I am a child of the Space Age. I make no apologies.
I cried when the crew of Apollo 8 read from Genesis as they orbited the moon in 1968, producing the iconic “Earthrise” photo by astronaut William Anders (who lives in Anacortes). I cried again when Apollo 11’s lunar lander touched down in the Sea of Tranquility the following year, as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto this nearest alien world and said, immortally, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The entire space program entranced the young me. I collected discarded NASA Facts films from the local television stations and amassed a collection of information sent to me by the space agency. A photo of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sat on my wall. Replicas of NASA spacecraft were poised in my bedroom, while my friends and I launched model rockets in empty desert that is now covered by subdivisions.
Films such as “Apollo 13” can still move the adult me to weep, not only for the accomplishment but for the disappointments that followed. At age 12, I expected that by now, five decades on, we’d at least have permanent colonies on the moon and Mars, if not quite be at the level of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Star Trek.”
Instead, our manned space program, such as it is, has been mostly outsourced to billionaires, their companies struggling to consistently reach low-earth orbit. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin notched this milestone in 1961. Color me unimpressed. I saw us land on the moon 50 years ago.
Not everyone felt the same thrill even at the time, as historian Jill Lepore reminds us in a New York Times roundup of fresh Apollo books.
The 1960s space program excluded minorities and marginalized women. Many Americans opposed the program as a waste of money, a Cold War stunt with an ex-Nazi as our chief rocket engineer, and other needs were so pressing. The 1960s America was convulsed over civil rights and the Vietnam War.
“On the eve of man’s noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space,” the Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said. “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth we as a civilized nation have failed.”
Not only do these ills persist, but humanity faces a self-made disaster of climate change — and we lack any of the Apollo courage or focus to address this existential crisis.
Since the last Apollo landing in 1972, memory has faded. A few cranks persist in claiming it was faked on a movie set. Many critics say little of practical value came out of the space program. (Wrong: Creating almost from scratch the technology to get Americans to the moon launched or sped up a host of breakthroughs. Computer miniaturization ultimately led to smartphones and products such as Alexa.)
Still, it’s difficult for even a space kid to argue with Lepore’s trenchant line: “My country went to the moon and all I got was this lousy surveillance state.”
At the time, it was different. The space program that landed men on the moon was “the biggest non-military effort in the history of human civilization,” according to Charles Fishman, author of “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.”
After President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to reach the moon by the end of the decade in a stirring 1962 Rice University speech, NASA received the second-highest funding of any government initiative after the Vietnam War. In today’s dollars, Project Apollo cost $180 billion.
It required 410,000 workers and 20,000 companies. The Saturn V rocket remains the most powerful ever built.
Seattle was an important part of the grand mission.
For example, the lunar orbiters were built here at the Boeing Missile Production Center. The Boeing Space Center in Kent was established to support research and development, while also serving as headquarters for the company’s space division leadership. The lunar rover vehicle was built and tested at the Kent center, too.
A budget-slashed NASA can list many accomplishments since the lunar missions. In addition to the space shuttle and International Space Station, the agency has pulled off many breathtaking accomplishments with unmanned craft. Breathtaking, at least, for the scientific cognoscenti.
To paraphrase architect Daniel Burnham, only putting humans into space has the magic to stir our blood. Alas, today we fund only little plans, such as an unmanned quadcopter to explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. JFK’s clarion call seems impossible today amid extreme political polarization and ferocious culture wars.
The result is that we won’t return to the moon in my lifetime. I’m skeptical that Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk can get us to Mars in the lifetime of anyone living.
Maybe I’m wrong. NASA is slowly moving forward with the Orion spacecraft, which can carry humans. It would lessen our complete dependency on Russia — which we beat to the moon after what seemed an insurmountable Soviet lead — in traveling to the space station. The agency’s budget has slightly improved.
But the vital point is how the transcendent achievement of Project Apollo was something we did together, as a nation, not for a quick buck, not for wealthy space tourists, not to distract ourselves to death with gadgets. When NASA’s ambitions were cut back, it was a sign of the dying American commons.
But on those nights 50 years ago, I could look up at the moon, knowing our astronauts were there, and thinking: We did this. It was America at its best.
It’s appropriate that the Apollo 11 capsule is the centerpiece of an exhibition now at the Museum of Flight.
If you see a teary grown man there, maybe it’s me.