Ten thousand years from now, historians — if historians there be — will not have much to say about the 20th century. It will be seen as an obscure epoch where nothing very interesting happened — at least compared to our making First Contact with aliens, or the singularity coming about, or perhaps a cure for the common cold.
Except the landing on the moon, of course.
The wars, the political upheavals, the giant personalities may be worth a footnote or two in some grad student’s thesis. But the achievement of sending men to the moon and returning them safely to earth will never be forgotten as long as humans inhabit the planet. Our very first attempt to take a tentative step beyond the earth is easily the most significant development in human history to date both for what the event represented as far as what our species was capable, and how humans define themselves.
Petty politics, courage, brilliant thinking, striving to satisfy an insatiable curiosity, an ability to work together to achieve a common goal — all of this and more went into the machines we hurled toward the moon in July of 1969.
We had never conceived or built anything like them before or since. Consider:
* The Saturn V rocket that carried the crew into orbit was as tall as a 36 story building and weighed 6.5 million pounds. It was the largest machine ever built by man then, and remains so today.
* At takeoff, the Saturn V generated 7.6 million pounds of thrust. The Shuttle generated 5.4 million pounds of thrust.
* Up to 500,000 workers laid a hand on at least one of the Apollo’s systems — Saturn V, command module, and the Lunar module. By comparison, the Panama Canal employed about 70,000 workers.
* The Lunar Module was the first spacecraft designed to fly only in space. To save weight, there were parts of the outer skin that were less than 2 inches thick.
* More than 20,000 people at NASA, private companies, and other government agencies acted as support staff for the flight of Apollo 11.
This was a dangerous mission but, from the astronauts point of view, the risk was acceptable. It might be a much different story in today’s risk-averse NASA, but by necessity, so many of the systems employed on the flight could not be realistically tested, that some critical components like the LM ascent engine, would see their first real test on the moon’s surface.
The descent to the surface is the most dramatic part of the mission. This video synched up capcom communications with film taken from Apollo 11 cameras:
A little known and remembered fact from those tense July days; the Soviet Union had launched a sample return mission to the moon — Luna 15 — that was scheduled to beat Apollo 11 back to earth by a few hours and present the world with the first moonrocks. Unfortunately for the Soviets, the craft crashed on the surface and they failed to upstage Apollo 11.
So was it a waste of money? If you were to separate the larger space program from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo moon programs, you could make a very good argument that manned space flight was unnecessary. While satellites have changed the world, the manned program has had very little impact beyond national bragging rights. It may be that we must learn to live and work in space, but if NASA had done it right, manned space flight would have been developed by private industry.
The trip to the moon cost $125 billion in today’s dollars. We sent a 36 story building toward the moon and what we got back could fit in the living room of most American homes. Moon rocks are nice, and the knowledge gained from sending men to the moon is valuable, but what kind of return did we get on that stupendous investment?
These are all good questions, but despite the political nature of the effort, I still think it was worth it in a metaphysical way. Can you place a value on validating our national identity? On ultimately showing that capitalism is superior to communism? On defining our character as a people?
I understand and appreciate the arguments against the Apollo program. But what Apollo 11 ultimately accomplished was to achieve the landing of humans on the moon at exactly the first moment in history when it was possible to do so.
That’s an achievement that will stand the test of time for all time.