If you turn on your TV and flip through the channels over the next few days, it will be hard to miss celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to step foot on the moon. There are dozens of specials and remembrances across broadcast and cable channels.
But there’s a certain irony in the fact that 50 years from now, we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of that one small step/one giant leap and the 50th anniversary of — well, nothing.
The umpteen TV shows attempt (with varying degrees of success) to recall the excitement of the “space race” between the United States and the USSR and the pride Americans felt when the U.S. won. They don’t go out of their way to point out that the enthusiasm for the space program is not what it once was — Donald Trump’s attempts to introduce a “space force” notwithstanding — because it’s self-evident.
And one of the surviving Apollo astronauts, Fred Haise, lamented that the excitement was a product of its time — a “national policy that was backed right from the top from the president,” John F. Kennedy.
(Haise, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt — the only woman in Mission Control during the Apollo 11 mission — and shuttle-era astronaut Garrett Reisman appeared before TV critics to promote the National Geographic Channel’s documentary “Apollo: Missions to the Moon,” which you can see online at nationalgeographicchannel.com.)
NASA had strong support in Congress and “pretty strong grassroots ... interest and willingness to fund properly the Apollo program that got us there,” said Haise, who was one of the astronauts on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission that didn’t land, as scheduled, on the moon. “I don’t think we’ve had quite all the right things aligned since Apollo days.”
Which is not what the people at NASA expected half a century ago.
Northcutt said that if she’d been asked in 1969 where NASA would be in 2019, “I would’ve said, ‘Oh, well, we’ll have a colony on the moon. We might even have a colony on Mars. We certainly will have gone there.’ So it’s sort of astounding to me that we haven’t.”
Reisman, who flew on the space shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor and served aboard the International Space Station, said he believes that not only could NASA have mounted more missions to the moon, but to Mars as well, “a long time ago.”
But, in addition to the need for both funding and the “political will” to support manned space missions, “You have to have a certain willingness to accept some risk.” And, in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts, the shuttle Challenger disaster that killed seven people, and the shuttle Columbia disaster that killed seven more, NASA no longer took risks.
“One of the unfortunate legacies ... is we got more and more risk averse at NASA after each of those,” Reisman said. “And we got to the point where we were no longer trying to manage risk; we were trying to eliminate risk. And really, the only way you can do that is stay home.”
Northcutt said she hopes the plethora of Apollo 11 anniversary programming will reignite a fervor for space exploration — that viewers will “understand that we can do great things. We have so much more technological capability now walking around in our phones than we had available at that time. And we can do a whole lot more with them than take selfies.”