A Few Words About Apollo 11

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Here's a phrase you don't hear much anymore: "We can put a man on the moon, but we can't…" Fill in the outrage or frustration of your choice. One reason for this is that nearly half of the world's population was born since Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility 40 years ago today and 100 million Americans who are alive now, weren't then. The current generation seems blissfully unaware of Apollo's stunning achievement.

Not me. Over the weekend, in honor of Walter Cronkite's sad passing, the Apollo 11 mission got a lot of airplay. Maybe I am exaggerating, but I seem to experience the same thrill watching it now as I did when it occurred that July day four decades ago. A life event ranks as "major" if you can remember exactly where you were when it happened. I was in my parents den, home on leave from the Army ahead of an overseas tour. I held my breath as Armstrong and Aldrin sailed over craters to a safe landing. I felt the same wave of emotion as Cronkite did when he turned away from the camera and said, "Boy!"

At the time, I recall being impressed with the astronauts and the sheer audacity of the program. But since then, having read a number of books on the subject, two things impress me more now: The breakneck pace of Apollo and the utter disinterest in it after Apollo 17 landed.

What's often under appreciated is that the vehicle which took Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon—the full-up Saturn V—had been flown only three times before. The lunar module that would take them to the surface had flown in space (manned) only twice. The Apollo system's first manned flight was in October of 1968; two months later it orbited the moon; nine months later it landed on the moon.

It's hard to imagine this happening today with anything, much less a manned space project. But then we don't have the likes of George Mueller anymore. Mueller was a fearless NASA director who kicked the Apollo program out of its doldrums by proposing "all-up" testing. Previously, NASA had plodded along carefully testing each subsystem before joining it to the whole. Mueller ordered the agency to assemble the vehicle and fly it. It worked. The Saturn system never suffered a loss of payload.

The disinterest in real space exploration strikes me as a sort of national post-partum. John F. Kennedy laid down the challenge, we met it, we moved on. Even Mueller was gone from NASA before the end of 1969. The timeline of Apollo looks like the Dodo bird compared to the Sea Tern: It just terminates in extinction. Last year, Sy Liebergot, the heroic ECCOM controller on Apollo 13, told me that the drawings of the original Saturn V system no longer exist, having been discarded as so much surplus paper and linen.

I prefer not to dwell on what that says about us as a civilization. The late Mr. Cronkite was quoted as saying the lunar landing ranked as one of top stories of the 20th century, right along with two world wars and the invention of the airplane. I think he was right. And I, for one, consider myself lucky that I got to witness it.

Comments (14)

I had the privilige of standing about 3 miles from Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy, in the VIP area next to the Vehicle Assembly Building, at 0932 eastern time on July 16, 1969. I witnessed the launch of Apollo 11, and nearby were LBJ, Senator Everett Dirksen, Jack Benny and Johnny Carson. It was between my junior and senior years in college, and I had written to both of my Kansas senators, my rep and several other people in government asking for a VIP pass to the event. Senator Bob Dole wrote back and said he had one but was not going so I could have his. Two years later I was fortunate to be working at JSC (then the Manned Spacecraft Center) and worked in Mission Control on two of the last three Apollo missions. Those experiences gave me enough motivation to last a lifetime and to go on to successful careers in military and civilian aviation. I can't think of anything that had a greater influence on me than the space program.

Posted by: Robert Ryan | July 20, 2009 4:57 AM    Report this comment

How sad to know that just 14 months from now, when the shuttles are retired, America will have NO means to put anyone in space. We'll be reduced to begging rides from the Russians.

Posted by: CRAIG DOW | July 20, 2009 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Back in the sixties kids built models, played with neighbor kids outside in the sunshine and dreamed of going to the moon. Now kids sit in front of a TV, playing endless video games and think they are on the moon. These days if a kid can't pour something out of a box and have it working in a few minutes, he wants nothing to do with it. Build a model plane? Not gonna happen. It takes doers to haven Apollo program, now all we have are watchers.

Posted by: Kraig Krumm | July 20, 2009 10:02 AM    Report this comment

If we move forward with the Constellation program and return to the Moon -- or on to Mars -- all of the disrespect Apollo received after 1972 (and even before) will be forgotten. There are no stronger proponents of this plan than the original Apollo astronauts, led by the outspoken Aldrin. What an honor to their legacy it would be to continue. Of course, this isn't about simply honoring 12 test pilots. It's about fulfilling man's destiny to explore. Once we give up on that in favor of handwringing over what we already know, I believe we will lose our magic as a species. Let's hope and pray that our dreamers and visonaries prevail!

Posted by: David Thompson | July 20, 2009 10:37 AM    Report this comment

I hear from lots of naysayers about the space program, the money could be better spent at home, etc (basically the mindset that killed the Apollo program) The way I see it, there are two ways technology grows in leaps and bounds - war and exploration. No disrespect intended to all to our military - they are needed and do a great service and truly are heroes, but that being said, I'll gladly take space exploration any day! What an incredible stimulus plan for our country!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | July 20, 2009 1:48 PM    Report this comment

Today is my birthday; I turned 11 the day of the landing. That was the high point of my experience as an American; it's been pretty much all downhill since then. I'd love to believe that the potential of space could inspire another national effort of the magnificence of Apollo, but sadly we seem to be more interested in fighting over trivia than moving forward together. Apollo happened because of Cold War competition and the murder of JFK; that was one promise made by a politician that no successor would dare take back. I want to believe, but the truth is another Apollo is like the dream of an airplane in every garage; recurring but extremely unlikely.

