The first thing Jim Lovell did as he took the microphone was to point out that he was not, in fact, Tom Hanks. The man has been to space four times, to the moon twice (although he never made it to the surface) and his second trip there got quite a bit of attention. But he’s right; when we think of Apollo 13, we think of the high fidelity Hollywood version of the event, and forget that the real thing was a much more tinny, distant affair, made up of crackling radio signals and marathon reporting by the likes of Walter Cronkite and his ilk.
Lovell, as well as second man on the Moon Buzz Aldrin were at the Rose Center For Earth and Space last Monday night for a Louis Vuitton-sponsored event (OK, party) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the one small step that Colonel Aldrin’s companion in the Lunar Module Eagle, Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, took on the 20th of July, 1969, while history’s greatest other guy, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, orbited above. That one small step was watched around the world, by the largest live television audience ever at the time. Half a billion people, or roughly 13.6% of the 3.6 billion people living on the Earth at the time, were tuned in. All three of the networks carried it, as well as stations around the world, and those that didn’t watch listened in over the radio, or at the very least read about it in the banner headlines that every paper led with the next day.
The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were matters of national pride, the space race was part and parcel of what was perceived as a life-and-death struggle for the future of the United States and democracy worldwide. Space was the cold war’s high ground, and because of that winning the race mattered, especially since the U.S. was the underdog from the start. We could have beaten the USSR out of the atmosphere, and perhaps the whole thing would have been quashed there and then, but that was not to be, so we set our sights on a higher goal, and undertook what for my money (or, more specifically, between 2% and 4% of every tax dollar collected at the time) was the greatest scientific, technological and engineering achievement the human race has managed to date.
You can see why everyone was tuned in.
I was reminded by a friend over IM that there was a Shuttle launch last Wednesday afternoon. The orbiter Endeavor was on its way to the International Space Station. Again. Like many other die hard space nuts, I clicked over to the video feed on CNN.com, and watched the 125th launch of the Space Transportation System, as the shuttle fleet and everything that goes along with them are officially known. Weather permitting, if I remember, and if nothing else comes up in the meantime, and if nothing goes wrong, I’ll click over and watch the 123rd Shuttle landing on July 30th.
But the average person will not even know that Endeavor is up there unless something goes wrong. There are seven planned flights left before the Shuttle fleet’s planned 2010 retirement, and it seems doubtful that much attention will be paid to any of them but the last. As has been often lamented, NASA has become a victim of its own success. We landed on the Moon, and went back six more times (five landings and the “successful failure” that was Lovell‘s Apollo 13) before the Apollo program was canceled, three flights early. While NASA cited budget constraints, common wisdom holds that dwindling TV ratings for the missions didn’t help. Back then, the Apollo program suffered from the same malady that Shuttle missions to the ISS suffer from today: they had become routine.
Think about that. We have made trips to the moon and back and life on a space station orbiting the earth every 91 minutes at an altitude of between 212 and 218 miles and an average speed of 17,239.2 mph mundane. That in itself is an achievement. We may all be lamenting our lack of jetpacks and flying cars, but we are living in the future, and much of the technology that makes this future possible is the direct result of technologies developed as a result of our space program.
Now, with the Shuttle’s retirement looming, and its replacement, the Orion program, not slated to go into service until 2015 at the earliest, it may be time to pay attention again. Orion, which is often described as “Apollo on Steroids,” has come under scrutiny and is currently under review by the Obama administration. The “steroids” part is in question; the crew complement of Orion was recently cut from six to four (Apollo had 3) and the Air Force has serious concerns about the viability of its abort system. Many, including Apollo 11 crew members Aldrin and Collins, view Orion as a step backwards, or, in the second man on the moon’s words, “a glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago.“ (Ouch.) Walter Cronkite probably would have told you all that; but good luck hearing about this stuff now.
Michael Jackson’s death may be infinitely more interesting to the average person these days than manned spaceflight, but his signature move was named after something first done by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong 40 years ago today. He is a hero to many, but men like Jim Lovell and the rest of the crew of Apollo 13 are truly heroic, as are the 13 men and women of STS-127 and ISS Expedition 20 orbiting the Earth on their “routine” missions at this very moment.
Maybe we should be paying more attention. The moon is still up there.
Ash Kalb is the general counsel of a New York-based telecommunications and technology company and an instrument-rated pilot. He also went to Space Camp. Twice.
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