Moon Men

by David Glenn Cox

I

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

surface.

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.

Project

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

baby steps.

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.

Wally

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?

Docking

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.

The

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.

On

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.

At

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.