SPACE/ESSAY

FADED DREAMS

Remembering the Moon landing

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 25 1994
SPACE/ESSAY

FADED DREAMS

Remembering the Moon landing

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 25 1994

FADED DREAMS

SPACE/ESSAY

Remembering the Moon landing

ANDREW PHILLIPS

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away. —Revelations 21:1

To tens of millions enthralled by the grainy black-and-white images beamed back from the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, it did seem for a fleeting moment that they were witnessing something like the dawning of a new heaven and a new earth. For two hours and 21 minutes, two laconic Americans named Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin first trod tentatively, then bounded joyously, on another world. While it lasted, the triumphant Apollo 11 mission that reached its climax 25 years ago this week swept aside the doubters. The men running the U.S. space program confidently proclaimed their vision of the future: they would build a permanent base on the

Moon, then have men strolling about on Mars— probably by the mid-1980s. Richard Nixon, riding high in the White House in the early months of his presidency, declared with ludicrous bravado that it was “the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.”

To be sure, the euphoria of the moment was bound to fade. But a quarter century later, the surprise is how thoroughly the dreams of the space pioneers have been dashed. The proposed lunar base never made it off the drawing board; manned flights to Mars remain just the dreams of a few space junkies; and the defining moment of the American space program since 1969 is one of tragedy—the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Space exploration once seemed to point in only one direction— upward, from rudimentary satellites, to manned flights, to the seemingly impossible feat of putting a man on the Moon, and beyond to the planets and stars. It quickly turned instead into a | messy saga of compromises, cutbacks and disappointments—and the dozen special men who actually walked on the Moon now seem bewildered and bitter at the world’s failure to follow up on their achievement. “Now, 25 years later, as I look at the Moon, it seems much farther away,” Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean mused recently. “It’s kinda drifted away.”

It seemed as if there were no limits in May, 1961, when John Kennedy boldly proclaimed America’s goal of putting a man on the Moon “before this decade is out.” When he made that pledge, the United States had a scant 15 minutes of manned spaceflight experience, all from Alan Shepard’s first venture just 20 days earlier. Kennedy’s own officials were aghast at the scope of the challenge. In retrospect, it seems clear that a unique combination of circumstances came together at that moment to make such a venture possible: the Soviet threat to American technological dominance in space; an era of unrivalled prosperity that made huge budgets possible; and a dynamic leader willing to put faith in the future.

It took just over eight years for Kennedy’s goal to be realized, an astonishingly short time to solve the thousands of problems involved. But in the same few years, there were vast changes in the United States that made the kind of unbridled, go-for-it space effort that Kennedy unleashed seem curiously out of place just as it reached its apogee. When Apollo 11 touched down in the arid Sea of Tranquillity at precisely 4:17:40 p.m. EDT on Sunday, July 20, 1969, America was no longer the hopeful, united nation that it had appeared under the young president.

It was a sadder, more rancorous place, divided as never before over the war in Vietnam, over race riots in the inner cities, and by the rise of a youth culture that was less interested in outer space than it was in exploring inner space through drugs and new religions.

Mdrin on the Moon [above); Apollo 11 lifts iff (left); newspaper lieadlines on the day ifter (opposite, top); :ootstep in the lunar soil; Armstrong: Vmerica was divided >ver the Vietnam War, >ver race riots in the nner cities, and by he rise of a youth :ulture more interested n exploring inner space

The brush-cut astronauts were icons of what was then known as Middle America. They epitomized the solid, oldfashioned virtues of hard work and discipline that were under unprecedented attack by the social upheavals of the 1960s. To millions of their fellow citizens, especially the young and the black, they seemed at best banal, at worst high-tech warriors of the same military-industrial complex that had sent tens of thousands of Americans to fight and die in Vietnam for no good reason and ignored the nation’s pressing social problems. The astronauts were strangely inarticulate even while experiencing what then seemed to be the ultimate human experience: Armstrong even managed to bungle his first, carefully planned words on the Moon, declaring his first step on the surface to be “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” instead of “one small step for a man.”

Things started to unravel soon after they returned to Earth. The five subse-

quent Apollo missions that landed men on the Moon were in their own ways more spectacular, as the astronauts bumped around the lunar surface in electric buggies and even practised golf shots in the exotic sand traps. But the world had largely stopped watching. By the early 1970s, the permanent lunar base that the Apollo plan1 ners had taken for granted would be their next project had been quietly shelved. “We had just accomplished one of the most daring exploits in history by landing on the Moon, but we shrank back from the next step,” Daniel Goldin, Administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, reflected last month. America was losing confidence in itself—battered by defeat in Asia, political scandal at home, and the end of the postwar economic boom. More important, the race to the Moon had been won. The point of Apollo, stripped of its rhetoric about venturing to new worlds, was quite simply to beat the Soviets. Once that was done, it turned out that there was no compelling reason to be there.

Space exploration, of course, continued and will continue. Unmanned probes have ventured to the edge of the solar system; the space shuttle program recovered from its 1986 disaster and continues to launch flights about half a dozen times a year; the Hubble space telescope, after an expensive repair last year, is sending back spectacular pictures; and the United States is committed to building an orbiting space station in partnership with Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada starting in 2002. But all those programs have been plagued by delays and disappointments, and none comes close to providing the kind of inspiration that Apollo once offered. Just last week, the Columbia shuttle went into orbit with a cargo of thousands of fish, newts and sea urchins. The scientists aboard want to study how they behave in zero gravity—worthwhile research, no doubt, but hardly the stuff of dreams.

For the space pioneers, the nightmare is that Apollo may turn out to be not a milestone on the road to deep space, but the farthest man will go for decades, maybe centuries, to come. “My worst fantasy is that people are going to be celebrating Apollo as the high-water mark in what the human mind and spirit can do,” says Goldin. “The past is past. We ought to be writing new history.” At Cape Canaveral, where Apollo 11 blasted off 25 years ago, the Saturn V rocket launchers for the cancelled Apollo 18 and 19 missions lie on stands for the amusement of tourists. They are, Andrew Chaikin writes in his new book on the Apollo program, A Man on the Moon, “like unfinished obelisks, reminders of a time that now seems as remote as the Moon itself.” For now at least, and for many more years, Apollo 11 will remain the closest we will get to a new heaven and a new earth. □