The final frontier
July 16, 2009 1 Comment
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Apollo 11 mission, the absolute apex of the human scientific and engineering experience, the 20th century and American achievement all rolled into one.
To celebrate the event, the NY Times has a long, but exceptional article written by the man who covered the space race the first time around, John Noble Wilford, including details of the run-up to Apollo 11 and what it meant to the country and world, as well as the explanation for how he arrived at one of the single most perfect ledes in the history of print:
I get up and read the articles I have written about the mission up to now. Reporters may feel impelled to write of the next day’s events as the culmination of the space race, the achievement of an ambitious national goal, a historic triumph. I swear to myself that I will not use “historic” in my top paragraph.
I reach for my notebook and try several opening sentences. They must be put on a strict diet. I cross out adjectives. I eliminate clauses that are superfluous and sound too much like heavy music for a movie soundtrack. I begin again: “American astronauts landed.” No, too restrictive and chauvinistic; it will be clear soon enough that the astronauts are American and the goal of a decade has been achieved.
I finally get to the irreducible essence in one short sentence: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”
Literally, the entire world watched and shared in the joy as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on a planetary body that was not our own.
It is a tremendous achievement, completed in just eight years using less technology than most people currently have in their wrist watches and WAAAAAY less than any cell phone built in the past decade.
A few years back, President Bush again challenged the nation to send men to the moon, though this time it will take until 2020, if it happens at all.
Meanwhile, today, the space shuttle lifted off on its fourth-to-last scheduled mission. There was little to no fanfare. I watched it online (I am still awed by the power, speed and pure, unadulterated mathematics it takes to get a 4 million pound vehicle off the ground). Space flight has become routine. Only disasters get our attention.
Which is too bad. I did not agree with President Bush very often (you can probably count the number of times on one hand), but I applauded his efforts to get back to the moon, and eventually, Mars (despite his typically Bushian way of saying we’ll do it and then cutting the funding…). I think reading accounts of what that moon mission meant to the country and the world shows the value and importance of such missions.
The telecast from Apollo 8, the Christmas mission in 1968 in which man first left earth orbit and circled the moon in preparation for a landing three flights later, is generally considered the a defining moment in man realizing how much we were all in this together on our shining blue marble, sitting alone in the lifelessness of space. The Christmas message from the astronauts, who were stopped in their tracks the first time they saw an Earthrise over the desolate and empty surface of the moon, gives me chills to this day, and I was not born until nearly eight years later.
Late Christmas Eve, on one of the final orbits, Anders announced, “The crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you.” While a camera focused on the Moon outside the spacecraft window, Anders read the opening words of the creation story from the Book of Genesis.“In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth,” Anders began. “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Lovell then took over with the verse beginning: “And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night.”
Borman closed the reading: “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas; and God saw that it was good.”
At the conclusion, a hushed audience throughout the lands of Earth heard Borman sign off from the Moon: “And from the crew of Apollo 8 we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”
I am not a religious man. But there is no doubt that we all live here together on the good Earth and it IS good.
Retiring the space shuttle program and abandoning the International Space Station (scheduled for 2016) is a mistake. We must maintain a presence in space and we must make our way back to the moon, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how tiny and insignificant this planet is from even our closest planetary neighbor.
We have forgotten a lot of things we knew in 1969, and a lot of it needed to be forgotten, but now, more than ever, we need to be reminded how small and precious the good Earth really is and that we are all in it together.
To the men in white shirts and black horn-rimmed glasses who made it possible the first time around, I salute you and thank you for your service to science, the nation and the world.
And to everyone else I say let’s go back to the moon.