Today marks the 40th anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon. Last Friday evening, at the Air Force Museum and Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio 12 of the 30 men who flew Apollo formed a panel to share their experiences of the space programs that made history.
Apollo did not erupt from whole cloth. It was part of systematic engineering process and geopolitical challenge that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union to determine which nation would be preeminent scientifically, technologically and militarily in space.
In the late 1950s the Cold War was in full swing and on October 4, 1957 the Soviets surprised the world and launched the first satellite into orbit. It was called Sputnik, a 184 pound sphere about the size of a basketball. The “space race” was on. The United States scrambled to try to catch up, but four years later Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first human to orbit the earth. A month after that Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space. Then, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered his famous speech to a joint session of Congress. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal , before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
Most agree that this goal was the greatest scientific challenge in our nation’s history…challenge to our creativity, imagination, commitment, discipline and perseverance. Hundreds of thousands of highly motivated engineers, scientists, technicians, managers and executives in academia, industry, government and at NASA met the challenge and created the technology that took us to the moon and back.
Beginning in May 1961 there were three successive space efforts. “Mercury,” six one-man capsules launched into space, followed by ten two-man capsule missions called “Gemini.” Then came Apollo, eleven three-man module missions. The first four tested procedures and equipment in orbit. On the fifth mission, Apollo 11, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. The last six missions built on the success of the earlier missions on the moon surface except Apollo 13. It just barely avoided disaster when three brilliant astronaut engineers, led by Jim Lovell, joined their scientific wizard colleagues on the ground and brought Apollo 13 home safely making it, in some ways, the most successful Apollo mission.
In the mid seventies the space missions continued with three huge “Skylab” modules in orbit for 28, 59 and 84 days followed by a joint U.S.-Soviet effort with the first international rendezvous, Apollo-Soyuz. Next came the space shuttle and international space station projects which continue to this day. Eleven astronauts are in orbit today, Monday, July 20, 2009.
In just eight and a half years the United States achieved the goal set by President Kennedy in 1961…landed men on the moon and returned them safely home. Remarkable is an understatement.
What about the future? Right now, a Presidential panel is assessing the future of America’s goals in space…return to the moon, then Mars? Go to Mars only? Other? Keep the astronauts on earth and let robots and technology do our exploring? One question being asked is whether the United States will relinquish its leadership position in science and technology in space to, perhaps, China, India or Russia? A related question is whether the United States is capable, again, of making the kind of national commitment to scientific achievement as our nation did in the 1960s.