GELFAND’S WORLD--The tension is almost unbearable. And that’s just watching the PBS recreation of the Apollo 11 mission that culminated in the moon walks of July 20, 1969.
We know a lot now that we didn’t know as naïve viewers back then. As the lunar lander approached its intended landing area, it was getting short on fuel and was headed towards a rocky area that didn’t look safe. It could have been a disaster had the landing module not found a level purchase (how would they have gotten back to the command module if their takeoff was hampered?). Pilot Neil Armstrong hand flew the lander to a safe landing spot, using nearly all of the fuel that was still available for the landing.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” That was the first announcement of the successful landing, a remarkable moment in human history.
The recent television creation (PBS: 8 Days: to the moon and back) reveals another little tingle: While the astronauts were getting ready to go to sleep, their onboard check showed that the button that controlled their rocket motor was broken – they would be able to push it in to get the motor to run, but there was no guarantee that they would be able to pull it out and turn the motor off. Another potential disaster. On earth, engineers worked all night to see if they could figure a way to bypass the circuit. Meanwhile, astronaut Buzz Aldrin (who had a degree from MIT, among other things) figured out how to fix the problem with what they had in the craft.
The PBS shows, including the story that ends with Apollo 8’s trip around the moon on Christmas Eve, are a significant contribution to history and culture. Even now, the feeling of relief watching the capsule parachute into the ocean is amazing. It would be interesting to know if people are just as enthralled in another 50 years, or whether they will still know who Walter Cronkite was.
Was it all just a stunt?
At a 1982 meeting of the L5 Society (people who supported space exploration), I heard one of the foremost space enthusiasts of the day tell us right out that Apollo was a stunt. Maybe so. After all, a goal of getting closeup photos of the moon and bringing back rocks could have been accomplished using unmanned craft. We’re even doing it for an asteroid next year. But the space race was, above all, a political race in which the United States started out far behind the Soviet Union. The list of Soviet firsts is daunting, including the first artificial satellite and the first man in orbit around the earth. Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight occurred just a few months after John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president. Facing the chronic American embarrassment of our semi-anemic efforts, JFK offered up the challenge to go to the moon before the end of the 1960s.
In that limited political sense the Apollo program was a stunt. It took the U.S. from being the second-place finisher to being the object of pretty much every earthling’s gaze on that July day 50 years ago. In that sense, it was a very effective stunt.
But there is more. At a lot of other levels it was not just a stunt. Given a goal, lots of money, and a multitude of intermediate problems to solve, the best brains in the country learned things about everything from miniaturization to controlling the flow of fuel to navigation in space. NASA has a website that lists just some of the spinoffs, ranging from the use of quartz oscillators to tell time (why your digital watch keeps time accurate to a minute a year and only costs twelve dollars) to cordless drills to those space blankets that you should have in your earthquake kit.
But the part of the Apollo program that goes beyond stunt level is not the spinoffs. There are other ways to get spinoffs – war, for example, or government grants – but Apollo’s effects are a lot more than the simple technologies.
The multiple forks of cultural evolution provoked by Apollo
One obvious effect of the manned space program was to make it clear that putting people into space is possible. But more than that, it made it seem desirable. What would the U.S. be if it were to become a second-rate space power? The space shuttle program was the outgrowth of earlier manned space exploration. The next American orbital capability will grow out of the space shuttle. It would be unthinkable for us to do otherwise. That’s in contrast to other potential behaviors like getting into a land war in Asia.
But I think that the biggest cultural change brought about by Apollo is the way we humans view our place in the solar system and in the universe as a whole. At one point in a previous century we became aware that the earth is not the center of the solar system. There was a certain amount of resistance to the idea of an ellipsoidal planet following an ellipsoidal path around a very large sun and that planet being just one of several such objects. We understood from our textbooks that Jupiter has moons of its own, as do other planets. But this was sort of a schoolbook level of understanding. Students could recite the facts, but they were at an academic level.
But then came those photographs of the earth as this smallish blue ball in the window of the Apollo capsule. It took a while (and a lot of magazine covers over the years), and perhaps the influence of television fiction about starships, but by now there is a different level of acceptance. The difference is that present day humans believe, deep down, that the earth is one body among others in a larger system, because through our NASA surrogates, we can look down on the earth from above. The evolution of this understanding has been profound – and something that even academics haven’t thought about much – but there it is: children being born today come into a world in which the view of the earth from above is a commonplace. You can even go to the website of the international space station and look down on the earth in real time. The feed mentions without fanfare that these earth views (installed in 2014) have been viewed more than 300 million times.
