Saturday, April 08, 2006

Looking Back at the World Before Apollo 11

At a recent visit to a used bookstore, I had the chance to pick up a June 6, 1969 issue of Life Magazine. The cover photo show's the Apollo 10's lunar module's ascent stage on its way back to the command module from a very low lunar orbit. Of course, Apollo 10 didn't land on the moon, but the lunar module did get within eight miles of the surface. The purpose of the mission was to check all of the Apollo systems, including all aspects of the lunar module, and collect information on the upcoming Apollo 11 landing site up close.

The pictorial within the magazine has images of the lunar surface that I have never seen before. Especially striking for their clarity are the pictures of Schmidt and Godin craters, which look too detailed to be real. Meanwhile, in the front of the magazine is a short one-page article about the presidency, the dreams of Apollo, and the country's ambivalence towards the space program. I am including the text of that article below, as it gives some insight into the varied opinions of Americans of the time. Surprising to me was that the future of the Apollo program was apparently already in doubt even before the first lunar landing. Worse was that one of Apollo's more notable political opponents (Ted Kennedy) was from the same family as its visionary.

The Presidency/Tossing our hats over the space wall - Hugh Sidey

All last week Richard Nixon was gripped by the stunning success of Apollo 10. He ducked in and out of Aide Robert Haldeman's office watching on the Zenith portable TV screen the return of the craft from the moon, querying his staff every few minutes ("Are they aboard the ship yet?") when he was out of eyeshot of the set, deciding to call the three astronauts, glancing at that magnificent photo which hangs just to the right of his desk -- a view of the earth taken from the moon, inscribed, "We are truly riders on the earth together," by Borman, Lovell, and Anders, the three who got there first.

The President made tentative but excited plans to go watch the launch of Apollo 11 in July which will, if successful, put man on the lunar surface. And for two days he hardly let a visitor leave his office without a big grin and the rhetorical question, "Wasn't that great about the astronauts?"

He is not alone in this city. It was just exactly eight years ago that John Kennedy set the moon goal and called the nation into "the exciting adventure of space." There have been great space moments in these years, but they have faded rather rapidly as the earth problems pressed in. Now there is a lasting excitement which will build to the big launch this summer and probably will linger for months or years.

Nixon is very lucky. He is harvesting something which an anguished Kennedy could barely hope for. J.F.K. was just fresh in office when Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The United States world presitge reached a new low, and the nation had such inner doubts about itself that it was on the edge of trauma. He walked the green rug in the Oval Office unable to get any guarantees from his people that if he put $40 billion into the moon program we could pass the Russians. He sensed something besides the elemental American desire to be first then. He sensed the need for a nation to be involved, to be challenged, to have, as he said, an adventure. One night after a frustrating session with his space experts in the Cabinet room, he ordered then to come up with some kind of answer. He paused, looked at those men around him and said, "There is nothing more important." There are a lot of people, perhaps, who would quarrel with that. But it is jarring to consider what might be our national mood today if Russia were on the moon and our international contribution were the war in Vietnam.

History suggests that man, despite his obvious and obsessive miseries, craves something to lift him beyond himself. War too often has been one outlet. Americans in particular have needed a quest, acrossthe mountains or the continent, into the sky and the sea, to the poles or inside the atom. It is possibly one of the greatest tragedies of our time that the eradication of ghettos and the cleansing of the air and water or the cure for cancer do not offer quite the same stimulation. Acute human misery was there when Columbus spent the queen's money for his expedition and when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. Teddy Kennedy was stressing this troubling conjunction when he called for a decelerated space program so that more funds could be diverted "to the pressing problems here at home." Space boss Thomas O. Paine declared himself "surprised and disappointed,” said Kennedy was wrong and that we shouldn’t “weakly yield technological supremacy in space to the Soviets.” Vice President Agnew, head of the Space Council, sounded the old call of the wild to “keep our horizons wide and our sights high.” The Russians with their big booster rockets, everybody was reminded, are still coming on.

All of this pointed up sharply a classic dilemma in presidential leadership. Does national pride in space achievement and all those other benefits, both technological and military, mean more to the nation than a new program to aid the New York public schools or redirect the welfare program to feed the hungry? So far the Administration seems inclined to believe that adventure of some sort is almost a necessity. Even Lyndon Johnson, an original booster, cut back the space program and the Saturn V production lines were to be idled next year. Nixon has requested from Congress $46 million to keep them open. Agnew, who is chairing the Presidents space task group -- which in September will recommend the course of the future -- is caught up in the drama. He was on the Cape for the last shoot. He has pounded the table at the Space Council meetings, insisting that we must keep our lead. He has counseled those around him that risks of adventure, such as the possibility of bringing back unknown viruses from the moon, must be taken. Even Nixon’s urban shop has been swept along a bit in excitement. Daniel (Pat) Moynihan the other day revealed that part of the summer youth program would be lectures about the moon landing for the underpriviledged kids in 50 cities.

What Nixon must decide next fall is where we go next and how fast. The space men want $5 billion a year or more for several years (the current budget is $3.8 billion) so they can put up space stations, explore the moon more, launch unmanned probes to the other planets and look way off toward a manned flight to Mars. The hunch is the Administration will yield somewhat to the demands of the domestic sectore but will nevertheless go ahead strong on a major part of the program.

On the day before he was killed, John Kennedy talked to a group of space people about his dreams. He recalled the Irish writer Frank O’Connor, who had told how as boys he and his friends would wander across the countryside and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high to climb, they would throw their hats over the wall. Then they would have no choice but to follow. The United States has tossed its cap over the wall, he said, showing his own broad streak of adventurer which was part of his great charm. “We will climb this wall,” he said. “And we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.” It could be that the world’s ills are not too great to allow such dreams. It could also be that Americans cannot live without them.
- Life Magazine; June 6,1969; (c)1969 Time Incorporated; p.4