So now I'm going to go and watch all of "From the Earth to the Moon" with my kid; can't think of a better way to spend the day.

Posted by: PAUL DE ZAN | July 20, 2009 2:14 PM    Report this comment

As a kid, I watched every space launch from Alan Shepard thru the beginings of the Space Shuttle. The shuttle system should have been turned over to private industry. At that point, NASA should have been back to its original mission, and that of exploration systems. Maybe, we could have been on our way to Mars by now.
Our country is now a failure as far as exploration goes, and that is too bad. We were great at one time.

Posted by: GLENN DARR | July 20, 2009 2:54 PM    Report this comment

We have lost the distinction between reality and virtual reality. Sadly, virtual reality has become more the standard - the unfortunate byproduct of the new technology. Why should young people be expected to aspire to be astronauts when they can be anything or anyone they can imagine through the magic of a few key strokes? It is instant gratification and no real effort or sacrifice. I watched this historic event on black and white TV. I feel fortunate for having experienced it; for having been there in my own small way. If I should recieve a call to cease my life as I know it to get a seat on the next trip out of the earth's atmosphere. sign me up. I'll be there on the next plane.

Posted by: Jud Phillips | July 20, 2009 8:06 PM    Report this comment

I grew up reading science-fiction and believing deeply that our future as a race of sentient beings must include colonization and development of other planets. I believed that first moon landing had us on our way at last, and I speculated on how long it would take, in what direction, what intermediate steps would be involved, how long it would be before we achieved some form of force-field space drive (rendering chemical-fuel rockets as obsolete as the ox-cart), whether FTL travel is really possible. What I never dreamed of for a minute was that we would make it to the moon, and then just stop. Do nothing for forty years except orbiting a few communication and navigation satellites. Just stop. God help us all.

Posted by: john Wood | July 21, 2009 5:39 PM    Report this comment

Yeah, we've got all these other things, important things, to spend all that money we wasted on filming that moon landing in a studio lot on.

Like buying bigscreen teevee's for the less motivated, er, fortunate among us.

The pride and determination shown by the Apollo project's contemporary generation is simply missing from today's. Fifty years of sending our kids off to the government to be indoctrinated, uh, educated will do that to a country.

Posted by: Justa Guy | July 21, 2009 5:43 PM    Report this comment

I too remember the landing but I also remember returning to explore the surface for minerals and good dune buggy spots. I can understand the feeling that everything stopped. Workig at JPL from time to time over the next 30 years, I can assure you THEY never lost enthusiasm over the program. Sure they had other "fish" to fry but the moon program set the stage for all of the others and it was a constant reminder. I think we can look to Viet Nam as the main distractor. The costs of war cooled the nation just as Iraq is doing today. It is a #$%&*!@ shame!

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 22, 2009 2:10 AM    Report this comment

I was a new first officer for a supplemental air carrier on layover in Chicago when the first Moon landing was accomplished. We were all gathered around a television that was set up for the purpose in a local grill frequented by crewmembers. Everyone held their breath until the landing was made.

When I was a line boy and then flight instructor at Long Beach, Daugherty Field, I can remember watching the Pregnant Guppy and Mini Guppy (Boeing 377 Stratocruisers with expanded fuselages necessary to carry space hardware), taking off loaded and using almost all of runway 12. All four P&W 4360 engines doing everything they could, lifting off at the last second and barely making it over the 405 Freeway past the end of the runway. I was convinced that if a tall semi-tractor was on the freeway at the time, it would have been knocked over.

That was a less risk-adverse society. We lose a lot when the risk of potential litigation overrides the risk involved with progress.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | July 22, 2009 10:03 AM    Report this comment

I looked up searching for the source of a different and thrilling sound when I was 8 years of age and I have never been the same. I logged my
first “flights” in a piece of tin roofing bent into a canoe shape with a board for a wing. My advanced trainer was an enclosed cockpit made from old orange crates, the source of construction materials for a poor kid in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

I cannot describe the incredible sensation of takeoff in every real airplane I have ridden in or flown since and I will never experience a rocket liftoff. However, nothing can take away the pride and thrill of our space race from the first Mercury shot through the Apollo missions. And now my 79-year-old body is entertained and sustained by the myriad by-products of that era. Why, oh why did we stop?

Orv Knarr

Posted by: Orv Knarr | July 23, 2009 7:28 AM    Report this comment

I have to ask why restart manned space exploration versus robots. What is the goal? If it is exploration and data collection, then robots are far more efficient and effective than any manned mission (aside from what we learn about human physiology). Look at Hubble’s discoveries, or Mariner or any of the slew of machines coasting around the cosmos faithfully reporting what they find. And when we get bored we can turn off the receivers and go home. Putting humans in space has so far been reported by most NASA personnel as initially thrilling followed by stupendous boredom by both air and ground crews. Yes, there have been spinoffs far too numerous to mention, but they have been developed in order to get into space. Once we get a human there, what do we learn? I think an honest answer to that question is “Not much.”

There are parallels between manned space vehicles and the push to limit manned fighters versus unmanned vehicles in the USAF: Robots don’t make heroes and AF generals. But the reality is that a fighter that can turn on a dime and give nine cents change has limited utility in the days of beyond visual range missile shots. Heck, a robot can do that too.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | July 25, 2009 4:26 PM    Report this comment

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