Sunday, July 18, 1999
Landing's legacy still being created
Where will mankind's next giant leap come from?
BY TIM BONFIELD and MARK CURNUTTE
The Cincinnati Enquirer
On July 20, 1969, the world watched in awe as U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong made his historic footprint on the gray and dusty surface of the moon.
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His famous words: That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Some people consider the moon landing a defining moment in human evolution. Some call it the signature achievement of the American century. Still others see it more as a political victory in the Cold War than a great step for science.
Thirty years later, debate continues over the significance of putting a man on the moon. Now, at the dawn of a new millennium, lingering questions about the future of space exploration take on a heightened sense of priority and urgency. It's a point when people consider the past while looking into the future, all the time wondering what mankind's next great leap might be.
Some people say mankind's next great leap has already occurred and that NASA was responsible for it. Probes to Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Neptune have yielded volumes of information and continue to satisfy the species' exploratory nature.
Other people, historians and sociologists, say the moon landing has been eclipsed by other leaps in medicine (organ transplantation, cloning) or technology (the microchip, the Internet).
Still others believe humanity is on the doorstep of astounding developments in medicine (genetic therapy, anti-aging technology, disease eradication) and transportation (electric cars).
Then there are still those to whom nothing compares to Apollo's magnificence.
The first time humans set foot on another planet has to be one of the all-time great achievements in human history, said Roger Launius, NASA's chief historian who's based in Washington, D.C.
The American flag reflects off a helmet.
(AP file photo)
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David Slavsky, dean of science and mathematics at Loyola University in Chicago, is an astronomer and teaches space exploration in a course on planetary and solar system astronomy.
It's a watershed event, he said of Apollo 11, and watershed events can't be duplicated.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, whose works include the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, discussed the moon landing with Discover magazine this month.
It's as significant as when the first fish crawled up on the beach, he said. We know now that comet and asteroid impacts have changed history. The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program.
Five hundred million people watched Mr. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon 30 years ago Tuesday. And they gazed upon the astronauts in wonder. Hundreds of Poles jammed the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw to watch. Foreign nations issued postage stamps in Apollo 11's honor. A Peruvian who gave birth during the mission named her son Neil Armstrong.
When people look back 300, 400, 500 years from now, the Apollo program will be the thing that stands out, the century in which humans first walked on another planetary body, said Pat Dasch, executive director of the National Space Society. We've opened up a whole new horizon for humanity.
Many Americans concur. America's single most-cited success of the past 100 years is the space program, selected by about 1 in 5 Americans surveyed in April and May by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Landing on the moon was more of a philosophical leap than a scientific one, said Tom Roberts, 41, who lives in Mariemont and responded to an Enquirer reader participation coupon about the moon walk. Instantly, almost everyone on the planet realized how small and insignificant our world is. At the same time, it was amazing that a species of primates had managed to cross to another world and return safely.
Neil Armstrong, left, and Edwin E. Aldrin plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface July 20, 1969.
(AP file photo)
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After 30 years, the origin of the Apollo program is widely known and accepted. It was politics.
The United States had been stunned by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and again when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in April 1961. The fledgling Kennedy administration feared Communists might win the hearts and minds of uncommitted Third World nations if it showed superiority in space.
In May 1961, Alan Shepard's 15-minute flight aboard Freedom 7 made him the first American in space. Three weeks after the flight, President Kennedy spoke to Congress and challenged the country: This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project will be more important to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
He was right. By 1965, NASA's $5.2 billion budget accounted for about 4 percent of the national budget.
In February 1962, John Glenn orbited Earth three times.
In December 1968, Frank Borman piloted Apollo 8 around the moon.
And, eight months later, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin landed on the moon while Michael Collins circled above.
In an exclusive story he wrote in 1989 for the Enquirer, Mr. Armstrong acknowledged the political importance of Apollo 11: Americans felt threatened by the world around them: the divisive war in Southeast Asia, a society cleft by a counterculture movement and widespread drug misuse. We needed something to rebuild our confidence in our country and ourselves.
Race to space
Michael Smith is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and teaches a course in the history of space exploration.
We study the Apollo program in a chapter on the Cold War, he said. We play it into the nuclear arms race. It was extremely important because after a decade of finishing second to the Soviets, we came in first.
