Thursday, August 06, 2009

To the Moon

Speaking of Apollo, I recently finished a really good book that came out this year called Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson. This is a richly--nay, meticulously--detailed history of Apollo 11 that is a wealth of information and a nearly minute-by-minute chronicle of the events of July 1969. Basically, it's everything you wanted to know about the first moon landing--and many things you probably didn't want to know, such as why you really don't want to vomit in zero-gravity, some of the, um, waste disposal problems of earlier Apollo missions, and so forth. But it's also a pretty compelling story--even if it's one we all know.

Or thought we did. There was a fair number of things that went wrong, and even though you know that they landed on the moon and came back safely (except for those morons who deny the whole thing--there's a cool video of Buzz Aldrin punching out one of them), the book is actually quite suspenseful. For example, the programmed landing site on the lunar surface turned out to be strewn with huge boulders, so Neil Armstrong had to fly the lunar module manually and find a suitable substitute--as the fuel was running out. They touched down just as the needle hit E. It's quite gripping.

The book also includes all the background detail and history of NASA, the Space Race, the Missile Race, and pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about the first--and some would argue finest--decade of the U.S. space program.

There is a great deal of longing for a renewed interest in manned spaceflight (interestingly, if NASA ever completely gives up the idea of manned spaceflight, it will lose its lease on the Johnson Space Center in Texas and have to give it back to Rice University, as is stipulated in the lease). The book ends with a lengthy quote from Michael Griffin, the former administrator of NASA:
[T]he value of space exploration really is in its spinoffs, as others have argued. But it's not in spinoffs like Teflon and Tang and Velcro—and which in fact did not come from the space program [what did come {the author adds} are dialysis machines, CAT scans, MRI machines, space suit technology used for firefighters and oil derrick workers, and great strides forward in solid-state electronics, plastics, metals, lubricants, coatings, insulation, packaging, and water purification].

The real spinoffs are just as they were for cathedral builders, more fundamental. Anyone who wants to build spacecraft, who wants to be a subcontractor, or who even wants to supply bolts and screws to the space industry must work to a higher level of precision than human begings had to do before the space industry came along. And that standard has influenced our entire industrial base, and therefore our economy.

As for national security, what is the value to the United States of being involved in enterprises which lift up human hearts everywhere? What is the value to the United States of being a leader in such efforts, in projects in which every technologically capable nation wants to take part? The greatest strategy for national security, more effective than having better guns and bombs than anyone else, is being a nation that does the kinds of things that make others want to do them with us. [Rocket Men, page 346]
All eyes were on the U.S. on July 20, 1969--and there was even a brief thaw in the Cold War.

One of the memes in the news during the 40th anniversary of the moon landing was all the poll results which find younger people to be pretty blasé about the whole thing. That's probably not unexpected, as it is pretty far removed from their experience, just as those of us who were born in the late 1960s don't really appreciate the excitement of what, say, Charles Lindbergh accomplished with the first transatlantic flight. Or at least not on a gut level. (Most of us are just pretty annoyed by air travel these days.)

Still, it's hard not to see the Cassini images from Saturn or the Hubble photos and not be similarly awed at what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it. Sure, it's not the same as having a human being out walking among the stars, but it's still pretty impressive.

Anyway, it's a compelling and fascinating book. I highly recommend it. I also rcommend the excellent A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaiken, a chronicle of all the Apollo missions, which I read back in the mid-90s (it had been published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11--tempus fugit!).

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