Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Small Step, A Bittersweet Anniversary

This essay first appeared on Stonekettle Station on July 20, 2009, the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Nothing has changed since.



Houston, Tranquility Base here…the Eagle has landed.

Forty-five years ago today, the entire world listened as Neil Armstrong spoke those words from the surface of the Moon.

Eagle, that fragile tinker-toy of a spaceship, had just set down on the dusty regolith of the Mare Tranquillitatis and it wasn’t just Mission Control who had been holding their collective breath, but the entire population of planet Earth – with those words, we all started breathing again.

In that one moment, the entire human race was as close to united as it has ever been, black, white, brown, yellow and red, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheists, and agnostics, from the most sophisticated rocket scientists at NASA and Star City to the most primitive bushman, capitalists and communists and socialists and the left and the right and the undecided all stared at the moon in abject wonder and shivered at the smallness of man against the vast and terrible backdrop of the universe. They cried and they cheered and they hugged random strangers in the streets. They marveled at what men could do if only they dared dream big enough and they all wished the crew of Apollo 11 Godspeed.

A few hours later we watched as Armstrong and Aldrin opened the hatch and descended the ladder and made the first foot prints on the surface of a world other than Earth.

There was a silver plaque mounted on the side of the LEM’s descent stage, it said:

Here, men from the planet Earth
first set foot upon the moon

July 1969 A.D.

We came in peace, for all mankind.

Beneath those words were the signatures of Apollo 11’s crew, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, and the President of the United States, Richard Nixon.

It was as if ten thousand years of recorded history, of centuries of scientific advance, of decades of effort, and the dreams of millions had come together in that one moment solely in order to place that message on the surface of another world. You could feel it. Hell, even as a seven year old kid, I could feel it. In that moment the world was different – men had walked upon the surface of another world and everything was about to change. Before that pivotal event our dreams had been limited to the near horizons of Earth, but in that moment our vision was limitless and the whole universe spread out before us. Mars would be next, and the moons of Jupiter, and then Saturn. There was talk of ships that could lift whole colonies, hundreds of people, into space, Orion, rising on a column of atomic fire and even of an unmanned probe to the near stars, Daedalus.

Men had walked on the Moon and there was nothing that we could not do.

It sounds impossible now, ships like Orion, giant stations in orbit wheeling against the stars, colonies on the moon, on Mars – but in 1969 it didn’t seem so. Less than eight years before, John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech, “We choose to go to the Moon. We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard!” Damn straight. And we did. We kept the promise and the vision of a murdered president, a promise made in one of the darkest hours of our history, the Cuban Missile Crisis. We kept the promise despite the turmoil of that terrible decade, the battle for civil rights, the radically changing culture, the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the threat of imminent nuclear Armageddon. And in less than nine years we went from barely making it into low Earth orbit to the Moon itself.

We choose to go to the moon, you damned right we do.

In 1969, nothing seemed impossible. We would walk the surface of other worlds, we would build our homes there and birth our children there and dream our own dreams. People believed.

Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins came home to parades and the adulations of billions. Six missions followed them to the moon, five landed.

But, by 1974 it was over, all of it.

The hippy dreams of the sixties were lost in the reality of drug addiction and venereal disease and Charlie Mason, Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and we had retreated from Vietnam leaving 50,000 of our countrymen dead on the battlefield. And in far less than five years flights to the moon had become so routine, so boring, that they weren’t even covered by the media. In that five years the dreamers and the engineers and the scientists and the astronauts and the men with the Right Stuff were replaced with accountants and administrators and bureaucrats and those with no imagination.

Somewhere in that five years the dreams of 1969 died and no one even noticed.

The last men to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, lifted off in their ship Challenger from the Sea of Serenity on December 14th, 1972. And when they, and Command Ship pilot Ron Evans, returned to Earth in America, it would be the last time human beings would leave low Earth orbit.

There were supposed to be three more missions, Apollo 18, 19, 20 – and follow on programs after that, building on the success of Apollo.

The ship that would have become Apollo 18, a fully operational moonship, rests on its side now, moldering and covered in bird shit on the grass in front of Johnson Space Flight Center – The mightiest machine ever built by the hands of man, a ship designed to land men on the surface of another world and bring them home safely again, the culmination of the skill and daring and dreams of millions is now nothing more than the largest and most expensive lawn decoration in the history of mankind. A testament to failed dreams and the cowardice of politicians and the small horizons our children are born beneath today.

Pieces of the ship that might have become Apollo 19 rest now in a similar display on the lawn in front of Kennedy Space Center. That display is made of bits and pieces, some operational and some not, a junk sculpture made from the debris of our dreams, things that could have been and never were.

Apollo 20 was never built, the command module and lunar modules were scrapped, the uncompleted carcasses dumped in a landfill. Pieces of the Apollo program were locked away forgotten in dusty storerooms or sold off to museums. Some components were later used for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous – sort of like using a semi-truck to deliver the mail and just about as foolish and wasteful.

I’ve been to the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington DC and I’ve seen the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, scarred and pitted, resting beside the great machines of history, the Wright Flyer, The Spirit of St. Louis, The Bell X-1, the Voyager, and Spaceship One and the sight brings tears to my eyes for all the things man has dared and done. And I’ve been to Florida and Texas and I’ve seen our future out there rusting in the sun and the rain and the sight fills me with revulsion and disgust and sadness for all the things we could have done, and did not.

As a kid, I heard great men say that the stars would belong to my generation, I watched brave men walk on the surface of another world and dared to believe that I too would do so some day. That belief has filled me with wonder my whole life and driven me to far ends of the Earth in search of adventure and mystery and far distant shores. That desire filled me with great dreams and instilled in me a belief that men can achieve anything if they only believe, if they only have the courage to try, if they only have the will to seek new horizons and push the edge of the safe and the known. I firmly believe that the meek shall inherit the Earth, and that they are welcome to it - but the rest of the universe belongs to those willing to risk all in order to see what is beyond the next hill.

