by David Glenn Cox
was twelve years old when men from the Earth first landed on the moon
on July 20,1969. That night I stood in my back yard all alone and
stared up at the glowing moon and it made me tingle to think that three
men were up there and two were resting in the Lunar module on its
I was at the perfect age as I had watched all the space
shots on TV. Tiny little Mercury capsules with planned launch times of
8:00AM that would launch an hour late and the whole event was still
over before lunch. You can’t imagine, unless you were there, the media
focus on the space program. Newspapers and television news with stories
about technical challenges or breakthroughs all that would make the
trip to the moon possible.
Those tiny little Mercury capsules
with barely room for a man to maneuver, with only a tiny little window,
with flight times as short as 15 minutes led to Gordon Cooper being the
first American to spend a whole day in space. And they were heroes to
the public because they were doing something completely new and unheard
of. They were explorers not unlike Columbus volunteering to sail off
into the distant seas to find out what was on the other side.
Mercury proved the technology that men could fly in space and answered
the medical questions such as would the astronauts’ eyeballs lose their
shape in zero g and cause them to go blind. Could the astronauts eat
and digest food in space? Would these men go mad from some mysterious
space maladies unknown to the terrestrial physicians? These were
serious questions from educated people. And the uneducated? Well,
before they believed that men never went to the moon in the first
place; they believed that those rockets would break the glass bubble
around the Earth and let out the air and kill us all.
Any boy or
girl at the time could tell you the names of all of the Mercury
astronauts. Then, as Mercury faded out, a new batch of astronauts
captured our imagination. Project Gemini would put two men into space;
think of it, two men in space at the same time! And they would stay in
space for as long as fourteen days in a capsule smaller than the cabin
of a Volkswagen Beetle. They would walk in space; they would practice
maneuvers and docking just as infants learn to stand and walk by taking
The Titan II rockets were huge next to the
Mercury-Atlas rockets and the Gemini capsules also looked like
technological marvels alongside their Mercury counterparts. The
missions for the most part went flawlessly and it proved that NASA was
also learning to fly. On Gemini VI part of its mission was to
rendezvous with Gemini VII already waiting for them in orbit. Think of
it, four men is space, when only three years earlier just having one up
there was hailed as a marvel. But as the countdown reached zero, the
rocket engines ignited then shut down, and the training manual in such
situations said to use the launch escape system and eject.
Schirra held his finger on the trigger but didn’t pull it; he was able
to rightly assume that the malfunction was electrical and not a
malfunction in the rocket itself. Had he been wrong they could have
been blown to bits, but that is why NASA used test pilots, men used to
handling life and death decisions in precarious situations and
instantly making the right choice; men who took pride in being able to
save it. Schirra’s decision saved two missions, and as NASA
administrators breathed a sigh of relief yet they still asked the
question, why didn’t you follow your training manual?
was essential if we were ever going to get to the moon, and today
shuttle missions and Russian spacecraft and cargo rockets routinely
dock at the Space Station, but in 1966 no one had ever done it before.
Gemini 8 made the first successful docking but after several successful
dockings a thruster stuck and the craft began to spin while still
connected to the docking booster. The pilot began to use counter thrust
to slow the tumble, but would soon be out of fuel for doing so, after
which point the capsule would tumble out of orbit and the men would die.
pilot undocked, checked his location and targeted himself for an
emergency landing. The astronaut did it all so quickly and calmly that
NASA was taken aback by his coolness in the crisis. It made NASA
administrators pencil in the name Neil Armstrong for a moon flight. The
Gemini project had achieved all of its goals; its hardware for the most
part had worked effortlessly and it helped to build a confidence that
would shortly be seen as overconfidence.
The Apollo One fire,
which killed three astronauts, was a wake up call to remind us of the
fragility of what we were doing. That we didn’t have all the answers
and still made foolish mistakes such as having a pressurized cabin full
of pure oxygen with thousands of electrical circuits and high voltage
wiring. In retrospect it seems insanely stupid. But just as making
airplanes from wood and cloth were replaced by steel and aluminum we
learn from our mistakes.
Meanwhile, Wernher Von Braun was having
problems with the Saturn 5 rocket. Not only was it the biggest rocket
ever built, it was the first rocket ever purposely built solely for the
exploration of space. The Atlas and the Titan had been converted from
ICBM’s designed to carry nuclear destruction. President Kennedy made it
clear that our goal was the civilian exploration of space. Kennedy,
wise beyond the decades, understood that although we were in a space
race, a weaponized space race increased the chances of disaster by
mistake for all humanity.
Unless you lived through it you can’t
imagine the frenzy. The song “Telstar” was a big hit on the radio, an
instrumental ode to the miracle of a communications satellite. Elvis
recorded an album, “Live from Hawaii,” and the cover boasted “Beamed
live via satellite!” Of course who could ever forget Tang, a watery
orange-flavored powder drink whose sole claim to fame was that is was
drank by the astronauts in outer space?
Thousands of products
followed suit, the ball point pen used by astronauts, the paint used by
NASA. It even got so crazy that a popular commercial of the time
advertised the nutcracker used by NASA to shell the pecans that went to
the moon! And only $19.95, isn’t that amazing, order now! The 1970 Ford
Mustang hood emulates the triangle design of Apollo’s windows.
this fortieth anniversary it is hard to make you who weren’t there
understand. The President of the United States had stood up and
proposed an incredible project, while you here today cannot understand
how far-fetched it seemed at the time. Nothing is impossible today.
With enough computer power anything is possible. Airplanes that are not
aerodynamic can be made to fly. We can communicate with anyone in the
world almost instantly. We now expect live television pictures from
anywhere in the world, when back in the day the TV weathermen worked
with a paper map and a magic marker.
On July the 20th when man
first walked on the moon there was a surrealism felt worldwide, like
something out of a science fiction movie as whole nations and their
peoples surrounded TV sets and watched as Armstrong and Aldrin walked
on the moon. The world heaped praise on the United States for the
greatest technological achievement of mankind. And unless you were
there and watched it you can’t really understand the world before it.
the moment when America was triumphant, it uncovered a plaque on the
leg on the Lunar Module. “HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT
UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.” No
flag waving or chants of USA, USA! Neil Armstrong’s words reminded us
that this was an achievement for mankind and only sponsored by
Americans. The world is entirely changed from what it was in 1969 by
the technological revolution that was sparked by the needs of the
infant space program.
On their return flight from the moon, the
three astronauts in a live space news conference thanked NASA and the
American people, but each astronaut specifically thanked the American
workers whose skilled hands had created marvels out of dreams. In
watching Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing, always remember that when the
voice says “sixty seconds” that is how much fuel is left on board. When
that voice says “thirty seconds,” that is how much fuel is left on
board. When Armstrong says, “Contact light, engine shut down.” there
was nine seconds of fuel left. Yet throughout, Armstrong’s voice never
wavered nor did his inflection change.
I read a comment on
YouTube the other day that asked, “How could they fly a lunar lander
and land on the moon with less computer power than a pocket
calculator?” They were bad ass pilots, fearless men who flew with ice
water in their veins. Men who by their skills landed a vehicle on the
surface of the moon with less computer power than a pocket calculator
and had the presence of mind to thank the workers who built it. This
was the apogee of American exceptionalism, when the world admired us
because at our own national pinnacle we gave it away and shared it with
the world and the world admired us for that and for all of what we
could do without using a gun.
(photo by αnnα)
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.