On Apollo 11′s 40th, Astronauts Reflect on Space Program

by Anne Minard on July 20, 2009

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Earth rise over lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Earth rise over lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Seven Apollo astronauts gathered at NASA headquarters this morning to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11′s lunar landing — on July 20, 1969.

“This is really a national celebration,” said James Lovell, who flew on Apollo 8 and 13. “This is really a celebration for all the people who helped Neil and Buzz and Mike” make the trip to the moon, he said.

But the press conference was bittersweet, as all of the astronauts seemed to agree the space program has not gone where they hoped it would, in the years since that pinnacle of achievement. “I don’t think there was a soul in NASA that wouldn’t have thought we would have been on Mars by the year 2000,” said Walt Cunningham, from Apollo 7.

Among the astronauts, there seemed to be seven different opinions about how to get back on track.

Eugene Cernan, from Apollo 10 and 17, advocated going back to the moon, setting up bases and new telescopes. “The ultimate goal is truly to go to Mars,” he said.

Charles Duke from Apollo 16 says we need to develop better space suits. “Lunar dust, I think, is going to be a real problem,” he said, adding that air locks shoudl be developed to keep lunar dust outside any living quarters.

Buzz Aldrin has different notions altogether: “Why not do those [projects] at the space station?” he mused. “Prolong the life of the space station. We put 100 billion into the space station.” Aldrin questions the rationale that going back to the moon is a logical next step to Mars, since the physical environment on Mars will be different.

The astronauts seemed all over the map about the International Space Station as well, with some questioning its usefulness to science and its expense, and others optimistic that its glory days haven’t yet begun.

Several of the astronauts pointed out that Mars exploration has hit a new and encouraging stride, but all of them also seem to agree that space exploration needs a shot in the arm in terms of both funding, and the will of the people — especially young people.

“Everyone knows who John Glenn is, Neil Armstrong … I defy almost every one in this room to name one or two or three members on the space station today,” Cernan said. “We need to re-inspire that kind of spirit in the minds and hearts — the passion — of these kids.”

Other Universe Today Apollo 11 40th anniversary stories:

Book Review: Magnificent Desolation, by Buzz AldrinHow to Handle Moon Rocks and Lunar Bugs: A Personal History of Apollo’s Lunar Receiving LabQ & A with Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael CollinsLRO Images Apollo Landing Sites (w00t!)NASA Laments Missing Apollo 11 Film, Makes Do With What’s Left; And finally, the treasure trove: Apollo 11 Anniversary Link-O-Rama

ND July 20, 2009 at 10:16 AM

And by telescopes I hope they meant radio instead of optical.

Jorge July 20, 2009 at 11:37 AM

This is the same old story. We all know the names of Alexander Fleming and Louis Pasteur, but who can name one contemporary microbiologist?

If you’re not in the field yourself, odds are you can’t. I surely can’t.

It’s always like this in science: pioneers are remembered and their names taught in school, but the people who do the vast majority of work over the years is usually as anonymous to the larger public as any of us. Why would space be any different?

I agree that there should be ways to wake up the passion for space in today’s young people. Of course. But I have very serious doubts that a fruitless act of propaganda is the way to do it. That’s what the whole Apollo thing looks like, 40 years later… or would if it wasn’t this picture, showing the small and bluish home of all of us rising above a desolate horizon crawling with empty craters. This image was a huge help to peace and ecological movements all over the planet, and in my opinion it’s the single most important legacy of Apollo.

Quite frankly, I think the passion is more efficiently awakened and maintained by missions such as Cassini, Hubble and the MRO, who feed us with amazingly beautiful images of the wonders of space, than by sending people here or there, in empty gestures of bravery or bravato. People should be doing what they are doing in the ISS: learning how to and build in space and live there for long periods of time, as a step for permanent habitats. Every glitch in the ISS is a valuable lesson for our future in space; sending people to the Moon, Mars or a NEO is a massive waste of resources that should be spent in learning new things.

We should only do it when we have a plan for permanent settling. That’s what we have been doing in Earth’s orbit: building increasingly larger and more complex outposts and learning as much as we can about the challenges and solutions of each step. That’s what we should do in other bodies as well, be them the Moon, Mars or some other.

Torbjorn Larsson OM July 20, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Jorge, that’s thought provoking, and one rationale surely.

But robot missions should give a diminished ROI after plucking the low hanging fruit. To go to the Moon and find Earth ejecta from before our plate tectonics erased the historical record, or to go to Mars and look for potential fossil traces in the right places, the fastest method should be manned missions.

I’m eager to know these things sooner rather than later, early planetary conditions and conditions for life, complementing the larger search for habitable and inhabited worlds. I’m sure there are plenty more complex issues like this.

The medium cost strategy would be to send robot corers to Europa, Enceladus or possibly Titan to look for easy pickings of life signs in any bodies of water. But at the moment that seems to be even further from being developed.

The ISS is a means like the Antarctic outposts, not a target like the South pole, and if we have learned anything from large projects such as Apollo or LHC it is that feasible targets makes a huge difference in motivation and early success. Coincidentally it’s time for both (space outposts and outreach exploration), so I wouldn’t choose between them anymore than we did at Antarctica.

Astrofiend July 20, 2009 at 4:49 PM

I can’t see a manned Mars mission occurring for at least 40 years. No politicians these days seem to have any semblance of vision – they barely commit to projects beyond the current election cycle that aren’t in their direct interest. The most visionary thing they try to come up with at the moment is flaccid attempts at forging peace in the middle east. Yeah right – any time now.

Compounding the fact that the world is run by visionless lawyers and businessmen is the horror of USA’s mind-boggling national debt and deficit – numbers so damn big that they look like they belong in astronomy textbooks. The only possible direction for NASA funding in south, in a big way.

No, I think that a Mars mission will come from China. They have everything to prove, a bucketload of money to prove it with, and an appetite for risk. Either that or India, the world’s next big up-and-comer. Hopefully they can muster the expertise, enthusiasm pure hunger for great things that distinguished the old teams at NASA.

Manu July 20, 2009 at 5:44 PM

“The astronauts seemed all over the map about the International Space Station as well, with some questioning its usefulness to science and its expense…”
I like that! ;-)

sl2561 July 21, 2009 at 8:46 AM

This is all very interesting. I found this article that talks about the future of the space program, and I think it’s worth checking out:

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