The First Men on the Moon
On July 20, AD 1969, two men came in peace for all mankind. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and
Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, became the first humans to set foot on another world. Sixty miles above
them, Mike Collins orbited the moon in the Columbia, becoming, in his words, the loneliest man in
the universe. It is a day that sticks out in the memory of everybody who was alive at the time.
At 9:51 PM Eastern Time, more than six hours after landing on the Moon, a grainy black and white picture was transmitted live from the moon, showing a white shape slowly moving among the shadows as Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Module to set foot on the surface of the Moon. That descent took all of four minutes that lasted a lifetime.
Those images, as I stood in my pajamas in a darkened room, are the first memories I have. My father had come upstairs to wake my older sister and me up to make sure that we saw this historic moment which would never be repeated. I'm sure that he figured I wouldn't really carry the memory, but I would at least be able to say I had watched the events live.
Over the years, the space program was scaled back drastically from the hopes of the NASA administration. The final three moon landings were cancelled, the booster which was to carry Apollo 18 to the Moon turned into a lawn ornament in Houston. Instead of going to the Moon, Apollo 18 docked with a Soviet Soyuz, proving that Cold War enemies could work together peacefully in space, even if it was just a publicity stunt.
The space station which was hoped for never materialized, although the Soviets eventually put up the workhorse Mir, now nearly ending its extended life which further proved that the US could work with the Russians in space. Even as the Russians are trying to figure out how to close down Mir, they are working with the US and several other nations to put the International Space Station into orbit.
The space shuttle, NASA's transportation to the space station which was never built, is scheduled for launch on the thirtieth anniversary of the moon landing. Nearly one hundred flights into the program, the shuttle has launched satellites and provided a temporary space station for science. In recent launches, the shuttle has begun ferrying the pieces needed to create a more permanent space station.
We have reached Mars, although no human has ever been closer than Earth's orbit to the Red Planet. NASA's current program of (relatively) inexpensive unmanned probes is providing a wealth of information.
Nevertheless, imagine how much more excitement would have been generated if a man could have stepped onto the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997 instead of the Pathfinder.
Looking back on the last thirty years, it is fair to say that the American space program has failed to live up to its potential. Politics and economic concerns have too frequently gotten in the way. Although some people will ask, "why should we throw money into space," the answer is that the money all stays on Earth and provides thousands of jobs and collateral benefits as innovations created for space are spun off for use in the home.
However, the space program we have had has been an amazing success. In his Sidewise Award-winning novel Voyage, Stephen Baxter postulates a world in which funding for the manned space program wasn't cut after Apollo. Although a healthy manned space program continued throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, it provided less real scientific knowledge than our own scaled back space program was able to obtain.
Thirty years after the first lunar landing, the twelve men from the Apollo missions are still the only people who have walked on the Moon.
Thirty years after the first lunar landing, the twelve men from the Apollo missions are still the only people who have walked on the Moon. The same month that witnessed the anniversary of the first landing, the third of those men, Charles "Pete" Conrad, was killed in a motorcycle accident near Obai, California. There is an injustice in his death. Although he was not the most famous of the astronauts, that distinction will always be carried by Neil Armstrong, he was the most quintessential astronaut. He was a man who was a test pilot for the Navy. He flew two Gemini missions. He sat in a spaceship which was struck by lightning, twice, on its way to the Moon. He showed his unrestrained joy by stepping onto the Moon and shouting "Whoopee!" He was attempting to make space more accessible to all mankind. And he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
The number of moonwalkers who are still alive can now be counted on a person's hands, with room to spare. Certainly, these men are not old, most are in their sixties or early seventies. It would be sad if none of them were able to be at Cape Canaveral for the next manned mission to the Moon. Unfortunately, no human nation or corporation seems poised to be able to repeat the magnificent feat these men, and the thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and, yes, bureaucrats, behind them accomplished in the 60s and early 70s.
In the 60s, the United States government mobilized, in the face of a perceived threat from the Russians and an affront to national dignity, to send men to the Moon. In 1999, the perception of such a threat no longer exists. There is, unfortunately, no compelling reason for the government to continue to fund manned space exploration and the science of such a program is not enough cause for the government to do so. Even if President Clinton or one of the candidates for the next election were to make a Kennedy-esque goal, there is no indication that there would be a continued push to return to deeper space.
In the opening years of the third millennium, space will not be explored by Lewis and Clark, send out by their government, but by the Hudson Bay Company, private companies trying to make a profit on the frontier. Corporations need to work together to put men into space, to find a reason for going. They need to work together with their competition and with other fields to achieve what the government did from 1969 to 1971 and to move beyond that accomplishment.
Steven H SilverSteven H Silver is a Contributing Editor to the SF Site, and one of our most prolific contributors. At his own website he has posted over 300 lengthy reviews of genre books. He is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, is the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000, and maintains the official Harry Turtledove website.
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