As a teenager, I watched cowardly men protest that the cost was too great and the price too high, and I watched those selfish fearful sons of bitches dismantle the space program and turn our future into lawn ornaments. I wondered then, and I still wonder now, how if we cannot afford to build a future for all of mankind how then can we afford to spend twice as much in order to build those weapons that would destroy all of mankind? In the last thirty years we Americans have built exactly five manned spacecraft. Five, and one of those only as a grudging replacement for the lost Challenger. Columbia we chose not to replace. America relies now on Russian built craft and has no manned ships of her own at all. In the last thirty years however, we've built thousands of nuclear bombs. Thousands. We've built hideously expensive invisible airplanes that we can't even use. We are even now dismantling many of those bombs and missiles and I am grateful that it is so, but, my God, the colossal waste, the colossal folly of it all. Funny that we can afford to build our own destruction, but not our own future. Funny, and tragic, and ironic, isn’t it?

As an adult I’ve watched our halfhearted efforts to stay in space, to keep thirty year old technology flying, and build a space station that instead of housing thousands, or even hundreds, or even tens, can barely support three - ironically the same number who went to the moon in a tiny capsule four decades ago and the same number who flew onboard Skylab twenty five years ago. Three seems to be the limit of NASA’s vision. As an adult I've watched as robots and machines roll across alien land in place of the men and woman who sent them, and it is no more exciting or inspiring than watching a video game. As an adult I’ve watched my dreams fade and die and know that I will never walk the surface of another world, and yet I look up there at the moon and still dare hope that some day we will see the lights of cities shining back from that shadowed crescent.

You know, it wouldn’t bother me so damned much if we had tried and failed. But we didn’t fail. We did it, we went to the moon, we could have gone to Mars and beyond.

And then we just quit.

We gave up.

Forty-three years ago, we turned our backs on Kennedy’s vision. We didn’t do the things that were hard. We did the easy part, and then we walked away. And I see that legacy all around me here in America today, the failure to face the challenges, to take the difficult roads, and do the things that are hard. We argue and squabble and hate each other, we spend our time trying to tear down what others have built and instead of driving forward into a future that we have forged, we cower in fear. Instead of following the men and women of vision and daring, we listen to the counsel of those small minded fearful men who admonish us not to dream.

My son, like most of his generation, has no interest in space. His school, though a fine place it may be, does not have the classrooms decorated with pictures of the men and the ships and the planets and the stars. There are no big dreams, no great national goals to galvanize his generation.

For these kids it’s not that the dreams have died, it’s that they never were.


"As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just say what I believe history will record, that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander.
The last man to walk on the moon, December 14, 1972.


  1. Hm. Guess I don't have to write the essay I was planning after all. You've said it better than I would have.

    For me, people have always been able to go to the moon. They just didn't want to. I was born after the first landing, and wasn't aware of the space program by the time of the last.

    For me, Golden Age SF was mostly alternate history, or fantasy: we'd been there, and that wasn't what it was like.

    For me, science is mostly inward - mapping the human genome, understanding the global climate, putting up satellites that look down - rather than the outward-looking science of the early space program.

    I've never seen anything to compare with the tales I've heard of the global interest in the moon landing. The pop-culture spectacles that capture current global interest in no way compare. Science is too hard, the payoffs too far down the road.

    The world went in directions that early SF authors never envisioned, but in doing so we sacrificed the drive that sent men to the moon. For me, that part too is alternate history, and I miss it.

  2. This is the saddest thing I've read in quite some time, and that's saying something.

    I had such high hopes for us as a species.


    1. " Is a dream a lie if it don't come true or is it something worse". Bruce Springsteen. To my mind it is something far worse. whitelilly

  3. I'm amazed as well that we can expend so much energy and so many resources in hating each other and distrusting one another, and killing one another - if we could use just a quarter of that in coming together and helping one another, what a world this would be... We could easily have been on Mars by now.

    Yes, nobody wants to do the hard thing, though it's most often the more right thing. Sad.

    Thanks, Jim - excellent piece.

  4. Thanks, Karl. Both you and I are veterans and I doubt that you are any more a misty eyed pacifist than I am or under any illusion about the need for a strong military. However, once you can destroy the world a hundred times over, I think that's probably enough and maybe we should be spending our money on something a little more constructive. I'd like to leave my kid an unlimited future instead of a big pile of weapons that are only good for destroying the human race.

    Since I spent most of my life defending this country, I made it my business to learn about the causes of war and conflict, and in almost all cases those causes can be directly traced to resources. Land, food, water, minerals, energy, fuel, raw materials, and breathing space. It's all out there, that and more, and a tenth of the energy we've expended on world ending weapons would have given it to us thirty years ago and done more to relieve the root causes of war and poverty than any weapon ever built or any war ever fought for whatever noble reason.

    I find that sad and tragic and short sighted.

    1. Jim, I know you know this quote, but I'll say it anyway. "It's raining soup and we don't know what a soup bowl is." RAH. whitelilly

  5. Thank you, Jim, you expressed what I had trouble doing through my rage that my local news service gave time to a landing-denier. I wasn't just appalled as an American, I was appalled as a human being. This denies one of the most profound achievements we humans have yet attained. It's up there with fire, the wheel, language, writing, law, civilization, diplomacy, germ theory of sanitation, indoor plumbing, electricity, and many of the other profound and incredible achievements we humans have accomplished.

    And I'm still enraged that we're still hamstrung by monkeys struggling for their bananas. If we don't get off this rock we'll die here.

    I want us to be humans and not monkeys, but I guess we'll see if we're the missing link or not.

  6. Mensley (fatoudust),

    My response to a landing denier (Virgil) on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site (actually this response was to a guy who felt we were being rude to a landing denier conspiracy nut):

    Rude is when someone like Virgil insists on regurgitating his special brand of crap, despite the fact that it has been thoroughly debunked by every credible agency on the planet - most notably by our host here [Astronomer Phil Plait, who has thoroughly examined each and every claim by the Landing Hoax retards]

    Rude is insisting that this type of cockamamie garbage be given equal consideration with actual reality.

