Saturday, July 20, 2013

One Small Step...

Karen: Today, July 20, 2013, is the 44th anniversary of something that should be a national holiday: the day men first stepped upon the Moon. It was back on this day in 1969 when the Apollo 11 lunar lander, the Eagle, touched down upon the lunar surface, and astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to ever walk upon the surface of another planetary body. His partner, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin joined him shortly after. This tremendous feat was achieved through the genius, hard work, and sheer force of will of thousands of people. Even today, as we have leapt ahead dramatically in our technological know-how, the Apollo program stands as a testament to the incredible greatness we as a species can reach, through our combined efforts. 

Now of course, the impetus for the mission itself was not all sweetness and light. The motivation for the entire space race was primarily due to the Cold War, and the desire to ensure the the 'high ground of space' was not owned by the Soviets. Still, the efforts of the brave astronauts, and the scientists, engineers, technicians, and workers who made science fiction into reality, became the stuff of legend and inspired many.

Unfortunately, after Apollo, it seems our space program never really seemed to find a direction. The shuttle program, while a necessary workhorse, was never inspiring. Once the Soviets began to collapse, there was no 'other' to push us to go further, to risk more. Missions to Mars have been relegated to robots only, and it seems likely that exploration for the foreseeable future will remain with probes and machines only. Right now NASA doesn't even have any rockets of its own with heavy lift capabilities; flights to the International Space Station have relied on the Russians, who have had their own problems with their rockets lately, and commercial efforts

The space program was once inspirational; occasionally, it still is. A few people got excited when the Mars rover Curiosity landed on the red planet last year. But by and large, the program has lost its luster with the public. That's nothing new; people were jaded with the later Apollo missions. 

Most of us BABsters grew up right around the time of the moon landings, Skylab, Viking, and the first Shuttle launches. I'm sure some of you have some feelings about not only the first moon landing, but also what's going on (or not going on) in space. I'd like to hear it.

Except any hoax theories. Sorry, but I really DON'T want to hear that stuff!!


Rip Jagger said...

Sadly it becomes increasingly evident that the Race to the Moon was the spear point of a nation rallied for defense and possible war. The Cold War infused the effort with a focus which insured ready funds and broad support.

Sadly outside that militaristic environment, we see that exploration for the sheer scientific advancements poses a too vague goal for many folks ceaselessly focused on the here and the now. Always the discussion is rooted in pure science or possible industrial applications and that has allowed space travel to become less a national commitment and more a capitalistic endeavor.

Future space travel will resemble more what Robert Heinlein predicted and described than what has preceded it. That's a good and a bad. The good is that we will ultimately push off into space but the bad is that the whole population will only prosper from the effort in indirect ways. The common good less important than individual success.

That's obviously true even when the governments controlled the effort, but it makes the whole experience less noble and heroic than we've come to expect.

Armstrong and Aldrin were like Lewis and Clark, but the guys who go next will be more like Carnegie and Judah.

Less myth more money!

Rip Off

Humanbelly said...

Excellent anniversary-related topic, Karen. Both of our kids went to Robert Goddard Elementary/Middle School-- just down the road a touch from the NASA Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, MD, so the space program has always had a kind of background presence in our lives-- although we're not a space-geek family by any stretch. I also worked a few times w/ a fellow (John) who was one of the main engineer-types on the initial Hubble missions (he was the one who figured out how to solve a mechanical/logistical problem post-launch by using a set of tinker toys to make a quick model to demonstrate). Smart, interesting, talented fellow. Now, at the Air & Space Museum downtown, they used to have the lunar capsule on display, and you could see inside it-- and the thing that ALWAYS struck me was how simple (dare I say, comparatively primitive?) the onboard technology was. Rows of toggle switches like the ones from Home Depot, tiny little vaccuum-tube screens, dials, etc-- not nearly as complex, even, as a modern day airliner, say. The last time I saw it, many years ago, was around the time NASA seemed to be having technical failure after technical failure, and I commented to John about the fact that we got clear to the Moon in a big, powerful vessel that had a fraction of the sophistication of these later vehicles, and yet these later ones seemed unable to even match the earlier achievements. His response was that there's always been a tendency to overlook (or disregard) the beauty of simplicity. It's the problem we see even more today where, the more elements you add to any device, the more you increase the chances of that device's failing in some capacity.

(I mean, is ANYTHING fussier or more prone to slipping than a bicycle with 30+ gears???)

I do remember the moonwalk itself-- I would have been 8 years old-- my parents called me down to watch it on our TV in the basement (where we kept our TV, for some reason. . . ). NO ONE else seems to remember this, so maybe it was just our local feed from NW Indiana, but the image was upside down for nearly the whole thing. It was still unbelievably cool to watch it happening live at that time. (W/ that element of the absurdity of life thrown in-- we're able to get there and send an image back and all. . . but the easy part (the image) is hampered by a silly, annoying glitch).

