In a darkened room at Space Center Houston, the visitor center outside NASA’s Johnson Space Center, sits the last spacecraft to return humans from the moon, the Apollo 17 command module “America.” Lining the walls are more relics of the Apollo program – space suits, a flag carried to the moon and samples of lunar rock that visitors can see and even touch.
A few blocks away, inside an inelegant metal building, is one of three leftover Saturn V rockets, the same rocket that sent Apollo crews to the moon. Nearby, historians have restored the Mission Control room from which flights such as Apollo 11 were managed 50 years ago.
This is where Apollo came home to retire, its defining objective complete, but its underlying mission yet to be accomplished.
July 20, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first steps onto another world. At 10:56 p.m., at the exact moment Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon for the very first time in 1969, gaze skyward for a moment to reflect on what it meant and what it said about America.
Imagine the unwavering will and national commitment it took to land Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at the Sea of Tranquility less than 70 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Barely eight years before the lunar landing, President John F. Kennedy stepped before a joint session of Congress with a call to arms that became Apollo. He committed America to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of the 1960s. On the day Kennedy set that goal, America had launched just a single human spaceflight of 15 minutes in duration.
Before Kennedy’s deadline, NASA met JFK’s goal twice, landing both Apollo 11 and 12 before 1969 came to a close. It was an accomplishment born of an era before America came to accept limits on what it could do. It happened before social media, blogs and talk radio found so many ways to defeat initiative and convince people that “There’s no way you can do that.” It was an achievement that would be difficult to duplicate in today’s divided times, in an era without a consensus about what America wants to do or what it wants to be.
Prevailing wisdom holds that Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon was a political one, designed solely to prevent the Soviet Union from beating us in space yet again, as it had with the launches of Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin (the first human to orbit the Earth) and Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space). But nowhere in Kennedy’s call to arms will you find the words, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade, and once we’ve won the race, we will go home, turn our sights inward and call it quits.”
Yet here we are, still wondering on the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s giant leap how to follow in the footsteps of Apollo. America, at least as it relates to human exploration of space, has been stuck in neutral since Apollo ended. In the ensuing decades, American, Russian, Canadian, Japanese, European and Chinese astronauts have accumulated decades of time in low Earth orbit, aboard space stations, circling the block, never having again left our home planet to explore beyond our sights and reaches.
This July 20, on the much-celebrated Apollo 11 50th anniversary, an American astronaut will fly once again to the ISS – aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Fifty years after Apollo beat Russia to the moon, eight years after the end of the space shuttle program, our only way into space is hitching rides with our former (and, occasionally, current) adversary.
Apollo inspired a generation of innovators and explorers, including some from right here in northeast Indiana. Kids who saw the heroes of Apollo doing the impossible decided they could do the impossible, too. There were people from northeast Indiana who worked on the Saturn V rockets and the International Space Station that followed years later. An Elmhurst High School graduate, James Hansen, spent part of his career writing about spaceflight history and eventually talked Armstrong into letting him tell the astronaut’s life story. His book, “First Man,” became an Oscar-winning motion picture. The impact of spaceflight is an investment in humans even more than it is an investment in machines.
Exploration mattered then and now. It matters now, maybe more than ever, because of its ability to inspire people, broaden their horizons and convince them that, “Yeah, I can do that.”
No American president in my lifetime has thought much about where we go next in space. The current call to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA’s “Artemis” program, lacks the financial support to make it successful and an attention-grabbing reason to go back. It is one of many false starts America has made along the way to rebooting its mission in space. The first full-throated promise to return to the moon came 30 years ago, on Apollo 11’s 20th anniversary, when President George H.W. Bush declared that America would return to the moon then proceed on to Mars.
”We have rested on our Apollo laurels long enough,” Apollo 11 crew member Michael Collins said at the time. “It’s time to get moving again,” Aldrin added on that day in 1989. “The time for seizing the initiative in space is upon us.” Bush 41’s moon program died quickly, without a single mission having flown, as has every encore to Apollo conceived since.
I want a president in my lifetime to give a speech that engages the nation in the cause of exploration. But if no other leader will do that, perhaps we can lean on Kennedy’s original. Because Kennedy saw an American future in space that went beyond the moon. “For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace,” he said in 1961, in the same speech that sent America to the moon. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
For as long as humans have looked to the stars, they have wondered, “Are we all there is?” While the geology of the moon is important, what the ancients (and every millennium of humans who followed) have wanted to know is “Is there life out there?” The United States toyed with the idea of looking for life on Mars with the robotic Viking lander mission in 1976, but its results (indicating that life was indeed present in the Red Planet’s soil) were inconclusive. But the idea of biology on another planet, the building blocks like those from which life on Earth arose, excited the world.
Not one of the six robotic lander and rover missions to successfully touch down on Mars since Viking has directly pursued the question of life.
Conclusively answering this universal question would re-engage the world in the exploration of what lies beyond the Earth. It would give today’s Americans their Apollo moment. Like the Apollo missions did during the tumultuous 1960s, it would offer a compelling reason for Americans to look up again. It would inspire another generation of leaders, innovators and explorers.
Answering this most basic question is the most worthwhile goal for humans in space. It is the most profound tribute the world could offer to the heroes of Apollo on the silver anniversary of the first lunar landing. It would answer a question as old as humanity itself. By all accounts, the soils of Mars are likely teeming with microscopic life – and they are within reach of human explorers. There are other places in our own solar system where the conditions are right for life in its most basic form. But Mars is within our reach and it offers the answer to the greatest question of all time.
Life. It’s something we all understand. Let’s go find it.
So on July 20th, by all means, raise a toast to the triumph of Apollo 11. But raise a toast as well to the day, hopefully soon, when the exploration of space moves out of the pages of history and back onto the pages of today’s newspaper.
The moon was only meant to be the prologue to America’s story in space.
Fort Wayne resident John McGauley has studied and written on the history of human spaceflight since the 1980s. He works in local government.