NASA's Mr. Launius agrees that the race to the moon was driven by Cold War politics. In fact, the Apollo project was a serious interruption of NASA's original 1959 strategic plan, which named building a space station and developing a re-usuable space plane as top priorities.
WHAT READERS SAY
The next great advancement in humanity may be a different approach to our current thinking. Pollution, overcrowding, depletion of natural resources, etc., will all lead to mankind looking at our current transportation modes and (to the adoption) of radically different means, like electricity. Business will continue to shift to the Internet as more and more people go online. If people can work from home using the Internet, why travel to an office? |
Gary L. Griffith, Monfort Heights
The next great leap will be quantum computing. The field is developing quite quickly and steadily. With each quantum bit (added) to the computing array, the power of the machine increases exponentially.
Todd Pierce, Springdale
My next great leap for mankind will be when ALL nations and peoples of this Planet Earth not only say they are brothers and sisters to one another, but really act like they are. My second great leap will be when ALL First World nations forgive the entire debts of the Second and Third World countries by the year 2000.
Sister Clara Blankemeyer, RSM, Silverton
I believe within the next 10 years cures for several major diseases will be discovered. This will significantly increase life spans of all people. My only fear is that Americans and all people begin to live longer and longer, the cost of supporting these people may overwhelm government coffers and trigger global economic collapse.
Daniel DeVoe, Miami Heights
I think our next great leap will be that we successfully clone a human.
Rick Beavers, Fairfield
Our next great leap will be when we receive some sort of communication from another civilization, orbiting a distant star. Certainly no flying saucers, most likely a radio signal. Throughout history we have always believed we were the center of the universe. New discoveries and insights shattered those beliefs one by one.
Tom Roberts, Mariemont
But the 1960s were the days of the Cuban missile crisis, the time when Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev was telling America, We will bury you.
It's hard to appreciate in the post-Cold War era how truly serious all that was, Mr. Launius said.
The moon race was, after all, a measured response to a real, significant and deadly rivalry between two competing political and economic systems.
Still, the national investment in NASA drew fire then and still does today. Critics of hefty space spending continue to engage Congress in an updated version of the guns-vs.-butter debate begun in the 1960s.
Advocates of President Johnson's Great Society movement said the federal government could not afford to pay for both space and social service programs. Social welfare advocates such as Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, carry on the argument today.
Sometimes, a question rooted in the 1960s is still asked: If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we cure the common cold? Cure poverty? Cure cancer?
I would say curing cancer is a much harder problem than going to the moon, said Mr. Slavsky, the Loyola University astronomer. The common cold? Can we cure a virus?
We reached an agreement rather quickly on the best way to reach the moon. "You have a booster and a lunar module.' Have we converged that quickly on the question of poverty? More than 30 years after LBJ we still don't have a convergence on the best way to solve poverty.
Time hasn't dimmed the accomplishment and national pride created by Apollo 11 for people who were alive when it happened, say sociologists and historians. But some see a generational gap that reduces the meaning of the moon landing among younger Americans.
The passage of time has changed the tone of the why can't we question, said Benjamin Britton, an electronic artist at the University of Cincinnati who has spent the past four years designing a virtual reality re-creation of the Moon landing.
In the 1970s, the question was asked with a sense of optimism. In the 1990s, the question simply exposes failure, Mr. Britton said.
Ms. Dasch of the National Space Agency notes that a third of Americans alive today were not born yet when Apollo 11 reached the moon.
They wonder why we haven't kept on with the human exploration of space. They ask when are we going to see the stupendous events of our lifetimes? she said.
Said Mr. Smith, the Purdue University historian: College students today do not think of Apollo when they think about the space program. They have a tragedy (the 1986 Challenger explosion) in their minds. They are affected by space exploration in a sad, melancholy way.
Surveys also reveal racial and gender gaps in attitudes about the practical value of the space program. Studies show that NASA's largest block of supporters were and continue to be white males.
When blacks and women became part of the space program, you had a wave of other people interested, said Rodney Coates, a Miami University sociologist and director of its Black World Studies program. But during the Cold War, you had only young, white men in the space program.
Still, he said, African-Americans like all Americans wanted to win the Cold War and were thrilled when the United States won the race to the moon.
Blacks enjoyed that just as much as anybody, Mr. Coates said. At the same time, what a sight it would have been if it (the moon walk) would have reflected America.
