STS135, the final space shuttle flight, was scheduled to land today—on the anniversary of the first moon landing. (The final shuttle mission has since been extended.) The nation’s accomplishments in space show how Americans can rise to a challenge, whether it’s beating the Russians to the moon or persisting in the shuttle program despite two fatal tragedies.
As the Apollo lunar program fades into history, fewer Americans remember the feeling or the facts of that amazing time.
By July 1969, NASA had caught up and finally surpassed the Soviet Union in the space race, although Russia had spent much of the decade in the lead. After a steady stream of NASA successes, Apollo 11 and the crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, approached the moon. On July 20th, Neil and Buzz would land…if all went well.
They approached the lunar surface in the tiny lander (the lunar module “Eagle”), something the astronauts had rehearsed in simulations many times. But this time, something unprecedented went wrong; the Eagle’s landing computer gave a warning alarm. Twice. The computer was overloaded and couldn’t do its job. Each time, Armstrong and mission control managed to clear the problem. Getting closer to the surface, and with fuel rapidly running out, Neil delayed landing. He saw a field of boulders, big boulders beneath him. The Eagle could not safely land. He continued flying, looking for a better site.
Mission control called out the altitude above the lunar surface and the amount of fuel remaining. Still, no landing. Fuel was almost gone. Millions (including me, at 12 years’ old) held their breath.
Finally, we hear Neil: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
A lesson for today
From the country’s founding, including the tumultuous debates in 1787 that brought us our Constitution, we have faced and overcome great difficulties. I often say that my interest in the Constitution and in space history stem from the same thing: fascination with smart people working under difficult conditions, trying to do the near impossible.
Today, we again face big challenges in space and here on earth. The economy is in trouble, with huge deficits, high unemployment and great uncertainty about the future. Our space program has no successor to the shuttle, no manned spacecraft. American astronauts will need to ride the Russian Soyuz to reach the International Space Station. Even the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope may be killed to save money from our tightening Federal budget.
One could easily worry about our prospects. On the other hand, if we can put a man on the moon…
Ray Katz works in Visitor Services at the National Constitution Center. He also collects historic space memorabilia and operates a blog called The Space Buff.