    Rude is claiming, repeatedly in every forum he can reach, that those brave men, heroes all, the 30 men who have flown to the moon and the 12 men who walked upon its surface and all of the astronauts and cosmonauts of all nations before and since, and all of those tens of thousands men and women who worked tirelessly to complete the engineering, to build the ships, to monitor and guide the missions all over the world, and right on down to those Navy Sailors who waited out there on the sea to recover the returning missions, and all of those scientists who worked on the moon samples, and all of those historians who have analyzed every second of those moon missions are nothing more than liars and frauds and charlatans.

    That’s rude, T. Wilde. That’s obnoxious to a degree that simply defies description. That’s rudeness that verges on pathology and a degree of delusion that should quite possibly belong in an institution.

    The Apollo missions are events that rival the greatest in all human history. They defined who we, as Americans, once were - and could be again. More than that, those missions defined who the entire human race could be, if they set their mind to it. Those missions brought the entire world together in awestruck amazement at the shear gobsmacking glory men could achieve if they only dare to do so.

    People like Virgil dismiss all of that out of hand. They dismiss the decades of work and struggle and persistence. They dismiss the ultimate sacrifice by men such Grissom, White, and Chaffee - men who believed in what they were doing so much that they gave their very lives to the program. Virgil, with his childish misunderstanding of basic science, dismisses all those who have the courage to ride the rocket, and all of those who died proving that it could be done - from the test pilots of the 60’s to those who died in both shuttle accidents, to those despite the losses still strap themselves into the shuttle and the soyuz and ride those ships into orbit. They dismiss the iron dedication of men such as Gene Kranz, and the brilliance of uncounted and unsung engineers and scientists and the average assembly line workers at Rockwell and Grumman and Northrup who felt honor and pride as Americans to build the ships that would take men to the stars.

    People like Virgil would condescendingly explain inertia to an astronomer such as Phil Plait - and get it utterly wrong and yet continue to blunder on clueless.

    Virgil and the rest of his ilk deserve no respect whatsoever. He has none for himself and none for the hundreds of thousands he so casually calls liars and frauds and fakes. He, and those like him, deserve nothing more than ridicule and scorn and contempt.

    1. :D
      I really enjoyed it when the one astronaut punched the landing denier in the face...

    2. "One Astronaut"? That was BUZZ ALDRIN, decking a man half his age!

    3. All you had to do was stand 3 miles from the pad and watch a shuttle take off; to feel the rocket's roar in your belly and chest to KNOW that something incredible was happening. I've done that: I've also stood in my upstairs bedroom window and watched that streak of fire moving north very very fast and seen it vanish as the SRB's dropped of and breathed a seigh of relief that the most dangerous phase was over. I also watched that last just before dawn launch and seen the bow wave of water vapor from the SSME's as the shuttle streaked to orbit. I was SO frustrated that I couldn't get a picture of it: but the memory will live in my mind and may well be my last thought before I die )I hope it is). The deniers are callous and petty fools. whitelilly

  7. Thank you, Jim, that was excellent!

    Honestly, I seem to have emotionally moved beyond the denier crap.

    I now seem to be at the point where my previous post left off.

    Okay, what now?

    What do those of us who understand that we need to leave earth do?

    Some of us would like to not be monkeys fighting over bananas.

  8. What now?

    Now we acknowledge that we will never be the ones to ride the rocket. The best we can hope for is that our children will have a greater vision.

    Now we teach the next generation to dream and desire and want the stars and take risks and to run with their heads up, instead of plodding along looking at their feet.

    Now we elect those who would also dream and desire and want the stars and who would lead us beyond this small blue marble. Those who would give us hope and inspire us and lead us to the stars. We vote for the things that will give our kids the future.

    I'll say this, I believe in the power of the human spirit. Somebody, somehow, someway is going to go back to the moon, then they're going to go on to Mars, they're going to build colonies up there and they're going to have kids and they are going to be humanity's future. If it's not Americans, it will be somebody - somebody with something to prove and a will to do so, most likely the Chinese or maybe the Indians. We can either rise to that challenge and beat them along the path that we pioneered OR we can join them and live up to the promise of that message on the side of Apollo 11's descent stage OR we can join the dinosaurs and Rome and the British Empire in the dust bin of history.

    There really aren't a lot of other options.

    1. Well said, and I hope we can do it.

    2. I remember that day very well. My father, mother, brother and myself watched the landing on a 13" black and white tv at land we use to own in Goliad county.

      My oldest brother watched it too, thousands of miles away in Vietnam. 1968-1969 - Advisory Team 46, Khanh Hoa Province, Dien Khanh District, Phoenix DIOCC Officer
      1969-1970 - 502nd MI Detachment, XO, 2nd Armored Division, Ft Hood, Tx
      1970-1974 - 444th Research & Development Detachment

      When he returned home, he took me to the local hobby shop and we bought model rockets, the Big Bertha one for me and a more advanced 3 stage one for him.

      We built them together and launched them together.

      The Big Bertha would reach about 150’, the one he had would go so high it would disappear for two minutes or so until we saw the parachute and top stage float back to ground.

      Those were special times, even more special thinking of what my brother had been through and still had the dream.

    3. Dude, it's going to be Elon Musk, and it's going to be sooner than you think. The whole *point* of SpaceX is to get Elon to Mars. He's got the money and the wacky drive. And speaking for my own family, my daughter (now 20 and doing a physics degree) has always intended to be an astronaut. But we're weird.

    4. Recently discovered your site and I'm really enjoying it. Great writing expressing interesting opinions.

      You've already had one comment about SpaceX but I wondered how your opinions have evolved since Elon has disrupted the launch industry and seems absolutely serious about building a Mars ship?

      How do you feel about the push for new horizons coming from billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos instead of countries showing leadership to their citizens and the world?

  9. Thank you, Jim. It's a relief to know what I think and how I feel about what happened to our space program -- on our watch, no less -- isn't just limited to me.

  10. Jim, I replied over at Giant Midgets to your comment there. I'll add this here: your post is as excellent as always, but we disagree to some extent (as you're aware). I'll also add that I don't know if the failure you mention is merely the failure of the manned space program. As I mentioned in my response at my place, I did have big dreams inspired by the Voyagers' flybys of the trans-asteroidal planets, and I wasn't alone (Sir Arthur C. Clarke, among others, drew much inspiration from the data and images). I was a kid at the time, and to the extent that science wasn't a huge subject for all the kids, I think one can blame the general anti-intellectual currents in American culture that arose from the mistrust of industry by the extreme left and fear of science from the extreme right.

