When man touched the heavens

Earlier this week, I watched PBS’ excellent “American Experience” six-hour documentary on the event leading up to and including the Apollo 11 moon shot. I found myself enthralled in in the exploration of space all over again, and learning more about the efforts to land on the moon 50 years ago.  We need to pause for this anniversary. I don’t think any event in the human experience over the past half century was as thrilling as that time when man decided to escape his planet and explore that moon in the sky he had been gazing upwards at for century upon century, since the time of Adam and Eve.  It started in a rather haphazard way, and if we were honest, the Russians shocked us into the whole endeavor. Advances as the first satellite, the first animal and the first human in space belonged to the USSR, and it scared Americans to no end. Even with all the rocket engineers we gained from Germany after the end of the war, we had a rocket gap.  President John F. Kennedy, we now know, was not really the most dedicated space enthusiast. Secret White House tapes reveal him saying he really wasn’t interested in the moon, except to beat the Russians to it. Odder motives have led to other great history, though, and Kennedy proposed going to the moon by the end of the 1960s.  When the price estimates came in, he almost immediately began to panic. And polls showed many Americans wondered if it was worth the incredible costs.  Fortunately, Wernher von Braun, who was based in Huntsville and became America’s foremost aerospace and rocket engineer, was also a natural public relations man. He was able to educate everyone from Kennedy to the common man about the potential for space travel and how it would work, working even with Walt Disney for Tomorrowland segments. When Kennedy would get spooked, von Braun would show him around facilities and fire full-scale rocket tests that would overwhelm the president, putting him back on track.  Of course, when Kennedy died, it was considered his dream. President Lyndon B. Johnson, paranoid as he was about the Kennedys, was always trying to show he could do what Kennedy couldn’t, and that was one goal I’m sure he was determined to carry out. As it was, though, Johnson had been involved with space in Congress and I think that also helped cement our participation.  Plus, NASA was lucky to gain the attention of the media, particularly television reporters such as Jules Bergman at ABC, Frank McGee at NBC, and, heads above even them, Walter Cronkite at CBS. Some of these men would even do the actual astronaut testing and show it off on television. Cronkite had almost a childish enthusiasm in space that was contagious to the average American, almost beside himself with joy when a Saturn rocket lifted off.  Moreover, we had advances and heartaches, thrills and death. One unfortunate break for us was a loss for space science, as the Soviet official who helped lead advances for that nation died in the mid-1960s. The Soviet planning then seemed to flounder (such as testing all systems at once, instead of one at a time, leading to disaster). This downturn helped at least long enough for the Americans to advance men to the moon.  Finally, 50 years ago, after more than a year of divisive headlines and shocking events that had ripped apart the nation, the fateful eight-day trip happened.  The worst moment was the moon landing on July 20, 1969, when the team overshot their landing mark and they had to find a place to land. I think they had 17 seconds of fuel left when Neil Armstrong took the Eagle down at 4:17:40 p.m. EDT, leading to cheers across not just the U.S. but the globe. Six hours later, when Armstrong took his first step at 10:56:20 p.m. EDT, and again when Buzz Aldrin came out, the world cheered again. (Poor Michael Collins, the third man on the team, had to say on inside.) It wasn’t just an American achievement; it was, as Armstrong said, one giant leap for mankind. The staid New York Times, then still somewhat known as the gray lady of journalism, had the largest headline it had ever used since starting in 1851: “MEN WALK ON MOON.”  I missed the most thrilling moment. Well, I did and I didn’t. My parents made sure I watched the moon landing, but I was all of 6. It don’t know if I really remember the moment. But I know what followed. There were a number of Apollo flights afterward, and the public sadly was losing interest as the goal had been reached. But I can still recall watching NBC News special reports (starting with an animated spinning world, slowly turning into the Gulf oil logo) and the likes of John Chancellor and Frank McGee describing what would happen with this rocket or that luner buggy. But the biggest thing was the launch of those massive rockets on the countdown.  I can recall in Winfield on the playground merry-go-round some of the children would take their turn pushing it to a fast spin, while the rest of us stood on the edge. We would have a countdown and we would blast off by jumping off the contraption. The Winfield accountant Greg Guin appears not too scathed today by the fact I landed on him, as I recall; I had a black eye to show for my troubles. From that point on, I stayed on the ground.  But I was always a booster of the space program, and of NASA. I enjoyed visits to the Marshall Space Flight Center, to see the rockets and the technology. (Well, the space monkey was cute, too. Miss Baker is still buried there.) It was disappointing to me that we had no commitment to go past the moon for human exploration, although unmanned endeavors were still rather useful as robotic and video capabilities improved. 

Some have wondered over the years what we got out  of it on the ground, besides exploring distant rocks and dirt. It has benefited us in understanding our universe in vast ways, which helps us understand earth as well. But the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology notes a world of earth-bound improvements that NASA engineering and personnel led to.  For instance, the JPL worked in the 1990s on a camera small enough to take into space and useful for scientific quality. That led to what we now know as the camera phone. Work by the Lewis Research Center to develop diamond-hard coatings for aerospace systems led to scratch-resistant lenses. Black and Decker was approached for a light device to collect moon samples, which led to the Dust Buster.  Thanks to space work, we also have the CAT scan, LEDs, land mine removal (using surplus rocket fuel), advanced athletic shoes (think Nike Airs), foil blankets, water purification, ear thermometers, advanced home insulation, the jaws of life, wireless headsets, memory foam mattresses (using material needed to make the seats more comfortable), freeze dried food, a more sophisticated adjustable smoke detector, improved baby formulas (using a nutritional enrichment ingredient that rose from NASA algae research), and artificial limbs (using NASA’s research with shock-absorption).  Perhaps the largest benefit has been the advances to shrink the computers that filled rooms in the early 1960s so that they could fit on space craft, leading also to early versions of mouses and portable laptops. The NASA engineers and technology were the early advances that led to the modern computers, tablets and phones today.   This week, I have watched the original coverage and the documentaries. My mother saved the Birmingham News from that day for me, as many parents probably did. And we have all the technological marvels that resulted all around us. But 50 years after the fact, in an age when we seem more depressed and angry and pessimistic than ever, we can look back to what Americans‑what mankind‑put their mind to do in an incredible brief moment of our history. God allowed us to seemingly touch the heavens, and we realized what good we are capable of doing. If only we would come together for such as time as that now.  Ed Howell is news editor at the Daily Mountain Eagle.