Ohhhh, but it was THE COOLEST THING EVER that summer, though, wasn't it?


david_b said...

Karen, both you and Rip are very spot on with my feelings.

Wasn't it a GRAND national endeavor, not to mention a great childhood..???? I remember being our classes being herded into the gymnasium to watch launches and splashdowns. Ah, it was glorious. At one point, I could name the astronauts and lunar/service module names of each mission, had the Tang lunar rover (bought it again a few years back..), I was always drawing pics of the LEM. Going to the Air/Space Museum in DC, I typically spend about an hour just walkin' around the LEM. By far it's my favorite space vehicle next to the Gemini space module.

I'd like to wax more philosophy about the rise and fall of this fantastic program, but you both summed it up pretty well. The Cold War was the real 'propulsion system' that kept us on schedule and got us to the Moon. It was the few sources of good news President Johnson had going for the country back then. As many has said, we'll never have another Apollo. I vividly recall the moonwalk of Apollo 11.., as I do of 'em all up through Gene Cernan on 17, the last flight..

The COOLEST thing ever in my life was attending the EAA in Oshkosh WI on this anniversary back in '94 (25yrs). we had 20 (yes, 20) of the original astronauts on one stage, nearly all the Apollo crews.., it was great fun to watch them josh and joke around like old fighter pilots (most of them were..). Both Neil and Buzz were there as well.. One guy brought his vintage GI Joe space capsule to get autographed.. THAT was cool. (Wish I was smart enough to bring mine..).

A great documentary was 'Moonshot', a fun and cool look back done by Deke Slayton (who had died just before it was completed..) and among all the astronauts interviewed, Al Shepard was interviewed several times. Never put on DVD, it's far more fun than the 'When We Left Earth' sets.. It was also one of Al's last filmed appearances, where he poignantly shared how his Dad (who was initially against Al's decision to go into space) was proud of him; you can see him reflectively choke up.

I always wish kids today had these kind of memories.., memories of travel far and above our skies, truely escaping the bonds of Earth.

As I've said before, 'it was all we had back then'..

And it was GRAND.

(Incidentally, remember Bruce Lee today, anniversary of his death as well...)

Edo Bosnar said...

Can't add much to the comments above, I tend to agree with the general disappointment about how the space program didn't just continue rocketing (pun intended) forward.
As for Karen's suggestion about a national holiday, I'll go one better and say the moonwalk anniversary should be a global holiday - it was a landmark for all humanity and should be seen as such. Any time I watch a documentary about the Apollo missions and esp. the lunar landings, chills always go down my spine. However, I would also suggest that the date of Gagarin's first manned spaceflight should also be a global holiday, as it's a similar milestone - and may the political/propaganda aspect of both space programs be damned (in fact, I've watched a few documentaries about the early years of the Soviet space program, and am similarly awed by the efforts of all the scientists and engineers, and the courage of the cosmonauts).
I remember thinking back around 1990, as the socialist regimes were toppling, how cool it would be if NASA and the Russian/Soviet space agency basically joined forces - for a brief time there, I was thinking we might have just had a permanently staffed moonbase by 2001 as Clarke predicted. But then global geopolitics rather quickly slapped my starry-eyed, idealistic self back to reality...

Doug said...

The moon landing is one of my first memories, although at only 37 months of age it's a foggy one. But into the 1970's I do recall being very excited about the rocket launches and splashdowns. The countdowns to launch were especially riveting.

Like others, I am excitedly curious to see what the face of further exploration will look like.


J.A. Morris said...

Sadly, I was too young to remember any of the moon landings. But I was excited by the Space Shuttle test launch in '77 and I always had my parents wake me up to watch shuttle launches (they often took off before 6 AM) for the first few years of the program. I still recall (without wiki-ing them) the names of the 1st shuttle crew, Crippen & Young.

My wife and I were talking about this anniversary last night, about how we sort of felt bad for Michael Collins. He was part of the first moon landing, but didn't get to set foot on the moon.

Karen said...

What can I say? You guys never cease to amaze me with the thoughtfulness of your comments. It really is hard to explain to the younger generation what it was like growing up in that era. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were and still are heroes to me. And I have nothing but admiration and envy for the people behind the scenes who got to work on making the "birds" go up. What an amazing experience!

HB, I share your feelings regarding the Apollo and other early space craft. It's absolutely astonishing that we were able to achieve these things given the level of technology on-hand. But one thing that always impressed me was the fact that when there were problems or failures, people always seemed to rise above it. Like during the initial lunar landing, Armstrong overcame instrument failure and made the landing just before running out of fuel. And of course the issues with Apollo 13 are well known. It was that can-do spirit that permeated the space program and by extension American industry which seems so lacking today.

