Following in the bootprints of a moon walk


The day the man on the moon went from nursery rhyme to reality, Lisa Smith recalls being woken up by her grandmother and led to a small black-and-white television in the living room of their Hawaii home.

In its flickering light, she stood awestruck by the impossible image of a man in a marshmallow suit waltzing across a gray netherworld 230,000 miles away.

"I remember being really proud and knowing it was something really important and looking up at the moon and trying to understand how someone could step on it," recalls Ms. Smith, who was seven when the Eagle landed on July 20, 1969.

Today, 30 years after Neil Armstrong left mankind's most famous bootprint on lunar soil, the event continues to capture the American imagination. Polls show that Americans rank the moon landing as one of the nation's most important achievements this century.

But while NASA continues to send people into orbit and probes to the farthest reaches of the solar system, the US space program has evolved into something different. Far from the cold war and the fear of Soviet superiority, it has lost some of its urgency, some astronauts and historians say. As a result, Apollo has come to represent the high-water mark in American space exploration, not a stepping stone to new and braver endeavors.

"I stood here in 1972 ... and said, 'Apollo 17 is not the end. It's just the beginning of a whole new era in the history of mankind. Not only are we going back to the moon but we are going to be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century,' " recalled astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday. "My glass is only half full."

During the late '60s, Apollo 11 was a reason for optimism in a time of turbulence. The Vietnam War was raging, the social strife of the civil rights movement was splitting the country in two, and the threat of nuclear war was ever present.

Even Apollo itself emerged from US stumbles writ large. During the span of a few days in April 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into space, and Soviet client-state Cuba decisively repelled a US-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

The US needed something to counter the momentum of the Soviet nemesis. President Kennedy's answer was to make a daring gambit - declaring that before the decade ended, the US would land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

"Those two particular events of Soviet success juxtaposed against American failure on all kinds of levels set up a crisis atmosphere. The response was Apollo," says Roger Launius, NASA chief historian. "We had never tried anything like that. Even the Manhattan project in World War II was less sophisticated."

That Apollo represented the most massive coordination of scientific intelligence ever assembled is without doubt. The $25 billion effort (about $90 billion in 1990 dollars) harnessed nearly 400,000 of America's best thinkers to build something largely from scratch. Indeed, physicians at the time questioned whether astronauts could survive extended stints at zero gravity, and the concept of hurling a capsule into space atop an explosive fuel tank was ridiculed.

Despite the naysayers, the project went forward. Repeatedly, researchers designed rockets, blew them up or crashed them, then went back to the drawing board. "I don't recall any single breakthroughs," says Gerald Griffin, Apollo flight director. "We started essentially with aviation and missile technology. We kept standing on the shoulders of whatever happened before. It was no great big jump. It was smaller steps."

But even these small steps were dangerous, as evinced by the three Apollo astronauts who were killed in a fire in their capsule on the launch pad in 1967.

Thus emerged the astronaut myth. These heroic figures defied gravity and death with a whistle and a broad smile.

"They were pretty cool," recalls Mr. Griffin. "They had all been test pilots.... They knew they could die and they had bought into that."

Underneath the bravado, though, everyone knew Apollo was a seminal superpower struggle, as Russia rushed to put its own man on the moon. "This was serious business," says Launius, who remembers the duck-and-cover school exercises of the era. "They had nuclear weapons and they were pointed at our country."

In retrospect, Apollo 11 was a harbinger of the eventual US triumph. But while it set the stage, it also was the grand finale. Subsequent Apollo missions built upon the initial landing but broke no new ground.

When NASA in 1970 discussed ways to follow up the Apollo successes, the obvious answer was a manned mission to Mars. The target date proposed was 1984, but the program was never adopted.

The Vietnam War that lingered after the Apollo missions sapped national energy, but perhaps most damaging was the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion. When President Bush proposed building a base on the moon and flying a manned mission to Mars in 1989, he was met with silence.

"In order to do something like Apollo you need to have a number of factors to line up," says Griffin. "Until we get some of those factors again, we are not likely to get some of the really tough stuff."

For now, the legacy of Apollo is more psychological than scientific, more political than practical. But experts point to advances in everything from microelectronics to propulsion systems as factors that could make a concerted space effort simpler.

But most important, there is no doubt today that reaching Mars is possible. "The important achievement of Apollo was a demonstration that humanity is not forever chained to this planet," said Neil Armstrong Friday. "Our vision goes rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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