    The intellectual climate of the fifties and sixties wasn't just the space program: it was the postwar mentality that held that science helped win WWII and rebuild Europe and would defeat the Soviets. The mentality that built NASA was also the mentality that lost the Vietnam War, a loss that contributed to a pervasive lack of faith in wonks (whether they were rocket scientists or worked in the Department of Defense). And the anti-intellectual climate of the '70s and '80s (and '90s and '00s--how did we ever have a President of the United States who bragged about making mediocre grades at Yale?) has hurt NASA's budgets, but to blame the failures of the space program would be reversing cause and effect.

    I think photos taken by robots could inspire--if it was cool to be inspired by robots and alien vistas. I don't think the state of American culture would be changed if it was a man or woman taking the picture, though. Science classes are apathetic cesspools because we live in a culture where a sizeable chunk of the population believes that teaching evolution is a First Amendment issue that involves two whole sides, or that every study and metastudy that fails to show a link between vaccines and autism must be suspect because of anecdotal evidence proffered by a former Playmate and MTV starlet who's now a mommy and therefore must know things.

    Hell, Jim, if your kid's science teacher even dared to tell his class that an astronaut had just set foot on a million-year-old dried-up Martian floodplain, he'd have to worry about being sued for not also explaining that said floodplain was possibly only 6,000 years old.

  11. I'd like to leave my kid an unlimited future instead of a big pile of weapons that are only good for destroying the human race.

    Exactly - My son and I still think about the maybes of going to Mars - we'd both volunteer... Yeah, we're on the same page here.

  12. Spent much of yesterday watching both old and new shows on History Channel and Discovery about Apollo 11. The thought that a man like Gene Kranz could ever make shit up and not actually do it -- is unthinkable.

    They re-ran the Mythbusters episode where they debunked some of the anti-moonlanding claims -- and all the while I was looking for flaws in their presentation, wary that they'd do or say something which the voracious hordes of idiots would latch on to keep their denial hopes alive.

    Holocaust deniers, Moon landing deniers, Science deniers -- so much energy expended on such useless crap. Noise which makes it difficult for legitimate people to come forward and propose projects. To propose dreams to enrich our society and culture and our very lives, not spurn it or grind it back into the dirt.

    As I said on my Apollo 11 posting -- I was there. I was there, Walter Cronkite was there. Everyone I knew was there.

    I was always mad that Nixon talked to the astronauts on the Moon. Not because the President of the United States called. But because Nixon was able to bask in a moment he did not create -- and knew he would be patting them on the back, say "Well done", then gut the program.

    I am, and probably always will be conflicted about Nixon's place in our history. But in terms of our space efforts, Nixon was a man of small vision. And that one I'll hang on his door.

    Dr. Phil

    1. Not small vision; no vision. And at the very moment he made that cal that nattering nabob of negatavisn , Spiro ( I am a crook) Agnew was on the hill gleefully gutting NASA. whitelilly

  13. If the human race is to have any hope of a future, part of it has to be "out there." Millions of resources--including ones we might never have considered--are likely out there waiting to be discovered and exploited. My father has long said that private enterprise was most likely the key to actual space exploration and exploitation, but I'm not so sure. Fact is, despite some liberal positions (namely, "we've got so much better things to spend money on down here"). This may be partially true but ignores the long view completely. Science got us into this mess... we can't get out of it by abandoning science. The only way through is forward, the only way forward is through.

  14. Thanks Jim. As a product of 1961, I too watched and wondered in amazement at what our country was achieving in space. Whole segments of our childhood revolved around space related things. We were in California on that magical moment in July 1969. I remember my dad saying to my brother and I the night before as we gazed at the moon, that tomorrow was the big day. It was a reminder not needed for we knew exactly the time of the event and like most of the world wouldn't miss it for anything. To witness the event will remain a lifelong treasure. How true and sad that we have spent literally trillions to design and manufacture devices to vaporize the human race when those trillions could have been used to advance the human race. Sadly it revolves around money and profits at the moment and still does, nowhere is there the solid vision of our future as humans. As I write this, the last shuttle has been retired and I know I will never achieve the dream I had as a kid growing up in the 60's of going to space. Not even sure if my kids will either. Thanks for your ability to tell it as it is, you are a Saint of Sanity for many of us and may your pen and thoughts continue full speed ahead. Signed, Sitka Star Gazer (geezer as my kids would say)

  15. Thank you Jim, for making this post available as we celebrate the life and mourn the death of Neil Armstrong. I fervently hope that in reviewing his history we can rekindle some of that hope and enthusiasm for exploration and for reaching for the unknown. Although I never met Neil Armstrong, I am fortunate to live in the city, Wapakoneta, OH, that claims him as our native son. He was a member of St. Paul United Church of Christ to which I also belong. Wapakoneta has an excellent small museum built in Neil Armstrong's honor, with many items from his life and honoring all of Ohio's astronauts. Visit us sometime. I'll even buy you dinner and a beer.

  16. Thanks for pointing me here Jim. I didn't like it at all. :) Because you mirror my feelings regarding 'then' and 'now', sadly.

    FYI: I've posted a link to this on my friend Bryan's Apollo 11 post on his blog, "Why Now?" if that's OK with you. Bryan is a vet (USAF/NSA, 1966-1974) and get's it. His father was also. I am a vet also, but from the Australian Military/Intel svc's, during the 80's. (I'm an Aussie BTW, but have lived and worked in the USA, and have several good friends there). My name tag (above) links to Bryan's blog.

    Thanks again.

    1. As a US Navy officer, I served with Aussies in Iraq as part of the joint task force under command of a RAN Commodore. Tough sons of bitches everyone of them. Spent a lot of time in Australia, if I didn't live here in Alaska, I'd live in New South Wales. If you look closely at my avatar picture, you'll see that I wear an Australian kangaroo-hide bush hat.

  17. I did notice the hat m8! :D I thought "That looks suspiciously like an Akubra, or a close copy". :) Our Army 'slouch hats' were made by Akubra.

