by Curt Kovener
In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy told Congress we’d put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he knew that the journey of discovery would yield more value than simply beating the Russians to the moon.
“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 the Earth,” were the words of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, as he announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Next Monday, July 20, will be the 40th anniversary of achieving that landmark with the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
I can recall that summer between my junior and senior year of high school watching the black & white images from space (on my family’s black & white TV with Walter Cronkite doing the commentary) and even as a too-young-to-know-much but old-enough-to-know-everything teenager being mesmerized. That night I went outside and gazed at the moon trying to calculate just where those astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed.
It was a time when we thought anything we could imagine was possible.
Today our Space Shuttle program no longer captures the imagination of people. The launches and landings aren’t even covered by the news unless there is trouble or a tragedy. We are even retiring older spacecraft – a reflection that only confirms the gray hair from someone who remembers the lunar landing as a youthful teen. Our economy is in tatters, and the federal government is looking for places to cut the budget, and NASA is looking like an easy target.
But now is not the time to cut back, according to Tahir Rahman, author of We Came in Peace for all Mankind: the untold story of the Apollo 11 Silicon Disc (www.silicondisc.com). As it was in the 1960s, when we faced an unprecedented military build-up in the Cold War and a struggling economy, the purpose and need for a space program has not changed.
“Discovery,” Rahman said. “Discovery has always been the primary practical application of the space program. Alexander Fleming wasn’t looking for penicillin when he discovered it. He was researching something else. We didn’t have a clue what an electron was until JJ Thomson saw the first one in 1897. Now, we have a whole infrastructure based on electronics. Why should we continue to explore space during a recession, when money is tight? Discovery. It was one of the founding principles of this country, and we must not forsake it because it’s convenient or expedient.”
And I was struck by that thought of discovery: finding things that are of benefit even though we might not be looking for them. It was a thirst for discovery which led to the country’s western expansion and the western expansion led to the discovery of other resources which aided our early primitive life. Even today at the wilderness retreat, though I grew up in rural Jackson County and routinely tramp the hills & hollows of the retreat, new found plants and critters continue to amaze me
“We will see a manned scientific base being built on the Moon,” Neil Armstrong said shortly after the first lunar landing. “It’ll be a scientific station manned by an international crew, very much like the Antarctic station. But there is a much more important question than whether man will be able to live on the Moon. We have to ask ourselves whether man will be able to live together down here on Earth.”
Understanding that, perhaps space travel should be a more paramount concern today than it was when President Kennedy first set the Moon landing goal.
With more wars, climate change and environmental concerns spotting the globe than when we first launched the space program, there has never been a more important time for us to explore space.
And if you think we have discovered all that we need, I am reminded of my grandparents back in July 1969. They were born into a time when the main mode of transportation for the horse, they witnessed the invention and mass production of the automobile, the creation and mass transportation using air travel, being born into a world where most calculations were “ciphered” with pencil and paper to a time of early computers (and haven’t they come a long way 40 years—that which at first took up a full room can now be carried in you pocket to calculate, communicate and view video of events a half a world away).
So if my grandparents lived from horse & buggy travel to seeing a man land on the moon, what will be my generation’s legacy to those who follow?