I turn 73 on October 9th and, to be honest, I feel sorry for anyone who has not lived during much of the last century. In a very real way, America’s Apollo program that put men on the Moon on July 20, 1969 was as an exciting a moment in history as anyone could ask to experience.
On Friday, October 1, a total of 1,100 employees at Cape Canaveral reported to work for the last time. No more space shuttles. No more trips to the Moon. Not even trips to the International Space Station.
In February President Obama called for an end to NASA’s Moon program. In fairness, the U.S. hadn’t put a man there since December 1972, the fifth of the Apollo missions. The spacecraft and Saturn launch vehicles were later used for the Skylab program and the joint American-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz test project.
I can remember John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
In the 1980s I visited Cape Canaveral on assignment for a magazine and had the opportunity to go out to the launch pad. You cannot imagine how big those Saturn launch vehicles were unless you stood there and looked up at the huge structure, realizing that launching a Moon mission or any other is comparable to putting a skyscraper into outer space.
I confess that I always suspected that our space program was actually a cover for our development of ballistic missiles. The idea of going to the Moon was conceived during the Eisenhower administration in 1960 when many of the early decisions about the development of a missile program took shape.
At the time, the Russians had put Sputnik into space in 1957 and had scored a huge propaganda victory. What it said to Eisenhower and others was that the same missiles that lifted it into outer space could be used against any of our cities. By April 1961 Yuri Gargarin, a Russian, became the first person to fly in space. Americans took notice.
Now the only way to get to the space station is aboard a Russian vehicle. How’s that for irony? There’s a lot of talk about developing a new generation of space vehicles and, since we’ve been using technology developed in the 1950s and 60s, that’s probably a good idea.
Or maybe not? Despite all the Star Wars films and Star Trek television shows, I have my doubts about the wisdom of putting humans in space for any reason. Probably the best space project we have undertaken involving humans was the Hubble Telescope, but it has been other unmanned projects, the Mariner, Voyager, and Cassini flights that have told as just as much or more about the planetary system we’re in.
What we know for sure is that humans are not designed to live in outer space because we are creatures of our extraordinary and singular atmosphere, not the black vacuum of space.
Us old codgers must tip our hats to Kennedy and his predecessor in the White House. We must marvel at the engineering and other scientific genius of those who worked for NASA and gave us reason to take pride in being Americans.
We will not make any more trips to the Moon, but we were the first and last to do so. That speaks to the American exceptionalism that today is in doubt because we have a President more likely to apologize for America than to praise it.
© Alan Caruba, 2010