Sunday, August 26, 2012

One Giant Leap For Mankind

Perhaps the most inspiring story for me during my teenage and college years was that of the American space program, from President Kennedy's historic challenge in May 1961 (when I was 12 years old) - "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" - to that unforgettable moment in July 1969 (a few days after my 21st birthday) when I stayed up all night so that I could watch on live TV the moment when Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of the lunar module and put man's first footprints on the moon.

Neil Armstrong died yesterday aged 82.

I followed the ups and downs (no pun intended) of the space program through Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and thought that the first manned landing on the moon was probably the most significant event of my lifetime.

Actually I still think that.

NASA's endeavors during those years were responsible in no small part for inspiring me to spend my career working with technology (although I'm no rocket scientist) and my admiration for what the USA achieved in space in that decade was part of the pull I felt to eventually emigrate with my family to America.

It feels very strange to me to talk to my grandchildren now about men walking on the moon as something that happened over 40 years ago, before even their parents were born. What feels really strange is that it didn't lead to more manned exploration of the solar system. Back then, I felt sure that there would be a permanent lunar base by now and that men would have landed on Mars.

Yes kiddies, when I was younger than your father, twelve humans walked on the moon and came back safely. And then it was over. By the way kiddies, there was also a time when people like us could buy a ticket and fly at supersonic speed across the Atlantic. That's over too now.

RIP Neil Armstrong.


Anonymous said...

I was just about to turn 8 years old when I watched Neil and Buzz on the moon. It inspired and enthralled me in a way I find difficult to put into words.

Sadly, our manned space program has been mostly gutted and left for dead these days, as have most of the other "big science" programs of the past.

Tillerman said...

I read your post on Armstrong too. Great story.

You may be right that "big science" is over. At least for the USA.

O Docker said...

There was also a time when people like us could go to the airport and get on a plane without having to take most of our clothes off.

There was a time when the airlines that flew those planes could afford to stay in business.

There was a time when almost all of those planes were made in this country.

It's very likely that the period of the Apollo missions marked the apogee of this country's orbit through the political, economic, and cultural heavens.

Mojo said...

What was really cool about the "big science" era of NASA (in its long past heyday) was the way it married the huge teams of brilliant and incredibly methodical engineers in mission design and control, with the daring and courageous cowboys from our military test programs, like Armstrong and his predecessors (see The Right Stuff.

Peggy Noonan recalls Alan Shepard's words in her column on Friday: "It's May 5, 1961, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and everyone's fussing. This monitor's blinking and that one's beeping and Shepard is up there, at the top of a Redstone rocket, in a tiny little capsule called Friendship 7. Mission Control is hemming and hawing: Should we stay or should we go? Finally Shepard says: "Why don't you fix your little problem and light this candle?"

I love that.

Tillerman said...

Shepard has some other great quotes....

After his first flight in space, when reporters asked him what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he had replied, "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder."

And of the same mission he said, "Didn't really feel the flight was a success until the recovery had been successfully completed. It's not the fall that hurts; it's the sudden stop."

Jake DiMare said...

I genuinely pine for the days when heroics are once again measured by contribution to the scientific and technological dominance of the United States. As a nation we are rudderless...Or worse.

Chris said...

I was 15 at the time of the moon landing, working as a crew on a charter boat out of Holyhead, Wales. We had sailed over to Ireland and suffered some damage to the boat, including a cracked head. I was sent back to Holyhead on the ferry to pick up parts and tools, and so I watched these famous steps on the ferry trip back to Dún Laoghaire, sitting in the ferry lounge - with a head between my legs.
Cheer, Chris

Tillerman said...

We could send men to the moon and back, but we couldn't sail from Wales to Ireland without breaking the head? Is that the moral of your story?

Chris said...

You found a moral where I had seen none except for the experience of a 15 year old.

Joe said...

Well said!

JP said...

Its a long time ago now, like Concorde, old tech now mothballed.

But there's some good new technology in the pipeline like Skylon and the new model of private launchers actually could help re-start exploration beyond Earth orbit.

Here's hoping we go back to the moon sometime in next decade.

Tillerman said...

It's hard to be optimistic about the future of science in the US when you read that one political party actually opposes kids' learning critical thinking skills.

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