On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer. He remembered the past and it gave him courage to embrace the future.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American moon landing, we look back and give thanks for the service and sacrifice of astronauts and all who made it happen, but we also look ahead to future explorations in space renewing the empowering vision that propelled us on to greatness.
I decided to invite three eminently qualified scholars to join with me in a Moonshot Dialogue to reflect together about the past and the future of the space program:
- Astronomer Nat White spent 39 years as a member of the Lowell Observatory team during an era when many of his colleagues contributed significantly to the space program.
- Geologist Charles “Chuck” Barnes taught for 35 years in NAU’s geology department while writing geology textbooks, researching and teaching planetary geology, and serving with numerous NASA symposiums and research groups. He collaborated with several NASA study groups that looked at the feasibility of sending humans to Mars.
- Professor Charles Wise currently teaches at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy. He resides in Flagstaff during the summer months. He was a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (1972-2007) and worked with astronaut and Senator John Glenn as the founding director of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs (2007-2013) at Ohio State University.
These three gentlemen gave such awesome insights into remembering the past and embracing the future. We can learn a lot from their experience, wisdom and visionary gaze into the future.
Casting the vision
On a recent trip to Boston, my wife and I explored the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. They told the story well of President Kennedy’s casting the vision for putting a man on the moon.
The Cold War created a fierce competition with the Soviet Union and when the Soviets blasted Yuri Gagarin into space, the race was on. Our young president boldly challenged NASA and Congress on May 25, 1961 to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth” before the decade of the 1960s ended. His challenge was impossible.
His rallying cry was amplified in his famous speech at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Barnes reflected on the national will represented by our visionary president and the ensuing space program as “political brilliance and engineering triumph.” Kennedy cast the vision and it became empowering for the whole nation.
Of course, there were nay-sayers. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower simply said, “You’re nuts!” But the momentum grew through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. More than 25 billion dollars was invested in doing what many considered impossible. The impossible became reality. How did this happen?
Remembering the past
Certainly, visionary leadership had a key role. It started with President Kennedy, but then James Webb took the reins of leadership for NASA developing a plan and mustering the resources that grew to 400,000 skilled workers including private enterprise contractors spreading the financial benefit all across the nation.
Rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, once the premier rocketeer for the Nazi regime, joined forces with the United States along with many of his German colleagues to advance the rocket boosters which eventually become Saturn V. He was constantly advocating for going to the moon and beyond.
Mercury astronaut John Glenn went on to become a U.S. Senator. Wise recalled, “John Glenn was a strong and tireless advocate for a robust space program.” Popular support, the “will,” was growing. Early failures became victories. The nation, in Congress and the American people as a whole, embraced the numerous technological advances such as advanced computers, microchips, pacemakers and food products as steps toward achieving the goal. This new world was unfolding.
The Apollo program reached its climax with Apollo 11 and the astronaut team of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The moon landing on July 20, 1969, was viewed by an estimated 600 million television viewers. As Armstrong guided the Eagle landing module to a safe landing, he announced, “Houston, the Eagle has landed!” As he descended the steps from the module onto the moon’s surface, his historic statement was, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Although Armstrong and Aldrin planted an American flag on the site, there was a sense that all humankind could celebrate this event. In a sense this was a victory for the whole human race. The people of the Earth were united as momentum accelerated in a common purpose.
After their safe return to Earth, the Apollo 11 astronauts went on a world tour during which there were numerous ticker-tape parades in many international cities. It became common that the celebrative crowds often raised signs proclaiming “We did it!” acknowledging that the successful moon landing was an advancement for peace and prosperity and a coming together of people all over the Earth.
Apollo missions 12 through 17 (with the exception of Apollo 13 as an aborted mission yet a successful recovery) greatly enhanced the scientific achievements of the Apollo program and the manned space efforts culminated in 1972. The benefits of the exploration of the moon were many. A total of 842 pounds of moon rocks and dust were collected. Many scientific tests were accomplished and are still underway. Rich resources discovered pointed us to future possibilities.
Embracing the future
Should we return to the moon? If so, the focus would be not so much exploration, but exploitation. However, “exploitation” carries a negative connotation as in not just use, but abuse of the moon.
White would substitute the word to “develop the moon.” Studies indicate there are rare earth elements in abundance on the moon. Water is present at the polar regions and could be a significant source of oxygen and hydrogen. Helium 3, which is a predominant element on the moon, could potentially be an abundant source of clean energy to sustain the Earth.
Chinese astronomers are making this a priority in their recent research. To develop the moon resources, support will be needed from Congress, from private enterprise entrepreneurs, and from international partners. There will be opposition. We can count on it.
Space journalist Leonard David shares an intriguing analogy. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward signed a treaty in March 1867 with Russia for the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million. That equates to spending about 2.5 cents an acre for an area twice the size of Texas. In comparison, the moon’s surface area is about the size of the continents of Australia and Africa combined.
Seward’s buy of Alaska, envisioned as a way to spread American power throughout the Pacific and encourage American trade and military prowess, was mocked in the press. They labeled the purchase as “Seward’s icebox.” The acquisition was demonized in the U.S. Congress as “Seward’s folly.” Congress ratified the treaty by a margin of just one vote on April 9, 1867 and months later, Alaska moved from Russian ownership to the United States.
U.S. settlement of Alaska was a slow-going affair, but the discovery of gold in 1898 fueled a rapid movement of people onto the land. Today, Alaska is a reserve of natural resources, adding to America’s affluence and totally reversing the characterization that the suspect land purchase was real estate idiocy. Is our interest in the moon a close parallel?
After conversations with my dialogue friends, I believe the moon is a possible platform for waging peace in the world. White reminds us, “The moon belongs to us all and can benefit peoples across the Earth.”
Barnes says, “There are no knowledge boundaries among scientists; only politicians. Our development of the moon can be for the common good.”
Wise remembers his friend John Glenn with, “Our American leadership will be essential to emphasize the peaceful uses of space and our nearest neighbor the moon.”
My dialogue with Barnes, White and Wise was an enjoyable and memorable experience that gives me hope for the way in which science, citizenship and enlightened leadership can bring a bright future our way. In a world where human evil rears its ugly head, let us reach for the best for our nation and for our human family worldwide. This is globalization at its best.
When I look at the moon on a beautiful Flagstaff evening, I rejoice in all that it is coming to mean to me. I look forward to the possibilities embraced and then together as the world’s people, with God’s help, we can proclaim, “We did it!”