Are Americans unique in all the world for the ability to utterly bury some of the most glorious aspects of our history? In 1969, we flung three guys into space and two of them landed on the moon and came back home with a suitcase full of moon rocks. With the exception of subsequent Apollo missions, no one has done it since. And 39 years later, no one's even close.
Yet, do many Americans remember what this, the magnificent Apollo program, represented? "I'm not sure if they do," says Sy Liebergot, one of the thousands of Apollo's best and brightest. Liebergot's crowded hour in history began with the explosion of an oxygen tank in the Apollo 13 service module in April, 1970. Liebergot was the lead EECOM—electrical, environmental, consumables—flight controller on that ill-starred mission, not to mention the rest of the Apollo program and Gemini and Spacelab, too.
He's 72 now and retired from NASA. I met him last week at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where he had come to speak to engineering students.
Toward the end of the day, in his final lecture, one thing that struck me was how little young people seem to know about the accomplishments of the Apollo era. There was a question about how accurate the movie was and one student wanted to know if the launch vehicle ever hit birds during liftoff. Ho-hum. Is this normal?
"In most of my talks today to engineering students, I didn't get any engineering questions from them. I was kind of disappointed. They didn't poke around," he told me," during a 20-minute podcast interview you can hear here.
What's wrong here? Are modern college students just incurious or is Apollo ancient, dusty and irrelevant history to them? There's something missing.
I don't think it's the students, however. Modern kids are as smart as kids have ever been. What's missing is the grand vision that got Apollo started in the first place. After Apollo ended, the Congress unplugged the entire effort and NASA was left largely without purpose. It has drifted ever since. Revisionist historians may discount John F. Kennedy's 1961 declaration of the lunar landing goal, but it represented a bold stroke of the sort that's hard to imagine in 2008.
As a nation, we seem satisfied with achieving the possible rather than inspired to invent the kind of audacious future that Apollo represented. Maybe a second lunar program, a Mars mission or something the Chinese might do will scare us as much as Sputnik did and ignite another burning sense of purpose.
Predicting whether this will happen is above my pay grade, but in the interim, I can says this: Listening to those who shaped Apollo's glory—like Sy Liebergot—is an opportunity well worth the effort. Many of Apollo's old hands lecture widely, as Liebergot does, and are worth seeking out. Old hat or not, the history is as fascinating now as it was when it was being made. In my view, it's not just worth remembering, but worth celebrating. Check out Sy's Web site at ApolloEECOM.com.