We’ve even come to expect consumer services that depend on orbital flight. Heaven forbid that my cell phone should lose its ability to talk to anybody else on another coast or across town. Just build and orbit another geostationary relay satellite.
Aside: The role of science fiction in stimulating the space race and modern cultural forms
All those aero-astro students at American universities? What motivated them? I can tell you that a lot of them were motivated by the pulp fiction stories they read in their youth. It wasn’t just the tech geeks. One internationally famous economist mentioned that he was motivated in his studies by having read a lot of Isaac Asimov as a kid. It was absorbed almost by cultural osmosis.
A kind of technological hubris that stems from the Apollo program
There was a magical moment in which all things seemed possible. This led to one of the more annoying clichés: “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t cure the common cold or make supermarket checkout lines move quickly, or . . .
Besides the fact that curing the common cold is orders of magnitude harder from a scientific standpoint than building a rocket motor, there is the remark by one wag in a blog posting a few years ago: “It is a matter of fact that we cannot, at this time, put a man on the moon.” Technology, when not kept up, degrades and gets forgotten. Does anyone remember that the Apollo capsules were built right here, in Downey? Does anyone notice what isn’t present in Downey anymore?
What’s forgotten is how dangerous it all was
There is an old quote attributed to various astronauts which (paraphrased) goes like this: “How did I feel in that capsule waiting for the countdown? How would you feel sitting on top of 500,000 parts made by the lowest bidder?” It went for a laugh at the time, but when you think about everything that could have gone wrong, it is far more sobering. As the PBS series makes clear, the Apollo I craft wasn’t put together all that well, the result being the deaths of 3 astronauts in a fire that should never have happened. NASA reviewed and redesigned and created a working culture that demanded higher quality. Even then, there was a near-disastrous explosion on Apollo 13 that could have resulted in loss of the crew. There is another story from the time of Apollo 11 that involves a conversation between a NASA advisor and president Richard Nixon. When Nixon inquired about a proper message of congratulations, the advisor pointed out that it might end up being more important to be ready to say something to the widows.
The beginning of moving out into the solar system and planetary security
In a previous column about planetary defense against asteroids, I mentioned the risk to the earth’s biosphere of being hit by an asteroid. Clearly the Apollo program pioneered an approach using big boosters to move large masses to very far away places. The fact that we now almost routinely send payloads onto the surface of Mars or into the asteroid belt or past the planet Jupiter are indications that we’ve taken the hint and mean to move out into the rest of the near planets. Whether our spacefaring will involve humans is an open question – at least for a while – but getting human brains on scene has potential advantages. If we have a few decades (or centuries) to develop our capabilities, we shall surely be ready for bigger challenges including potentially hazardous asteroids.
Meanwhile, the collection of lunar rocks itself has provided insights into the origin of the solar system and of course the moon itself. Those scientific insights have been important in recognizing what questions should next be asked.
The visual record and a culture of openness
At the time of Sputnik, the Soviet Union was a pretty closed society, and that included their space program. We learned about Sputnik after it was in orbit. The same story played out in their manned orbital flights. As the U.S. fought to catch up, there was really no question about taking a more open approach. It would have been impossible to keep things completely secret. The result was that of all the people involved, the most recognizable person was Walter Cronkite of CBS News. One result is a collection of videos from that era.
One such video of particular interest to the modern era describes the functioning of the onboard computer, which was necessary in order for the crew to control the timing, direction, and duration of rocket motor use as they began to leave lunar orbit for their return trip. In those days, computer memory used tiny magnets wrapped with conducting wire. The Apollo computer had its programming built in as part of the memory, and each memory bit was literally woven by a seamstress. That computer seems incredibly primitive by modern standards, but it was small enough to fly on Apollo and it worked.
Here’s the video of the Apollo 11 launch, starting from an hour in advance. Even now, there is tension in the rewatching.
Addendum: Taking Credit
MIT loves to take credit for having created the navigational system. The video about the computer system linked above comes from MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, itself located on a back street behind the main campus. In the Apollo era, both the first and last man to walk on the moon were graduates of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Over the years, nearly two dozen astronauts and retired astronauts would return to campus and line up along the middle of the field at football games. I doubt that very many people will remember who played well in the game between Michigan State and Purdue, but few will forget seeing Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan that day.
The twentieth century leaves us with detailed photographic and cinematic records of major events ranging from world wars to the Apollo program. We don’t have film of the Battle of Gettysburg, and only a few snippets from the last two or three years of the nineteenth century. But we have Apollo in all its glory and moments of tragedy. This is one more reminder that we need to store and maintain these records so people of the future can share in the courage and the glory.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com)