    I was in Cambodia in '83 as part of the advance UNAMIC mission. We and many others got sent in to try to stabilize things before the UN politicians would risk their skin some 5 years later. It was pretty bad. My unit was similar to your USMC Scout/Snipers, but we had more of an Intel gathering role. And because of the '30 year rule', that's about all I can say about that (for a few more years anyway. Then I'll write a book!)

    I live in central Victoria, but I've lived in NSW for a few years, and elsewhere in Aus. :)

    Thanks again. :) I am enjoying your blog. Good to know there's yet another sane & rational person in the USA these days. ;) :D

    And yes, I do know there are a lot actually. But the *system* there is against you all sadly. So the World thinks *most* Americans are crazy! But I know (and many others do also) that's not true. As for why I give a damn? It's simple really. As I said, I lived and worked there, and have several good friends. But also, it';s unfortunate but what the USA does affects my Country in ways I don't like. So, I have two reasons to want things to get better there, three if you count the fact that it's simply being a decent human to want people there to be safe and happy. Believe it or not... you and those like you are not alone in the World m8! :D

    Maybe we'll all win in the end. Who knows? ;)

  18. My father was an engineer during this time and he worked for a company that made the timers that opened the parachutes for the Apollo missions. I remember how every time they were returning to earth he would stress out over whether they were still working and had been tested before they went up. The same company also made anti personnel bombs that were being used in Vietnam. He always knew three months ahead of time when a new offensive was coming because of how the orders would pick up. Talk about a company with a split personality. He left awhile after they started making the bombs because he couldn't live with himself if that was what he was contributing to. Got his PhD in statistics and became a professor. But I still remember how he had brought home one of the timers that was a reject and used it in his darkroom. Every time I went into the bathroom (i.e. his darkroom) I would stare at the timer and think about how another one just like it was going up into space. And I was always astounded that we were actually in space (especially as a very heavy sci if reader). It was an amazing time.

  19. Not very often do you touch me to tears, Jim. This was one of those time. I clearly remember watching the Moon Landing on our old 19 TV (one of those big console jobs it took three guys to lift). It was actually my younger brother's 7th birthday and we had a space themed cake for him.

    As you know, I joined the Navy to be a submariner based solely on the effect that Jules
    Verne had on me as a child. I, too, dreamed of moon and Mars colonies and I prayed that - at least if I couldn't get out there - my children would live among the stars.

    You nail the loss of vision too well to describe. I am saddened in a way that the current shutdown (and how it personally effects us) hasn't done. I can only hope that those that follow us, remember what it is like to dream.

  20. Jim,

    This moved me to tears, and then more tears. The summer of '69 was a horrible time for this six year old. My brother, who was only 13 months older, died on August 1st from cancer. As I sat on the couch in our living room with my mama and daddy while my brother was in a bed near the window dozing off and on, we all watched Neil Armstrong take that historic step on our first color TV. I remember being disappointed that the landing was in black and white. Also, and more importantly, I can still vividly see the tears that were glistening in my father's eyes and streaming down my mother's face; I remember what I was wearing. I wasn't old enough to understand why my usually stoic parents were so upset, yet I can still hear the words my father said gruffly through his obvious grief: We can put men on the moon, but we can't cure cancer.

    Your eloquent words always touch me in a visceral way. They evoke anger, grief, joy, and often a myriad combination of those, as well as others like regret and gratitude. Thank you for your alacrity, wisdom, and passion. You are proof that there is still honor and integrity in the world.

    Oh, I did forget one emotion. I'm always a bit envious when I see a new blog post from Stonekettle. Four of the best years of my life were spent at Ft. Wainwright in the mid '80's. Exploring the Matanuska Glacier ranks high on my list of the most noteworthy things I've ever done. Blessings to you and yours from Georgia! Please, keep those posts coming.

    With warmest regards and deep gratitude,

    Janie Thomas

  21. you done did it again! another wonderful post. I was 10 when we first walked on the moon, my father bought me a 3.5 inch refractor telescope and I remember trying as hard as I could to see just the smallest flash of light from the moon that night and having a strange sense within me that we as a species had just done one of the greatest things we could do, I was so proud of us all. now i'm 56 and all I see is the wasted opportunities that we could have had, I worry a bit about the world my grand daughters will live in, less fresh water, more polluted air, more people, many times more people and on and on...makes me sad. you make me happy, because you can put down in words better that most, about those things that are so very important to us all. thank you!

  22. Thank you for pointing back to this again. I winced teared up when I heard about Scott: he was my favorite of the Mercury astronauts (long story why), and I followed Sealab as closely as I did Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab. I was born the year Sputnik went up, so I was truly a child of the space age. The science emboldened me and Arthur Clarke encouraged me; I wanted to fly those ships, see those planets. Your post truly encompasses the hope, dreams, and the mourning as that time passed. Every hint of a rebirth of the program makes my heart jump. I guess some hope always springs eternal.

  23. I'm disappointed in our country as well for turning away from the Apollo program, and those that were to follow it. Even now its private industry thats spurring the resurgence of a space program and I wish SpaceX all the luck in the world with the DragonV2 and the ships that follow it that we may one day walk upon the moon again.

  24. Jim, I share your frustration on this issue. I am around your age, and feel grateful to have been alive to witness the Apollo mission. I am also fortunate in that I landed a job in the Space industry 8 years ago, making rocket engines for satellites and missiles. NASA is very close to getting our astronauts back into space. the SLS (Space Launch System) just cleared a critical design review, and begins advanced testing this December. First flight is scheduled for 2017 http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/index.html#.U8v8Aig5iZ4

  25. "There are no big dreams, no great national goals to galvanize his generation."

    Surely saving the earth ought to be a big enough dream! And it is partly space travel that has made it possible, that has told us this is so, that has shown us it is so. The image of the earth from space has changed the world. Satellite observation lets us see the earth as a whole, lets us measure and map climate change. James Hansen, one of the first scientists to publicly predict global warming, was for many years a NASA researcher, and others still are.

    Space travel…is not what it was in our fantasies. We cannot repeat the exploration of earth in interplanetary or interstellar space. But it has been enormously worthwhile, and if we keep doing it, it will continue to be so.

