Lost in Space

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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.

Related Content
Audio Interview with Sy Liebergot

Comments (5)

The human physical,intuitive and mental demands made on these first spacemen, with possible exception of stoicism make the early explorers efforts look simple. They surely will make the history books like Columbus and Cook. What level of engineering students in the US ask questions like do you hit birds at takeoff !!!

Posted by: Jack Harvey | February 29, 2008 3:23 PM    Report this comment

Often I also sense that something is missing from young engineers I work with. From a prime spot on Coco Beach I watched Apollo 11 rise - never before or since have I felt anything beat on my chest as hard as the Saturn V nor seen a more awesome sight. At the age of only 16 I was nearly brought to tears. A few years later I graduated as an engineer. Nowadays, I review early space-program tapes often, and the sight is still awe-inspiring to me. But not so with my young engineers. Nor are they generally interested in the technology of WWII. I tore apart old radios - who's interested in the inner workings nowadays? To me it seems just the results matter - the display, the output, the cost. It seems that the awe of history has been replaced with the awe of "here and now." After all, young people grew up with the Shuttle, aka the "Space Transporation System" that was supposed to make manned spaceflight "routine." Furthermore, I believe things that produce immediate gratification have replaced the splendor and majesty of past technical achievments, and water down the desire to pursue new paths.

Posted by: Mike Perkins | February 29, 2008 5:42 PM    Report this comment

From my perspective (born in 52) the generational difference can be summed up in one word "Romance.” We are deeply moved recounting those moments when individuals, fully invested heart and soul, press the limits of human life to achieve the goal of new frontiers. Even more visceral is our response when the goal involves God and Country.

Activities that involve contact with a cross section of young people from teens to thirties finds few who understand such passion. A bold exception is any opportunity to associate with the young men and woman dedicating themselves in our nation’s military aviation. In these, the wonder and the passion of “High Flight” lives on.

Posted by: C. David Buchanan | March 1, 2008 1:38 PM    Report this comment

As someone from a younger generation (born in 76), I'd have to agree. Regulation, increasing commercial traffic, and improved technology has made flying generally much safer, but also increased cost and raised the barriers to entry. And there is so much focus on achievement and money, vs. learning and real accomplishment, that kids are just stressed out to the point where they don't focus on the real world.

Reading recent reports of an unfortunate Mustang accident on first solo really brought some of this home to me. A plane that can literally torque into the ground if you push a few too many inches on go-around? that pilots used to solo with fewer hours than I have now? It's just a level of commitment, bravado, and freedom that's hard to imagine now.

Posted by: jack test | March 11, 2008 12:50 PM    Report this comment

As a member of an older generation who has the privilege of working with the younger generation, I think the thrill of flying is still there but the costs of learning to fly are overwhelming for someone with average means.

I've been promoting soaring as an inexpensive alternative that offers a high level of adventure. Once a youngster gets his or her head around the idea of sailplane racing and cross country flying and the fact that they can afford it, the interest develops quickly.

To further reduce the costs, I've been advocating winch launch instead of airplane tow. A 2500 foot AGL winch launch can be a cheap as $5. That's enough for a training flight an enough to find a thermal and soar away for a few hours.

Posted by: Bill Daniels | March 14, 2008 9:52 PM    Report this comment

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