On July 16, 1969, a half century ago today, a Saturn 5 rocket launched from Cape Kennedy on its way to the moon, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would land on the moon on July 20 before returning successfully to earth. Recent books have made clear just how close a call it was with many things nearly going wrong that would have doomed them, including such oddities as Aldrin using a felt tipped pen to adjust a minor switch that was needed for them to return. My late father played an important role in that event, which I have posted about here before. At that time he and I had many disagreements, but on this matter we were in agreement, and I was pleased to watch the famous landing with him.
The recent book, _One Giant Leap_ by Charles Fishman, argues that JFK was motivated to push the project out of Cold War competition with the USSR. My late father agreed that this was a motive that provided the support for it. This does raise the question whether it was really worth it. I mean, nobody has gone back since 1972, although there is much noise now about maybe going back.
A curious way of looking at this in perspective is to think about what we thought the future would look like from that time period as compared with what has happened. One way of looking at that is to think about how the moon and human presence there was depicted in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," which came out in 1968, the year before Apollo 11. I well remember taking very seriously the forecast in that movie, which depicted fairly substantial and established US and Soviet moon bases for 20001, now 18 years in the past. That certainly did not remotely happen, although some other things shown in that movie have come to pass, such as people being able to see each other while communicating with each other over distances (thank you, Skype!).
It may be that we did not do that because the Cold War point got made and later the US and USSR cooperated on the Soyuz orbiting lab, which has become somewhere boring and embarrassing, especially the US lack of a space vehicle to get there and back now. I think there are reasons for eventually getting at least one base on the moon. I do not know when that time will really come, however.
I close this by noting how heroic those initial explorers were. Sunday's WaPo Outlook section printed a speech written by William Safire for Pres. Nixon to deliver if the mission went badly. The accompanying verbiage noted this would probably have been the most eloquent speech he would have given ever, but fortunately he did not have to deliver it. Here are the concluding two paragraphs of this never-delivered address:
"Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be doomed. But these men were the first, and they will remain foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."
Again, fortunately that speech never needed to be given, and the man who made the small step and giant leap made it back alive.