    Me, I would like to know why the atmosphere of Titan is not in chemical equilibrium. That could be a sign of life.

  26. SpaceX and other private sector firms are our best hope - and maybe they should have been all along. Here's hoping for the future Washington would not give us.

    1. "maybe should have been all along", seriously? Then why didn't they? There was nothing stopping the private sector from going to moon in 1960. Oh wait, yes there was, no private sector firm would spend the billions required to develop the technology needed to get there. The government did it, and they succeeded. ...Ted, don't kid yourself, Spacex would be nowhere without NASA. They exist on NASA contracts. No private sector firm would invest the money required to get to the Moon, or Mars for that matter. http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/index.html#.U8v8Aig5iZ4 P.S I work for a major private sector firm in the space industry, not NASA

  27. Where's my jet pack? I want my damn jet pack! And hover cars.

    Seriously, like Jim and millions of other kids at the time the manned space program occupied my pre-teen years with never ending passion, reading of space and building all the models - Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Redstone, Titan, Saturn 1B and V, the LEM, space walking astronauts and even a jet pack. I kept my poor mother riveted (actually puzzled and probably bored to tears) with incessant babbling explanations of how we were gonna land on the moon. And then how we landed on the moon.

    Then we stopped traveling to the moon. And I graduated from high school and other passions took over. I do admit that I once proudly wore a Skylab target teeshirt.

    One day I hope that we (Earth people, or the follow on Age of the Insects) will return to other worlds. I remember in April 1981 watching Shuttle Columbia launch and then land with hundreds of other Purdue students at the student union. The cheers were thunderous at our return to US manned spaceflight. I hope to hear those cheers again. Tommy D

  28. Well said, Jim. I am just a few years older than you and I remember it so well. We watched on our classrooms. We watched at home. I loved science fiction, but I adored science fact. And I believed. No matter the political motivations that impelled us, the youth believed. Even with Vietnam and Watergate, we believed that something good and brilliant and worthy could be created by the hand of man. How far our sights have fallen.

  29. At the very moment Tricky Dick was making that famous long distance phone call, his minion Spiro, I am a crook, Agnew was in the Senate overseeing the dismantling of NASA. RMN hated JFK and would do anything to rid DC of his legacy. So much came out of the race to the moon, the program paid for itself many times over. The cowards that destroyed NASA are now in the process of trying to destroy the rest of what is good about America. I personally believe they are traitors to ALL of us.


  30. Well said Jim Wright, so completely well said and spot on. Poignant, inspiring, depressing all at once because what we did was so marvellous and we *could* do so again, could have done so long ago if only we chose to so and prioritised it over so much that is wrong and rubbish that we do instead.

    We took that one giant leap - only to then fall onto our backsides and refuse to take another step.

  31. I'm not sure why the incredible achievements of NASA's non-manned programs are as "uninspiring as a video game." The Voyagers, Hubble, and the Mars rovers have all transformed our understanding of the solar system and the universe, and there's a lot more in the pipeline. I get that the emotional impact of a human landing on Mars is greater than a robot landing on Mars, and there are things that humans can do on Mars that robots can't (although one of those things is "die," so there's that), but...if the expansion of the frontiers of scientific knowledge isn't inspiring to you, that's kind of your problem, not NASA's, no?

    1. Perhaps.

      And perhaps what inspires me is different than what inspires you - or inspires a generation to greatness. QED.

      Men inspire. Women inspire. People inspire. Machines do not. This is why we remember the great explorers of history from Marco Polo to Ernst Shackleton. We remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, their daring inspired a generation and Aldrin continues to do so to this very day. Nobody remembers Surveyor 3.

      Science may certainly inspire in its own way, though it tends to inspire individuals and is unlikely to fuel the dreams of a generation or a nation. All those robots rolling across Mars haven't kept Americans from looking inward instead of outward. And more to the point, all the inspiring science in the world won't do the human race a damned bit of good if the universe decides to make an omelet while we're keeping all of our eggs in one planetary basket.

      I get that the emotional impact of a human landing on Mars is greater than a robot landing on Mars, and there are things that humans can do on Mars that robots can't (although one of those things is "die," so there's that), but...

      There's always that "but," isn't there? That's the word of politicians and bean counters and bureaucrats and this uninspired generation, but. But it's too hard. But it's too far. But it takes too long. But it costs too much. But there's too much to do here first. But we might die. But we have machines to do that. But. But. But. My point exactly.

      Nations that look inward, that play it safe, that shun risk for safety, that fail to dream big, they fade away. They fail to inspire.

      You're right, there are things human beings can do on other worlds and one of those is to die.

      Another, IHH, is to live.

    2. Let's suppose _ad arguendo_ that you're absolutely right that the only hope for mankind is to settle on other worlds. I don't necessarily agree, but I'll concede the point.

      Given that a human colony on Mars is the desired endstate, why on Earth (ha ha) would you not pave the way with robotic exploration first? Prior to Apollo 11 there was Ranger, Surveyor, and a bunch of Lunar Orbiters. The things learned on those missions made the Moon landings possible, just as the things we learn from the MRO, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity will eventually make a Mars landing possible.

      Could it have happened sooner? Yeah...take away the gigantic clusterfuck known as the Space Shuttle and different, probably better, manned space missions would have already been undertaken. But we're talking a couple decades lost, at best. Not much of a difference when we’re talking about the Destiny of the Human Race.

    3. Personal anecdote: In November of 2011, I drove something like four hours through the night across Florida to the Cape, then woke up at 5 AM to be at Canaveral in time to watch Curiosity launch, and it literally (I am using this word correctly) made me jump with joy. A year and a half later, I, again literally, cried tears of joy at the UAA Planetarium as we watched reports of Curiosity's successful landing come in from realtime, and watched the JPL scientists and engineers celebrating. I agree that what inspires people is different, but, man, I sincerely don't get how you can see Curiosity--a space robot with lasers on its forehead that landed on Mars with a jetpack--as other than amazing, and in its way as much a triumph of the human spirit as Apollo 11.

    4. Let's suppose _ad arguendo_ that you're absolutely right that the only hope for mankind is to settle on other worlds.

      I didn't say that. However, at the moment, we don't get the option, do we? We either make it here, or we don't make it because we don't have the ability to do anything else.

