by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
August 4, 2009
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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It still seems hard to believe that 40 years ago this week, men walked on the moon.
It's even harder to believe that the night of July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface, marked the high point of the American space program.
Sure, NASA has accomplished many things since the Apollo moon missions - Skylab, the deep space probes Pioneer and Voyager, the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions, the Viking probes to Mars, the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station - but nothing has truly captured the imagination of Americans quite like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
From the first tentative suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in 1961, to John Glenn orbiting the Earth in 1962, to Ed White's first spacewalk in 1965 to the stunning pictures of our fragile blue planet by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968, Americans followed the space missions with rapt attention. When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, the expectation was that there would be many new worlds to conquer.
But the manned flights to Mars didn't happen. Nor did the moon colonies. Nor did those Pan Am flights to the moon depicted in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." NASA saw its budget cut in half by the mid-1970s; the expansive vision of going boldly where no man had gone before had changed to simpler, cheaper and more achievable goals. A reusable spacecraft to launch satellites was more important than a Mars mission. And astronauts went from being military test pilots with "the right stuff" - as writer Tom Wolfe immortalized the original Mercury 7 - to technicians and fix-it men.
Writing in this Sunday's New York Times, Wolfe pinpointed the problem. We were able to land on the moon within the timetable set down by President Kennedy in 1961 because we were locked in Cold War combat with the Soviet Union and were determined to achieve superiority in space, no matter the cost. Once our astronauts beat the Soviets to the moon and won the space race, the sense of urgency was gone.
Wolfe wrote that NASA's "lack of a philosopher corps" stopped the momentum. The closest thing to a philosopher NASA had was Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who worked on V-2 missles for the Nazis and then was recruited with other scientists to create the American space program. Wolfe remembered a speech von Braun gave toward the end of his life.
"It's been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of."
Unfortunately, Wolfe wrote, "NASA couldn't present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent."
In the early 1950s, Wernher von Braun co-wrote a series of articles for Collier's Weekly entitled, "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" By the time he died of cancer in 1977, our conquest of space had begun and ended with the moon; no astronaut has left the Earth's orbit since the final Apollo moon mission in 1972.
Debate over the need for manned interplanetary space travel has raged ever since NASA's founding in 1958, as have debates over whether it is worth it to spend so much money on space exploration. But von Braun's words strike a chord. As far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in our universe, and the day will come when our current planet will be uninhabitable. Can we build a bridge to the stars? Can we earthlings summon the will to again look beyond our fragile blue planet and see what lies beyond its orbit?
The human need to explore, to dare and to rise to new challenges is still with us. Is a new generation of men and women with the right stuff ready to rise and accept these challenges?
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.