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July 17th, 2009
11:53 PM ET

One giant leap, forty years later

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Sitting on the edge of the bed in my parents’ bedroom upstairs.

That’s where I watched the Apollo 11 astronauts step onto the moon.

If you are of a certain age, you remember where you were on July 20, 1969.

I remember when a television would be wheeled into my grade school classrooms so that we could watch the launch of the Mercury or Gemini missions and later the splashdown and recovery of the astronauts by Navy divers.

I remember a plastic space helmet and wanting to be John Glenn aboard “Friendship 7,” the third Mercury mission and the first to orbit the earth.

By July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the public was still a ways off from becoming inattentive to the space program.

Apollo 11 was an occasion for global fascination and for an America mired in a divisive jungle war thousands of miles away, a source of national pride.

The mission was the product of years of behind-the-scenes science and engineering trial-and-error.

In the early years of the space program, there were rockets that did not launch properly.

There was a fire that killed three astronauts in their capsule as they trained for the Apollo 11 mission.

But the successes were cheered from the White House to Main Street to school classrooms across the land.

Forty years later, the success of Apollo 11 stands as a testament to American ingenuity and a marker from a period of history known as the “Cold War.”

"The Apollo program is not replicable," Dr. John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, wrote in Space News. "It was a product of a specific time in history, as the Soviet Union and the United States were using space firsts as a surrogate battlefield for their global geopolitical competition. It was definitely not part of a societal commitment to space exploration and development."

The mission to the moon was outlined by a young President to a nation fascinated with their relatively young leader and his vision of a “New Frontier.”

Recall the words of President John F. Kennedy before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Eight years later, Sid Liebergot was an electrical, environmental and communications officer in mission control for the Apollo 11 mission.

“We were young, and we were fearless and, after all, nobody had ever told us young engineers that we couldn’t successfully land humans on another planet. So we did it,” Liebergot said.

Could America do something on this scale again?

America today is different in so many ways.

Public enthusiasm for the space program is not what it was then.

The missions most remembered since the landing on the moon probably are Apollo 13, which put the phrase “Houston we have a problem” into the public lexicon, and the tragedies of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

That is a shame, because much has been accomplished in four decades in understanding how man (and woman) function in space and in unmanned missions to planets and world’s beyond our moon.

Indeed, there is debate within the scientific community over the value of manned space flight compared with the abilities of robots and probes to explore our universe.

Last November I wrote in this space about a former colleague’s lament that – contrary to the expectations of our early 1960s childhood – space travel for the average man and woman would not be realized in our lifetimes.

In response to that blog, “Tammy” from Louisiana commented, “The opportunities space has for us are endless, the knowledge is endless, and I fear we as a nation forget how amazing this all still is sometimes.”

Indeed, advocates of space exploration worry that in a time of earthly concerns what lies beyond the world we know will become an afterthought.

And that would be too bad, for as the poet Robert Browning said, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?”

Author’s note: There are a lot of websites devoted to the Apollo 11 mission. Two, in particular, caught my attention. Popular Mechanics reveals the “untold story” of Apollo 11 here and go to www.wechoosethemoon.org and click on “follow the mission on Twitter” for a combination of 1969 history and 2009 technology.


Filed under: 360° Radar • David Schechter • Space
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Susan Lewis

    This is all well and good, but here, now, today, the space program has to go.

    We have to feed, clothe, house, and educate every human on this planet, and provide them with health care.

    We do not have one cent to waste on this.

    Not one.

    We will NEVER live on other planets.

    Exploring space is burning money. Turn these scientists toward global warming and medical research.

    Let's get real here.

    July 20, 2009 at 11:22 am |
  2. Benigna Marko

    Space provides just a small peak to untouched territories. Space is the most amazing race. Love that we succeed as we do in this forum.
    Benigna Marko

    July 18, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  3. earle,florida

    Forty-years plus,and we've found ways to view the entire universe,and have actually mapped-out our specific fixed point in the billion of galaxy's in our "Home Alone Universe"as it expands infinitely, into what might very well be, millions of parallel universe's adjoining us. If man can think the concept,through a dream/close encounter?/ramdom thought,pure luck it is surely doable! My hope is that the government works more with the private sector,to lower cost,and comes up with a new fuel for thrust (much less volatile) overcoming our gravitational-force-field.Realizing that the first step in space is to untether our very survival instincts,similar to the birth of a new-born baby having to leave the comfort of it's maternal mothers womb. Life becomes an adventure,so too, the experience of space travel into the unknown,soon equated to be history,as man's conquest so often have proven.Finally, our very existence as a species depends on finding more livable space,so to say,that compliments our own space.We certainly have the capabilities to comatose our astronauts (pilots) for moderate long distance travel,so let's get jetting!

    July 18, 2009 at 5:48 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    The space race also gave us the confidence that we as a people could achieve something momentous as landing a man on the moon in a time when the domestic scene struggled with riots for civil rights, riots and marches against Vietnam. We proved we could look beyond ourselves and take that next bold step out into the universe. At the same time the space race gave us the technology for practical uses here on Earth – air quality monitor system, Database Management System, Laser Surveying, Microcomputers, programmable pacemakers, voice guided wheelchairs, laser angioplasty, ultrasound, scratch-resistant lenses, etc. to just name a few.

    The Hubble telescope was also a product of our space race and to just look at the amazing pictures this telescope produces reminds you of how large the universe is and how mysterious, and how small we are and how little we know. We need to focus on space again but with a long range goal rather than a short range goal. Colonization of space used to be science fiction; in the future it may be routine. The last great frontier.....

    July 17, 2009 at 7:55 pm |
  5. Heather,ca

    I think the only way we can evolve as human beings is to look beyond our selves. We have gotten distracted by excess and greed. I agree that the space program is vital . We need to focus our energy and money on the universe out there. These things are greater than us. We did an amazing thing going to the moon and landing on another planet and returning safely to the earth. Some incredible inventions created for NASA are in use today for all of us. While we created and explored and made life on Earth high tech and easy its time to do the same in space. Only we all must realize that these amazing accomplishements take time and money. We can do more. If we can put music in a ipod or make a portable computer and phone we can do anything.

    July 17, 2009 at 6:34 pm |
  6. Michael C. McHugh

    Setting up a base on Mars would not only stimulate the economy and create jobs, but it would also be the next logical step in the eventual goal of exploring other solar systems–although I doubt that the technology to do that will exist in our lifetimes.

    July 17, 2009 at 2:58 pm |