      Given that a human colony on Mars is the desired endstate...

      I didn't say that either, though a colony on Mars wouldn't bother me and I'd be the first to sign up. Even if the trip was one way.

      Nor did I use the word "endstate" anywhere in the essay, my horizons are not that limited. I don't believe there is an end state to science or exploration.

      why on Earth would you not pave the way with robotic exploration first?

      I didn't say that, or imply that probes and robotic exploration weren't a good idea - even if they don't lead to a human landing on other worlds. I was talking about human endeavor, the things that inspire generations - you know, the things we named the spaceships America once built after, Challenger, Enterprise, Endeavor, Discovery, Intrepid, Odyssey.

      I sincerely don't get how you can see Curiosity--a space robot with lasers on its forehead that landed on Mars with a jetpack--as other than amazing

      I didn't say that either.

      It is amazing.

      Today. Now.

      But tomorrow the technology will be outdated and as quaint as Johnny Five. In fact NASA just flew the first of three test runs for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator which will land the next generation of robots on Mars. Curiosity is a marvel, today, as were Spirit and Opportunity, as was Sojourner before them all the way back to Viking 1 and 2 which I watched land live on TV, all the way back to Sputnik.

      Am I impressed with Curiosity? Sure. I'm impressed with the engineering. Just as I am with the advanced capability autonomous CNC robotic fabricator I just bought for my shop. It's a very expensive marvel of technology, absolutely state of the art. But it's just a machine. It's a toaster. A tool.

      I spent my entire adult life living inside machines, some probably far more advanced than you can imagine. Sure, you even give them names and grow fond of them and attribute to them human characteristics, every sailor loves his ship. But no matter how advanced, no matter how boggling its technology, it's just a machine soon to be replaced by a better one. It doesn't inspire, it's just a tool.

      You keep attempting to argue against points I didn't make. And you're making assumptions about my viewpoint which are incorrect. And you're doing it because you think you've got me all figured out. But, you see, you and I are talking about very different things.

      You're gushing on about technology.

      I'm talking about human vision.

    5. I guess I don't understand what it is you're trying to say, other than "We should keep doing manned space exploration." OK, fine, agreed. But to where? Mars is pretty much the only spot. So before we send humans to Mars, oughtn't we to send robots there first, the same way we did with the Moon? And isn't that in itself an exercise in "human vision"? Getting to other planets or (in some unimaginably distant time--we're talking about thousands of years, far longer than the US has currently existed) stars isn't an overnight process. Robotic exploration is one step in the long game. So what are you upset about?

    6. But to some extent, you're exactly what I'm talking about in the essay.

      America has become a nation content to explore the universe by remote control. Me? I want to go.

      If you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you.

  32. more to the point this song, Hope Eyrie by Leslie Fish


    I cried

  33. A mission to Mars wouldn't bring me back a tasty sauce recipe for the tomatoes coming out of my garden. The Internet did, though. In fact, several. I got to pick. The moon landing might have represented the triumph of the human spirit, but it more so represented to power of technology, particularly computerization and materials, which have been used to far more beneficial effect than kicking over rocks on a planet that is uninhabited for very good reasons. Our best and brightest, those with the 'Right Stuff', have been redeployed in arenas that are actually useful, like creating blogging software, breathable fabrics, and collateralized debt obligations from subprime mortgage backed securities.

    Spot on about the waste on military hardware. Let's remember though that the space program grew out of missile technology developed under IKE for ICBMs, so it sorta came full circle.

    1. Our best and brightest, those with the 'Right Stuff', have been redeployed in arenas that are actually useful, like creating blogging software, breathable fabrics, and collateralized debt obligations from subprime mortgage backed securities.

      If your comment was intended as sardonic humor, you do it well.

  34. Nothing worthy of note since 1972. Really.

    What of the Voyager missions? What of the Hubble telescope? The James Webb telescope (planned)? What of the Very Large Array in New Mexico? The not one but four unmanned Mars Rover missions?

    Mary Roach talks about manned space missions in her book "Packing for Mars." I highly recommend it. TLDR: humans did not evolve in zero-gravity, zero-atmosphere environments, and do not adapt easily to said same: not physically, not psychologically, not socially. Frankly, given the myriad ways we've screwed up our own planet here, I'm not sure exporting ourselves to our interstellar neighbors is really all that good an idea.

    We have learned much since the days of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, both about humans in space and about our own little corner of the galaxy, and we are becoming more aware every day of just how much more there is for us to understand before we can truly say we've conquered the stars. That to me is not cowardice or lack of imagination; that is true reverence and humility.

    1. Comments like this one are exactly what I was talking about in the essay and in my reply to IHH above.

      Too far. Too hard. Too dangerous. Don't dream. Don't mess up to the universe. If man was meant to fly, God would have given him a propeller beanie. Be safe. Keep your head down. Stay home until we're mature enough to leave our cradle - presumably you'll tell us when that is, Mark?

      This is the viewpoint of far too many Americans nowadays. We are uninspired and uninspiring. As I said on Facebook, private enterprise may one day loft men to the stars, but America will likely never fly again.

      As a people, our greatness is behind us now and it makes me incredibly sad

  35. "As a people, our greatness is behind us now and it makes me incredibly sad."

    Jim, I so agree. I too remember watching Neil Armstrong's first steps, watching out old black and white tv in a dark room, my brother and I marveling at what we were seeing. Heck, I still have the box of newspapers and memorabilia we collected.

    And where are we today? We can't even invest in fixing roads and bridges older than I am, much less something as bold as the next steps in a space program. The fear of a challenge from the unknown has been replaced by fear of "terrorists" and "the other," and the conviction of too many that government can't do anything (ignoring an achievement like landing a real human being - several - on the moon). It's so, so sad. What have we missed in not being bold, what have we wasted in being afraid of our shadows? What, truly, does this say about us?

  36. I find it utterly asinine, deplorable, and witheringly shortsighted that for the first time in decades we, as a country, have no way to put a human into space. We've invested God knows how many billions of dollars in the International Space Station and we've given up our ability to get anyone there. We have to pay Russia to transport our vision-less asses.


