Gerard has several great posts commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing (link to the main page, just scroll) over at his joint—along with one on an anniversary of a rather more sordid, horrific, and disgusting sort—with links to other essays and lots of inspiring photos. This one is my personal fave:
After the 1972 conclusion of the Apollo program, a group of about 30 NASA thoughtleaders sequestered themselves for a few days on Caltech’s sunny campus. They reviewed what they had accomplished and tried to grapple with exactly how they had pulled off the challenge of the century: landing humans on the lunar surface and returning them safely to Earth on an absurd deadline.
Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, attended most of their sessions in relative silence. While known to be quiet, he was never what someone would call shrinking or invisible. His thoughtful presence carried significant weight in any meeting. Armstrong was not a typical test pilot turned astronaut. “I am, and ever will be,” he once said, “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”
After everyone else had finished speaking at the Caltech gathering, Armstrong calmly rose and went to a chalkboard. He drew four bell-type curves, spaced slightly apart, and labeled them: Leadership, Threat, Economy and Talent. And he said to the room, “My thought is, when you get all these lined up, you can’t stop something really big from happening.” Indeed, the early 1960s had it all: a bold (and in some ways, desperate) president; the threat of the Soviet Union; flush federal coffers; and an unprecedented number of college-educated youngsters. When the curves aligned, Armstrong suggested that an Apollo could rise. According to Gerry Griffin, engineer, flight director and eventual director of the Johnson Space Center, everyone in the room was nodding in agreement, as if to say “Of course, that’s it.”
The analysis of rarely aligned curves can help explain why we haven’t yet sent humans back into the cosmos. But four peaks fail to fully capture the miracle: 400,000 souls uniting in peacetime on a project so ambitious as to appear ludicrous. As humanity makes ample noise about restarting these journeys to other worlds, it’s worth looking under Apollo’s hood and asking the surviving engineers how they did it. Based on scores of recent interviews, their most frequent and fervent responses follow.
When After America came out, I was booked on “Fox & Friends” to talk it over with Brian Kilmeade. Sitting next to Brian on the couch waiting to get going, I watched Steve Doocy across the studio link to an item on the space shuttle Enterprise beginning its journey to whichever museum it’s wound up at. Steve called it “historic”, and, as I remarked to Brian, pity the nation whose greatness becomes “historic” – whose spacecraft exist only in museums. There’s a passage in After America on just that theme:
In 1961, before the eyes of the world, President Kennedy had set American ingenuity a very specific challenge—and put a clock on it:
‘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.’
That’s it. No wiggle room. A monkey on the moon wouldn’t count, nor an unmanned drone, nor a dune buggy that can’t take off again but transmits grainy footage back to Houston as it rusts up in the crater it came to rest in. The only way to win the bet is with a real-live actual American standing on the surface of the moon planting the Stars and Stripes. Even as it happened, the White House was so cautious that William Safire wrote President Nixon a speech to be delivered in the event of disaster:
‘Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace…’
Yet America did it.
It was not a sure thing. In 1961 the Soviets had it all over the Americans in the space race: They had already reached the moon, with the unmanned flight Luna 2, and they had put a man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin and the cosmonauts were inspirational figures well beyond the Warsaw Pact. By contrast, all the US unmanned missions had been failures, and their astronauts were earthbound – or sub-orbital at best. Kennedy was cautioned against his moon speech on the grounds that he was setting America up for very public humiliation.
But he chose to go ahead.
And now? From After America:
Four decades later, Bruce Charlton, professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham in England, wrote that “that landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achieve- ment of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans.” That’s a good way to look at it: the political class presented the boffins with a highly difficult and specific problem, and they solved it—in eight years. Charlton continued:
‘Forty years ago, we could do it—repeatedly—but since then we have not been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
‘Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something…But I am suggesting that all this is BS…I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75—at the time of the Apollo moon landings—and has been declining ever since.’
Can that be true? Charlton is a controversialist gadfly in British academe, but, comparing 1950 to the early twenty-first century, our time traveler from 1890 might well agree with him. And, if you think about it, isn’t it kind of hard even to imagine America pulling off a moon mission now? The countdown, the takeoff, a camera transmitting real-time footage of a young American standing in a dusty crater beyond our planet blasting out from his iPod Lady Gaga and the Black-Eyed Peas or whatever the twenty- first-century version of Sinatra and the Basie band is…It half-lingers in collective consciousness as a memory of faded grandeur, the way a nineteenth-century date farmer in Nasiriyah might be dimly aware that the Great Ziggurat of Ur used to be around here someplace.
How long will it even half-linger? Great civilizations can survive a lot of things, but not impoverishment of spirit. That’s one reason I didn’t join in the media sniggers at Donald Trump’s new Space Force – because I’d like it to be true.
Agreed on that one. But I have an idea of at least one contributing factor in our descent into paralyzed decline:
Phil Plait has mixed feelings about the moon-landing hoax.
Plait — known as “The Bad Astronomer” to his many thousands of readers on Syfy — told Space.com he is frustrated that he and others like him still have to debunk the hoax theory from time to time, 50 years after the first moon landing. Then again, Plait became famous because he’s so good at debunking in the first place.
Back in February 2001, Fox Broadcasting ran a documentary titled “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” Plait coincidentally had a pile of research ready from a book he was working on, and a friend sent him an advance copy of the show so that he had time to write up a response.
I kind of wish it had never aired,” Plait said about the Fox documentary, “because it opened a huge Pandora’s box. On the other hand, it’s exposing a wound to sunlight. That thing was there anyway, festering. Let it get out to the public, and let it heal, and let it kill the infection. But yeah, it’s troubling. Just to know that if Fox hadn’t aired that, who knows what my career path would have been.”
Like the 9/11-hoax conspiracies, the old “fake moon landing” crap is so stupid it’s embarrassing to sensible people. I mean, come ON: a conspiracy involving not just a handful but tens, even hundreds of thousands of participants…not one of whom ever utters a single syllable exposing it for the rest of their lives? Occam’s Razor alone makes mincemeat of such arrant lunacy. Throw in the idea of the US government being competent enough to pull such a hoax off, then keep it concealed LITERALLY FORFUCKINGEVER, in spite of an Everest of evidence to the contrary in front of our faces every single day, and…well, buy into it if you want. I’ll just be over here quietly laughing at your dumb ass, that’s all.
Anyways, the article toodles along smoothly until this bit, which is what led me to make that “contributing factor” crack earlier:
Plait said there is a danger in talking about the moon-landing conspiracy and other clearly debunked conspiracies like it, such as vaccines causing autism or humans not being responsible for climate change.
Oh, jeez. So here we have an obviously smart fella, a scientist of some type, capable of debunking several other hoaxes and conspiracy theories…and yet he’s fallen for the most pernicious one of the modern era.
I just can’t even. If this guy is any indicator of how intelligence and competence have atrophied, soon enough we won’t even be able to tie our own shoes—much less rediscover the ability to design, build, and successfully launch rockets—and any exploration of space we do will be limited by the effort not to drool on ourselves when we look skyward at night.
Update! Aesop tells the NYT/SJW/PS crowd to suck a fat one.
It upsets them ’cause it’s true.