July 22, 2009
Dispense with the nostalgia already. Let’s argue about the future.
Forty years after the first moon landing, with most of the Apollo astronauts pushing 80 and older, it’s a major news event when seven of them, including four moonwalkers, assemble under one roof. This time they passed on an umpteenth telling of what it was like in favor of grappling with International Space Station, Moon, and Mars issues for today’s NASA. The overriding sentiment among the aging space travelers was dismay that we haven’t been to Mars, and pessimism that we’ll get there soon.
Buzz Aldrin occupied the seat at the center of the dais, chief-justice-like. Whether intentional or by chance, his placement implied that Aldrin occupies a prime perch wherever astronauts are gathered—when Neil Armstrong isn’t present—despite the capricious ways in which Apollo crews were assigned to missions, which rendered some spacemen famous and others almost anonymous. Aldrin noted that 66 years had passed from the Wright brothers’ first flight to his moon landing, and said he thought we would have astronauts on Mars by now. “Where we are today is quite a bit different,” he lamented, referring to the shuttle and International Space Station, both stuck in low-Earth orbit. “We need to get back to exploration. Curiosity is the essence of human existence.” His challenge to NASA: Put astronauts on Mars before the next 66 years are up, a deadline of 2035.
Walter Cunningham, Apollo 7′s lunar module pilot, agreed. “I don’t think there was a soul in the Astronaut Office back then that wouldn’t have thought we’d be on the moon by 2000.” The group mumbled corrections at him. “Uh, Mars,” he said.
“Charlie and I were there for three days,” said Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, of his moon visit, nodding his head toward Charlie Duke, lunar module pilot of Apollo 16. Their missions were the longest trips to the lunar surface. “We would’ve wanted to be there for three weeks. I really believed we’d be back on the moon by the end of the decade and at Mars by 2000.”
If Aldrin held court, Jim Lovell was the elder statesman. Command module pilot of Apollo 8 and commander of Apollo 13, the down-to-Earth Lovell gave the opening remarks with an air of class and temperance. He orbited the moon before anyone on the dais. He commanded the only life-and-death abort of an Apollo mission, which robbed him of his chance to walk on the moon. He had more time in space than any astronaut until Skylab, including two Gemini flights, the second of them as Aldrin’s commander. He noted that we should look at July 20th as a national celebration of the whole Apollo program, and called it a “bold move, well conceived.”
Lovell suggested that today’s NASA isn’t sure of its goals. “We have to look at, what do we want to do with our space activities? What do we want to accomplish? What are our priorities?” His most abrasive opinion, one widely shared, was calling the ISS “almost a white elephant. As of now, the people on the ISS are simply maintaining it. As a scientific tool I think the station has a ways to go.” Sending people to Mars, he said, is a project that would include the Chinese and the Indians and the Russians, and bring the people of the world together in the spirit of exploration.
Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott made a rare appearance. “We made it look easy, but it was difficult. Going to Mars will be about ten times as difficult.” He got a good laugh by reporting with a straight face that it would cost around “two jillion dollars.” And he warned that there has to be a good reason to go to Mars in order to keep the flow of money coming.
To which Aldrin took umbrage, claiming that we need to send humans to Mars and leave them there, just as the Europeans who came to North America stayed. And the moon, thinks Aldrin, is in the way. He insists that the technologies needed, such as an exploration module, could be tested on the ISS. “Why go to the moon?” he asked. Soon, Cernan was disagreeing with Aldrin over the level of emotion present during a moon landing. At one point, Cunningham looked at the audience and stated the obvious, that a consensus is rarely available among the group.
A reporter tried to bring the discussion back to the awe of the first moon landing with a query about President Nixon’s controversial remark four decades ago that the week of Apollo 11′s flight was the greatest week since the creation of the world. For once, Aldrin appeared at a loss for words. “Well, it was eight days,” he said. “It was certainly a great eight days, but we didn’t start with, Let there be light.”
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