Project Apollo fostered the development of the integrated circuit and the digital computer. Other notable technological developments from the space program that we use every day (admittedly, not necessarily derived from Apollo) include communication satellites, weather satellites and global positioning systems. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has listed 20 notable inventions developed from the space program, and there are undoubtedly hundreds more. Although we have these inventions, we can only dream of what else might exist if space exploration had remained a priority.

Third, we lost a tremendous source of national pride and unity. This might be the greatest cost. Almost everyone in the U.S. watched Neil Armstrong step on the Moon, and many more watched world wide. And then everyone held their collective breath and watched as the crew returned safely to Earth. After years of declining prestige, the Moon landing re-established our country for a shining moment as not only the world leader in technology, but as the leader of the free world. Unlike the Soviet program, which was kept under wraps until after missions were completed successfully (and unsuccessful missions were simply kept under wraps), our missions were broadcast live for the whole world to see.

We could surely use of source of national pride and unity today. Instead, our so-called leaders on all sides exchange caustic barbs, insults and taunts like junior high school kids on Twitter (surely the worst invention of the 21st Century). Our politicians seem to become dumber every year. No one has, as George H.W. Bush put it, "the vision thing." And there is no John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan on the horizon. Despite our prosperity and creature comforts, it is in many respects a sad and slightly embarrassing time to be an American.

And so, while remembering the first Moon landing in all its glory, it is impossible for me not to wonder what could have been and should have been if we had not squandered the one giant leap. As I have now entered the twilight of late middle age (or, perhaps more accurately, early old age),  there is no certainty that I will live to see a return to the Moon (we have to get back to low Earth orbit first), and any chance of witnessing a Mars landing seems like a pipe dream. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are working on it (as is, to some degree, NASA), but from my perspective, they really need to get on the stick! In 1969, time seemed unlimited. Now it does not.

But at least there is Apollo 11. I watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the Moon when it happened. Most Americans living today cannot say that. They should really feel cheated.