The Challenger even in its tragic explosion may have touched a greater cross-section of Americans, Mr. Coates said, because its crews included an African-American (Ronald McNair), a female astronaut (Judith Resnik), an Asian-American (Ellison Onizuka) and a civilian teacher (Christa McAuliffe).
Still, the political overtones and other real or perceived shortcomings of the Apollo project are no reasons to dismiss the significance of the achievement.
Obtaining scientific data was not the primary purpose for Kennedy and other political leaders who supported the project. But we did get really interesting and useful science out of it, Mr. Launius said.
Mr. Smith, the Purdue professor agrees.
I would rank Apollo as a spectacle, not solid achievement, he said. A lot of achievement went into it the miniaturization of electronics, rocket technology.
The achievements were both technological and personal.
John Livingston is a former teaching assistant for Mr. Armstrong at UC who now works on plans for a second-generation space shuttle as a senior design engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.
Neil Armstrong will be remembered as one of the pivotal people of the 20th Century, Mr. Livingston said.
The amount of aerospace development in those years was unprecedented. It was absolutely phenomenal growth in technical know-how.
At the dawn of World War II, the United States had nearly no rocket technology.
That started to change when the federal government brought over several German rocket scientists. They went to work at Wright-Pat before scattering to NASA and other aerospace programs, Mr. Livingston said. By 1969, America put a man on the moon.
Now, however, space propulsion based on chemical rocketry has reached a plateau.
The systems I'm designing for the next generation (space shuttle) could have been designed anytime in the past 20 years, Mr. Livingston said.
New propulsion systems are needed to really go somewhere in space, be it nuclear fission, fusion, or farther-out ideas like ion propulsion or antimatter fuel, Mr. Livingston said.
Money, plentiful for NASA during the 1960s, is a problem now.
The high water mark was 1965. It shrunk a little bit after that, then the budget fell off the table in 1970, Mr. Launius said.
The 1965 budget of $5.2 billion would be about $24 billion in today's dollars. The NASA budget has been shrinking every year since 1993. The 1999 NASA budget was $13.4 billion, less than one percent of the entire federal budget, Mr. Launius said.
The lack of money took the steam out of plans for the next great leap a manned mission to Mars.
But that doesn't mean there hasn't been great achievement, NASA supporters say.
NASA launched wildly successful satellites and interplanetary probes during late 1970s and early 1980s. Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager and Magellan have visited every planet in the solar system except Pluto, mapped Venus, landed on Mars and looked at scores of asteroids and moons.
Despite early lens problems, the Hubble Space Telescope placed beyond the interference of the atmosphere confirmed the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, established that black holes do exist and spotted planets forming around distant stars.
But NASA's signature project for the last two decades, the space shuttle, has not delivered on optimistic promises to get payloads into space for $100 a pound and is still haunted by the 1986 Challenger explosion.
The shuttle has eaten $60 billion in 20 years because it is far more expensive to maintain and prepare between flights, reducing its planned 50 journeys a year to about seven.
Now, and for the next several years, NASA is committed to its leading role in building the $30 billion-plus international space station. It also is working with private companies to design a cheaper, better version of the shuttle.
While these projects have many potential uses, many say NASA will never recapture the imagination of humanity until it starts sending astronauts beyond near-Earth orbit.
A manned mission to Mars. A moon base. A landing on Europa, a moon of Jupiter where life might exist beneath its icy crust. The chance, however remote, that the Planetary Society's SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) actually receives a signal.
Supporters of NASA in particular and space exploration in general see brighter days ahead.
Anthony Curtis, the author of several space-related books and dean of academic information systems at the Cincinnati-based Union Institute, said he sees interest in space returning to high levels.
Landing on the moon was one of the most magnificent human achievements of all time, he said. It has benefitted billions of people here on Earth.
Mr. Curtis predicted we'll send a crew of astronauts to Mars by 2015. Humans will go back to the moon, and other planets too.
It won't just be Americans. There's growing interest in Japan, in Europe and in China, Mr. Curtis said. Space is the next great frontier. It's human nature to go there.
Still, Loyola University's Mr. Slavsky says he doubts any mission could generate the mass appeal of the manned mission to the moon.
Nothing's going to get us up in a lather like that again, he said. Humans on Mars might be the only thing to recapture that. But the moon has always been familiar to us. It is a constant companion. It has been the stuff of folklore and poetry and everyday life. And then, there we were, walking on it.
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