Edo, I agree, it should be a global holiday. I almost said that in my piece but didn't want to seem presumptuous (that people the world over would feel the same way). And yes, the Soviets deserve a lot of credit for their space program, which really was ahead of the US for a great deal of the way.

The university I work for does a lot of work on instrument packages that go on probes and the Mars rovers. I had to put together a report on all the missions we've been involved with and it was pretty impressive -and it gave me a chance to catch up with what NASA's been doing. While this is still exploration, it just doesn't thrill me like manned exploration does. I know that it's a lot easier, cheaper, and safer to send machines into space, but there's something about knowing that a fellow human being is standing on another world, speaking to you from across the vast darkness of makes you feel like there's so much more to us, that we can do great things, that we must do great things. Maybe that's what we got from those moon landings that the later generations didn't. Or maybe I am just full of crap.

Karen said...

Oh and David, we could never forget the Dragon! Here's an appreciation of Bruce from last year:

You should remember it -you commented on it!

Garett said...

"There's something about knowing that a fellow human being is standing on another world, speaking to you from across the vast darkness of makes you feel like there's so much more to us, that we can do great things, that we must do great things."

Yeah, this is it! Well said Karen.

I get inspired by documentaries on the moon landing, and yes I wish the space program had continued with more vigor. Chris Hadfield singing recently on the space station shows that people are still interested in space...perhaps they need more entertainment now along the way. What would be the next step or steps in space exploration? Human on Mars? What after that? Stations orbiting other planets?

david_b said...

Oh I do obviously..., just wanted to remind you and everyone today since this is the 40th anniversary. I know he's a fav of yours.

I even watched a few Hornet eps this morning already..

david_b said...

Actually, one point I failed to mention before was my pure geek admiration for one of the unsung heroes of both space programs, not technolgy per se, but the ever-important 'slide ruler'.. I still LOVE doing trig calculations on mine.., just for fun.

One of the highlights in 'Apollo 13' was the ol' slide ruler and paper&pencil used at Mission Control (along with the impromptu CO2 filter creation..).

Fred W. Hill said...

I was 7 years old and living in Japan when Neil Armstrong took that famous first step on the moon. I'm fairly sure my family watched it on tv but I have no distinct memories of the summer of '69. Of course, I do remember later watching other moon landings in school. Seems strange to think the last one was sooooo long ago now. I also recall the FF issue late in Lee & Kirby's run on the moon landing (I got the MGC reprint in the late '70s I believe). Upon first reading it struck me as rather silly -- after all, in the Marvelverse circa 1969, the FF had already been to the moon several years before, barely beating the Red Ghost and his Super Apes, and learning the Watcher had made himself cozy there. In later retrospect, however, I can see it was Lee & Kirby paying tribute to the real people who actually did what had previously been pure fantasy. Kirby in particular obviously had a strong fascination with the space program and I suspect it was his idea to have the fantastic salute the actual.

Anonymous said...

Also the 42nd anniversary of my birth!

Doug said...

Happy Birthday, Osvaldo!!


Mike said...

Not much to add, just a personal story. My brushes with the space program came during the shuttle era. I saw it launch in the early 90's and that was really something to see/hear! And the last time I was in FL we did the Cape Kennedy tour and one of the last shuttle missions was in position to launch. Didn't get the chance to see them light that one up though.

One thing that's deep in my memory is the Challenger accident mainly because I was home from school sick from mono and I witnessed it first hand on TV. That was chilling. Actually another big thing happened that week too - an earthquake strong enough that it could be felt which is kinda rare in NW Pennsylvania. Besides the misery of mono those events make it so that I will never forget that week.

Redartz said...

The idea of both the Apollo 11 landing and Gagarin's flight being global holidays is very appropriate. Yes, the Cold War did drive the space program, but the worldwide fascination for the lunar landing evokes a more humanitarian justification. Obviously, millions of people globally are inspired by an event which focuses not on the actions of a nation, but on the achievement of humankind. We may not see such attitudes on display now, but I sincerely believe such optimism still resides within us.

Murray said...

This is a day I commemorate every year. It is sad the glory and wonder didn't just carry on as it should have. HOWEVER, be of stout heart!

- Scaled composites is building a giant plane with the purpose of carrying Space X's upper stage Falcons.

- The British government gave up on HOTOL. Some private dudes not only solved the tech problem, but improved it to the point that the British government bought it back from them

- The Space X team is also perfecting lower stages that can soft land by themselves for reuse. Makes the whole space flight thing MUCH cheaper.

As a good friend of mine puts it, the water is filling up behind the dam and it will slop over real soon.

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