    Seriously? Who's fucking idea was that? How's that working out right now? And this is all we've got until private industry can reinvent the wheel and get us back up there. Who's skids were greased to make the decision to privatize our human exploration of space? I hope they feel good about themselves.

    You know what bothers me most about the whole space privatization thing?

    It's no longer us.

    It's no longer The United States of America that will take us into the future, whenever that will be. It will be some private company's achievement. Oh, sure, I guess it will be NASA astronauts riding the rocket. Presumably, anyway, at least at first. But, eventually, it will just be another corporation sending people to some faraway place to figure out how to make a profit off of the endeavor. It won't be The United States doing the exploration, being the first to send a human somewhere. It won't be a source of pride that we can all point to as Americans.

    That, as a country, we've given up on something so basic to humanity as exploration of the unknown, makes me terribly sad, too. But, hey, I guess we can give rich folks ANOTHER discount on their taxes. You know, they're fickle. They won't create jobs unless we heap all kinds of benefits upon them at the expense of the greater good of the country. Fuck.

  37. I wasn't here to read it the first time, five years ago, but this is the writing that keeps me coming back. YOU TELL IT LIKE IT IS. So missing from the national dialog, almost any dialog now days.
    It's like you pull this stuff out of my own skull, or at least my true being. Thanks.

  38. I was riding by Lockheed Martin every day for the past few months as they were slowly tearing down a building that, I believe, they used to build Titan engines (I'm 35, so I don't really know for sure which engine they were building there). I find it sad that I live in a generation that takes for granted all of the technology we use on a daily basis that is either a direct or indirect result of the space program, and that future generations will learn about this even less. It depresses me that we live in a nation that has continually placed less and less importance on teaching children proper math and good scientific method and reasoning.

    I was shown your blog in 2012, Jim. Keep up the good work.

  39. Thanks, Jim. Your essay took me back.

    I was working at my first job after high school when the Eagle landed. The engineering room had no front wall. It opened onto the main hall of the building. The president of the company had a TV set wheeled down the hall and set up. Work stopped. The book keepers came out of their offices, and the people from the shop floor left their machines and joined the engineering staff to watch. We all watched, rapt.

    For a little while, those men on the moon were more important, even, than our jobs. That was the dream, I remember.

    I miss it.

    Paul Cooper (Former QM3/SS)

  40. Thanks, Jim. We used to be a country that did things, but now we've been reduced to gibbering about the Other Guy is getting something the doesn't deserve and we don't want to pay for it. In the current political climate, the Interstate highway system could never have been built.

  41. Superb, as your work so often is. Thank you.

  42. I M late as hell commenting on this. However I will say if you want to go back to the moon. Turn it into A prison. You will get all of the funding you need for that. Just don't give the prisoners the ability to build rail guns.

  43. A historical nitpick: While JFK's Rice University speech took place several weeks before the October Missile Crisis, the actual impetus behind JFK launching Apollo to the Moon, in his speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, was the recent failure at the Bay of Pigs, Gagarin beating the US into manned space, and Shepard's successful suborbital flight, showing that the US was still in the game. Otherwise, I quite agree with the rest of your piece. Thanks for writing it.

  44. I realize I'm late to the party, as it were. NASA is over cautious. Part of it is its budget, part of it is its vulnerability.
    The spectacular failures early on in the space program almost sunk it, if it weren't for the political drive of the Cold War, it probably would have.
    I wish it was separate from political and popular will, but that isn't the world we live in.
    A death, loss of equipment, anything like that hits NASA's credibility. Makes the populace question why we are funding them. Even though their funding is, in the scope of the US budget a pittance. Though polls don't show that people understand that.
    Robots and probes are all NASA can really afford, budget wise and politically.

    I wasn't around at the time, dearly wish I was, but from my reading a lot of the zeal went out of the program not just because of how desolate the moon was, or how hard the journey was, but because the driving factor was beating the Russians.
    After we did, well, mission accomplished.
    It's a simple reality, but it is so damn disappointing.
    Strictly from a pragmatic, numbers only based look, how much return on investment would we have gotten?
    So much of what NASA has developed has filtered back to the private sector. So much material could be harvested.
    But it's all speculation now.
    It was a tipping point. We could have reached for the stars.
    We just... didn't.

  45. I found out that the chief's mess on my cutter had an autographed photo of one of the two, TWO Coast Guard astronauts EVER, when we recently pulled in from a little patrol.

    Because the chiefs had done a little spring cleaning, and tossed it out in the trash bins on the fantail with the other refuse.

    Seemed kind of a like a microcosm of this post.

    The EM2 beat me to saving it.

  46. Enjoying this New Years Day perusing your archives and ran across this beauty. What gives me hope is the historical lag between first-access and permanent development.

    In 1492 Columbus brought the New World to the attention of Europe. It took about a hundred years before the Europeans decided to displace the natives and call it their own.

    Amundsen & Scott reached the South Pole in 1911/12 but only during the International Geophysical Year (1957/58) did anyone decide to stick around.

    Hopefully, we're approaching the time to actually set up camp on the Moon.

  47. In July 1978 with some others I spent a year in Dayton, Ohio one week (don't ask) in an unair-conditioned house, so much of our daytime was spent in cooler climes, including the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB.

    There, in a hallway, was the Apollo 15 Command Module, unsealed, surrounded only by a velvet rope and a sign saying "Do Not Touch."

    I couldn't help myself, I had to do it. I looked down the corridor in one direction, then the other -- nobody visible in either direction.

    So I put out my right forefinger and touched it with my fingertip. I had to, I had to. It had been to the Moon and back.

    I remember my thirteen-year-old self in front of the living room color t.v., set on CBS because they had the best graphics, leaping into the air yelling "We did it, we did it!"

    I was the science kid in my Catholic grade school, explaining Projects Mercury and Gemini to nuns born in the 1880s. I had only been waiting for this moment all my life.

    For decades, I've been afraid we would never go back within my lifetime, but now it finally seems that we are. Again, we can almost touch it...

    With a spaceship which will, as Jerry Pournelle put it, land back on Earth on its tail like God and Robert Heinlein intended.


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