We just passed a particular anniversary mark that is good cause for reflection. On February 20, 1962, Astronaut John Glenn, about the Mercury/Atlas spacecraft Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the Earth in space, fifty years ago.
That’s really astonishing to consider, for me at least. I was so young I’m really not sure if I have any memory of the flight, but I was around then, although I was just a toddler. It’s really strange to think about this and think, yes, this was within my lifetime, and now, it seems so long ago.
Basically, the beginnings of the American space program and the progression through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned spaceflight programs was conincident with my childhood, the sixties. That was a pretty high item in the batch of things that caught and held my attention through that time, as a boy growing up in the United States right along with the birth and growing early days of NASA and spaceflight. This was inspiring stuff. Kind of off on a tangent, I also was developing a pretty intense interest in automobiles, and racing of them, and it also happened to be that the same period we’re looking at here also saw the most extraordinary period of changes and development in auto racing, so all together, it was pretty heady stuff to me as a boy growing up.
Thinking about that period of the NASA manned spaceflight program and everything about that time naturally leads me to thinking about the Apollo program and the moon landing missions. This leads me to thinking about all that, and the attitudes and spirit that went with it, and the general perspective of it all.
Part of it was how great it was in the sense of possibilities, that great things were possible, as I watched them being done.
Ever since that era, there have been all sorts of retrospective reviews of the period, assorted books, television documentaries, magazine articles, discussions, with all kinds of commentary throughout all that about what it was all about, what it all meant, what it did, what the motivations were. It’s a big subject, obviously a lot can be said about all that, from many angles on many levels. I’ve been thinking for a minute about going into a list of good work on the subject, but I think I’ll pass on that, at least for now, because that would be a bit of a project of its own.
However, there is one particular item I’ll mention, including a recommendation for this as a great piece of work, the documentary film In The Shadow of The Moon (which is available on DVD, and definitely worth buying if you have any interest in the history of NASA, spaceflight in general, and the Apollo moon missions. In general, it’s a more personal look at the men who flew the Apollo moon missions.
There were 9 Apollo flights to the moon, 6 of those landed a LEM on the moon, with a total of 24 men making the flight to the moon and back.
(9 missions had 27 crew slots for the 3 man Apollo spacecraft, 3 of the astronauts flew to the moon twice, so there were 24 astronauts who made the journey)
This is a pretty exclusive club, made even more so now, a little more than a decade into the 21st century, as some of these men are no longer with us. Part of what’s interesting and notable about In The Shadow of The Moon is the element of hearing these men speak about what could be argued was the most important product of manned spaceflight and particularly the Apollo moon flights, the perspective resulting from seeing the Earth from that far out. A tiny fraternity of dedicated, educated, very intelligent, and seriously brave people saw the Earth as it really is, from the point of view that you only get from almost a quarter of a million miles away.
The nice part is that, while it’s easy enough to understand that to some degree, it’s only possible to fully comprehend the impression that experience made on these men by being one of them, having had the experience of being there, out there, they brought back artifacts that gave us some hint of that experience. Some of the most famous photographs in human history came from that, with the first being what’s often referred to as the “Earthrise” photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders on the Apollo 8 flight. While I don’t think it’s possible to fully understand the impression made upon these people from the direct experience of being far out there, looking back at the Earth, we all got to share some sense of that perspective from the photographs and movie film they brought back home with them. When you really sit back and contemplate that whole adventure, while the presumptive big theme of the Apollo moon flight program was “we beat the Soviet Union”, this might have been the real, substantial, important, and lasting result, this sense of perspective, of seeing the planet we live on in proper context.
Their comments were interesting, to say the very least about them. They talked about the profound impact it had on them to see the entire world they knew, the only home we have, hanging in the incomprehensible vastness of space seen as a small blue and white ball, this little sphere holding everybody and everything they knew, the home of every human being other than themselves and their two companions, every one of them living on that little blue ball, this oasis in the universe holding all the varieties of living things that are known. They talked about how small and fragile and delicate and beautiful it was, how fragile it suddenly seemed, how suddenly all the abuses heaped on it by humanity seemed so crazy, how much we all take it for granted, how absurd it all seemed to consider all the endless wars and petty stupid conflicts humans subjected each other to, how overwhelming was the sense that told them, essentially, this is all we have, and we’re on together riding this tiny little vessel through the cosmos.
All of this runs through my mind now, a couple of days after the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight, and just days after the comments of Rick Santorum suggesting all President Barack Obama’s policies and thinking about the subjects of energy and the environment were all wrong and the consequence of “phony theology”. Just last night, a brief look in on Fox News to see what the latest absurdity was there turned out to be both as nauseating and as unsurprising as ever, as a pair of people I won’t name because they already get more attention than they should sat in front of their own individual TV cameras and made pronouncements about that. With the kind of mix of deep smugness and severe idiocy that are normal behavior for both of them (they’re both kind of Usual Suspect Fox News guests), they alternated back and forth between them proclaiming that Santorum was some sort of righteous channel of truth and right being victimized and persecuted for his righteous speaking of truth (I was starting to gag), and carried on at length like this, babbling about President Obama and “environmental radicals” and their “religion” of “secular humanism” and “environmental extremism” and that went on and on. (That was in the Sean Hannity hour, in case you’re wondering, which shouldn’t be surprising.)
There is quite a cult of people who believe that finite natural resources are infinite, if you just wish hard enough and demand stridently enough, the magic of The Free market is left to itself, and, besides, God made it that way, and that “nature” or “the environment” is something separate and compartmentalized that we can abuse any way we like, and suggesting otherwise is somewhere between a severe inconvenience, treason to the United States, and an affront to God. This should be seen as the lunacy that it is, but evidently all that appeals to a number of people who find everything much easier if they can believe that there are no limits to the planet and it will all bounce back from whatever damage we do.
The space program is a different thing now, and the general public view seems much different than it was when it was a matter of a big competition of America versus those evil godless commies. It’s not a sport since then. Now, in all the political strife about government budgets, NASA is in the crosshairs of budget cuts, even though the entire total of federal government expenditures for NASA for its entire history since its establishment in 1958 is less than what has been the normal Department of Defense military budget every year, even without counting special appropriations and the games of “off the books” military spending.
Insanity is close to epidemic now.
I wish that the remaining survivors of that club of 24 Apollo astronauts who made the journey to the moon, and saw our home the way nobody else in human history has seen it, could have a few serious words with the American public.