Sunday, July 28, 2019

Apollo 11 - 50th Anniversary and PBS's "American Experience: Chasing the Moon"

The past couple of weeks marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, thanks to the crew of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.  Plus, the might of NASA, contractors to NASA, government bureaucrats, politicians and, us, the voting and tax-paying public.

From July 16th to July 24th, 1969, three brave people hurled through the void of space, two walked the face of an alien landscape, and then all returned, safely, to Earth.  All of this just sixty-six years after the Kitty Hawk Flyer took to the sky and 27 years after the first V2 rocket.  The scope of progress and achievement during this window was unprecedented in human history as two nations threw down the gauntlet to see who could place a boot onto lunar soil. 

With any luck, you've spent some time watching one of the many documentaries that aired on cable and elsewhere about the Apollo missions.  Jamie and I watched the 3-part, roughly 6-hour series from PBS's American Experience program, Chasing the Moon (2019)

If it re-airs or you can catch it streaming or elsewhere, I highly recommend it.  I've watched a few movies, no small number of specials and docs (including this year's Apollo 11 doc, now streaming).  All have their merits - and I won't say to prioritize one over the other.  The American Experience doc does a lot more of the "why's and wherefore's" of Apollo, from Sputnik kickstarting American competition for space to what else was going on outside of NASA and how it informed the program (and why the public lost interest after Apollo 11). 

We post with some frequency about the meaning and, in our opinion, necessity of something like NASA and Apollo.  This week (and any week, really) there's plenty of better and smarter people than myself discussing the meaning of the achievement.  I was born six years later, more than two years after the final Apollo mission. 

The NASA I grew up with was one of Shuttle Missions, routine spaceflight and the colonization of Earth-orbit just post SkyLab.  The goals of NASA became varied and unclear to much of the American public, and so when the risk of human spaceflight via our aging shuttle program became clear, even that went by the wayside.  For years, we've hitched rides with the Russians to visit our own modules of the I.S.S.

Of course, now we're talking about moon-bases and going to Mars.  I am neither a skeptic nor a critic.  These are lofty goals with innumerable challenges and new methods and participants as we look to the next ten years.  I believe we can have astronauts walking on the surface of our sister planet in the next two decades, if we persevere, and embrace both the unmeasurable value provided with such plans for building shared experience as well as the measurable in technology spin-offs and the cultivation of great minds who work to solve the issues needed to get there.

Like Apollo 11, it's not that the missions to the moon and Mars will solve our issues here on this lonely, wet rock.  For years we've needed something to look to, to aspire to and see what impossible feats can be accomplished. 

In 1969, three men climbed atop a canister of explosive, hurled themselves into the heavens, trod across the surface and returned to tell the tale.  Already some believe it's a fiction, and the more years pass between then and now, the more the Apollo missions and the accomplishments of a people will fade into myth and legend.  That we looked up and went there will seem impossible as we glance up at the pale light reflecting to us once the sun has gone down.

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