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America’s Race to the Moon

Posted By Gerard J. DeGroot On March 26, 2007 @ 12:33 am In History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Politics,Science | 24 Comments

Astronaut Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17, The Final Lunar Mission

[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Gerard J. DeGroot's new book Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest.]

The race was won. But, in order to give the impression that it was always more than just a race, Americans would go back to the Moon. NASA would invest the missions with further scientific hocus-pocus, again to give the impression that it was a very serious pursuit and to convince the public that something worthwhile (perhaps even profitable) might come out of the great adventure—something more than magnificent desolation.

John Kennedy had said that Americans should land on the Moon before the end of the decade. They’d done that. But wouldn’t it be neat if they were able to complete the task twice before the new decade began? This was, after all, the Cold War, where propaganda victories took the place of military advance. To go twice would put an exclamation point at the end of a bold statement about American capitalist supremacy.

The Apollo 12 mission was therefore scheduled for November 14, 1969. Unfortunately that’s winter, something that happens even in Florida. The mission to the Ocean of Storms began in storms at Cape Kennedy. According to the NASA rulebook, rain was okay, but lightning was not. Since the meteorologists saw no chance of lightning, Mission Control, aware of how narrow were these windows of opportunity for going to the Moon, decided to press ahead. The Saturn V rocket roared to life, but before it could clear the launch tower, lightning struck. Circuit breakers blew, and, inside the command module, the astronauts were momentarily plunged into darkness. “We just had everything in the world drop out,” Pete Conrad told a momentarily bewildered Mission Control.

A less complicated vehicle would certainly have crashed. But the entire package had concentric layers of redundancy built into every system. Almost immediately, backup power kicked in, and the rocket stayed on course. “It’s a matter of making every possible human effort to avoid failure of a part,” von Braun once boasted. “And then taking steps to avoid the effects of a failure if one should develop anyway.” After a thorough check of the systems, Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon, and Alan Bean continued on their way to the Moon. Conrad and Bean landed in the Ocean of Storms and found, to no one’s surprise, a desolate monochromatic landscape full of rocks. As a result of some nifty navigating, they landed very close to the Surveyor 3 lunar probe, which had touched down a few years earlier. They retrieved the camera and a few other pieces of the equipment, so that engineers back on Earth could study the effects of the lunar environment on man-made objects. To everyone’s surprise, a microscopic biological organism was found on the equipment when it was studied back on Earth. There followed a brief flurry of speculation that perhaps life had been found on the Moon. That possibility was quickly swept aside; in the end, the simple explanation seemed most logical: Bean and Conrad had probably contaminated the materials by touching them with dirty fingers. In other words, there was no life on the Moon, just rocks.

The popularity of the rock-collecting expeditions was quickly waning. Apollo 13 was scheduled for April 1970. The mission was given to James Lovell, Ken Mattingly, and Fred Haise. Just days before the launch, fellow astronaut Charles Duke was exposed to measles. He in turn unwittingly exposed the flight crew. Haise and Lovell had immunity, but Mattingly did not. By this stage, NASA should perhaps have contemplated the unlucky reputation of number 13, but it does not do for an agency specializing in science to be superstitious. The show had to go on. Mattingly was replaced by Jack Swigert.

The rest of the story is well known, thanks in large part to the film starring Tom Hanks. An explosion ripped through the outer skin of the Command Module, which quickly lost electrical power. To add to their woes, Haise came down with a serious infection and was desperately ill for most of the journey. The crew had to use the lunar module as a lifeboat, up to reentry. They survived through a combination of courage, flexibility, determination, and imagination, not to mention sheer brilliance—both in the spacecraft and on the ground.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the cause of the problem dated back to 1965, when the power supply on the Apollo spacecraft was increased from 28 to 65 volts. The manufacturer of the suspect oxygen tanks had failed to make an adjustment for this change, which means that every previous Apollo mission had flown with the same potentially disastrous malfunction. In this case, however, the problem was compounded because the tank in question had been damaged in preflight exercises when it had previously been installed on Apollo 10. It was replaced, repaired, and put on Apollo 13 by technicians who clearly were not superstitious. The tank continued to cause problems in the preparation for the Apollo 13 flight, but no one considered them serious enough to cancel the flight. So much for von Braun’s assurances about removing all conceivable faults.

The film Apollo 13 is a masterpiece, a riveting drama of human endurance under the most challenging circumstances. But the drama obscures some harsh realities about the space program. The crew undoubtedly exhibited immense courage and were helped by brilliantly creative improvisation on the ground. Survival was first and foremost a triumph of human ingenuity. But while humans had solved the problem, they were also the cause of it. A crisis developed because men were on board, which made it imperative that they be brought back. An unmanned flight would simply have been aborted and the only loss would have been millions of dollars worth of equipment.

Another reality is even more telling. Of all the lunar missions, probably 99 percent of Americans can recall only two: Apollo 11 and Apollo 13—the first one and the nearly disastrous third one. The others have faded into obscurity and insignificance. At the time, they seemed a bit like a scratched record endlessly repeating itself. With each launch, attention faded, telecasts shortened, and criticism of the costs grew more strident. Before disaster struck, one of the transmissions from Apollo 13, which was supposed to be aired live on television, was canceled by CBS in favor of the Doris Day Show. After the explosion, however, the mission became a media event because it was a failure. Success was no longer news. Flight director Gene Kranz later became famous for his immortal line “failure is not an option.” In truth, however, the entire mission was a failure, since its purpose was to put two more men on the Moon. The fact that it failed made it interesting and newsworthy.

