A few days ago I watched a documentary on PBS entitled “First Man On The Moon,” about Neil Armstrong, the first human to step onto the surface of the moon (and, by extension, the first human to set foot on any heavenly body other than Earth). The main take-away message of the documentary was that Armstrong, of all the astronauts in the US space program at the time, was the best qualified to make the “giant leap” he so famously talked about, from the Apollo landing craft to the moon’s surface. He was chosen precisely because of his skills, training, experience, and most especially, his ability to remain cool in any emergency and to be able to take the right steps to minimize that emergency. Going to the moon could be full of emergencies. There was just no one else like him.
But remembering Armstrong got me to broadening my scope to a larger view, to that of Apollo itself. I went back to basics. What was the Apollo program in the first place? It was the final chapter in President John Kennedy’s program to send a man (in reality, men) to the moon and bring him (them) back home to Earth. It did that, in spades. But why was it conceived in the first place? I have no doubt that President Kennedy wanted some real scientific studies done, but I’m sure he was driven as much by the need to beat the Soviet Union to the moon as by the science, if not more. After all, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the Soviets had trumped us in two vitally important scientific events in the race into space: they put up the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and put the first human in orbit, Yuri Gagarin, in April, 1961. (Gagarin completed only one orbit, though. John Glenn completed three orbits in February, 1962.) The pressure was on to bring the US space program out of second place and make the next step—put a man on the moon. Hence President Kennedy’s challenge in September, 1962.
That’s largely why the US went to the moon. And it’s important in a historical context, certainly. I suspect that in the absence of the pressure from the Soviets, the US probably would never have made it to the moon. Or, would just now be doing so. But so often, I feel, the scientific part of the Apollo program is minimized, dismissed, or even forgotten. We frequently overlook the fact that the astronauts picked up moon samples and left scientific equipment on the moon’s surface. Cynics claim science had nothing to do with it. In fact, the re-entry trajectory of each of the Apollo Command Modules had to be calculated before they ever left Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy) to account for the presence of several hundred kilograms of moon rocks tucked away in the bottom of the module, because the modules were heavier than when they left the Cape. Even Apollo Seventeen, the last of the Apollo missions, carried a trained geologist, Harrison Schmidt (a New Mexican, by the way). If the idea behind sending a man to the moon was entirely political, why would we go to all the trouble to stoop to pick up rocks and carry them back? Why develop a futuristic cart that could carry two space-suited astronauts over the surface of the moon? Wouldn’t we have just had him land, walk around a little, plant a flag, say something politically obtuse, and leave? Clearly, Apollo was a valid scientific enterprise, as much as cancer research or smallpox elimination or the development of a measles vaccine. I’m glad I lived through that. I’m proud I had the privilege to watch on TV as Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap” on the moon. To watch it when it actually happened, even though it was a kind of blurry black-and-white picture.