If Apollo 14 is remembered at all, it is for the fact that Alan Shepard hit some golf balls on the lunar surface. In a subsequent All in the Family episode, Michael “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner) argued with his father-in-law, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), about the cost of the space program. “You don’t think,” he shouted, “we got anything more important to do with twenty billion dollars than to send a guy up to the Moon to hit a few golf balls?” A majority of the nation agreed. During the Apollo 15 mission, an anonymous viewer phoned his local TV station to suggest that a large rock discovered by the astronauts should be named in honor of “a taxpayer selected at random from the computers of the Internal Revenue Service.”

David Scott, who traveled on Apollo 15, believed wholeheartedly in the value of the space program (His was the first mission to deploy the hugely expensive Lunar Rover.). To him, it was not just symbolic of the superiority of the American system, it was also a sublime demonstration of mankind’s need to explore. “As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley,” he said while on the surface of the Moon, “I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.” Perhaps for some men that was true, and certainly sincerely felt. But Scott’s description of the Moon does make one wonder why there was ever a need to go there at all, and, even more so, to return:

To an “Earthling” one of the Moon’s most striking features was its stillness. With no atmosphere and no wind, the only movements we could detect on the lunar surface, apart from our own, were the gradually shifting shadows cast to the side of rocks and the rims of craters by the Sun slowly rising higher in the sky. There were no other features: no trees, bushes, rivers, streams, flowers, grass, animals or birds—none of the signs of nature that human beings have evolved with and are used to. There was no sound, either, apart from the gentle humming of the equipment in our backpacks. There were no clouds, haze or mist, and there appeared to be no color. The sky was pitch black except for the deep blue and white of our own planet suspended high in the sky like a Christmas tree ornament.

Astronauts always comment upon how lovely the Earth is from space, especially in comparison to the barren Moon. The view is fantastic. From that altitude, Earth is a lovely pearl dappled in shades of blue, pink, and white. It’s pretty precisely because one can’t see the hunger, the cruelty, the pollution, and the hatred that despoil the planet. Illness, poverty, crowded schools, and homeless people—all the problems crying out for money—magically disappear.

Since the missions, memory has faded almost completely. Some people can recall a very expensive lunar rover, but only the space geeks have a real sense of the distinct nature of each mission. That is entirely understandable given that NASA and the public were dancing to a different tune. There was hardly a whimper of protest from viewers when the three main networks kept coverage of Apollo 17, the last lunar mission, launched in late 1972, to a bare minimum. PBS briefly considered stepping into the void but in the end could not justify the huge expense for an audience so small. When CBS cut the last seventeen minutes of Medical Center in order to show the launch, the network was bombarded with complaints from viewers. ABC gave only half an hour to the lunar landing, but did include a short report during the halftime of the Jets-Raiders NFL game. Instead of showing the final steps of man on the Moon, NBC decided to broadcast a repeat of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “We . . . were already yesterday’s news,” Cernan remarked bitterly.

For most Americans, the race was over when Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins returned. There seemed little sense in going back. NASA, on the other hand, was still thinking in terms of the Moon missions as a prelude to something bigger. But by this stage the agency had neither the imagination, nor the money, nor the mandate to figure out what to do next.

So what was the lunar mission all about? What was it for? Charles Schultze, LBJ’s budget director, had to deal with the financial implications of Kennedy’s challenge. In the end, he decided that there were worse ways to spend money:

Looked at as entertainment, it sure did have its entertainment value. . . . It’s not gonna give us much scientific knowledge, you get some rocks back from the Moon. But you do it on a per capita basis, and as an entertainment tax it’s a great entertainment. You get not only the Moon landing itself, but you got all those initial, you know—the first shot around the Earth, Glenn, all of that business. And then you get—I don’t remember how many—four or five moon landings and, eh, as an entertainment tax, per capita, it wasn’t bad.

Walter Cronkite always seemed to have the final word on so much of what happened in, or to, America. He watched the space race at close quarters from Sputnik to the last journey of the lunar rover. Was it worth it? You bet.

The success of our space program . . . in that terrible decade of the 60’s, played an important part in maintaining a semblance of morale in a country that was very, very depressed in everything else that was happening. . . . The Civil Rights fight, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, these were things that split America in a way that we hadn’t been split since the Civil War of the 1860’s. And here was this one program where people could look up and dream if you please of incredible adventure. And there was a pride in that. It had a great deal to do with maintaining some sense of balance in this civilization of ours.

In other words, the lunar mission was a $35 billion happy pill administered to a generation of depressed Americans. There’s no doubt that the 1960s were tough years, but as a cure for depression, surely Valium would have been cheaper. Cronkite was a good man and a great American. But every once in a while, he did talk nonsense. In 1974, he argued, in defense of new space goals: “How much is it worth to prove in an era of cynicism and gloom that man can do anything he wants to do as long as he has the will to do it and the money to spend.” At one time, that sort of remark sounded inspiring. In the lean 1970s, it merely sounded arrogant.


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