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Moonwalk Memories | Marking the event from 40 years ago

POSTED: July 19, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Forty years ago this week, America's infant space program was on the verge of completing its greatest adventure, Apollo 11, a $350 million piece of derring-do that would put man on the moon and return him safely home.

The adventure began on July 16, 1969, as three astronauts - Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins - awaited their ride into history atop a silvery, 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket on Launch Pad 39-A at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

The launch was picture perfect as the majestic rocket rose off the pad, propelling the astronauts first into the crystal blue Florida sky, then on a trajectory toward the moon. Four days and 250,000 miles later, they were there.

NASA estimates that 500 million people worldwide watched the shadowy picture - a live picture from the moon - as Armstrong opened the Lunar Module hatch and climbed slowly down the ladder.

He placed his left foot on the lunar surface - "That's one small step for man" - and then his right - "one
giant leap for mankind."

It was NASA's greatest achievement. Indeed, one of mankind's greatest.

Four decades later, the space agency is at a crossroads.

America went to the moon five times after Apollo 11, but hasn't been there since 1972. The once-proud space shuttle program ends in about a year, but NASA is still as much as a decade away from launching Constellation, the project to return humans to the moon, to Mars and, perhaps, beyond.

"We went to the moon. We went to a new territory, a new world, we went there six times, and then we didn't go back," said Clay Ouzts, a professor of history and environmental studies at Gainesville State College. "And it's been sitting on ice for 40 years now. And I feel like that was only the beginning of the vision."

The space race begins

The 25,000 residents of the Space Coast - that area along Florida's eastern shore around Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach - were not prepared for what happened on July 24, 1950. A German V-2 rocket, captured during World War II, was test-fired at the cape. Another was tested five days later.

Few residents were familiar with Wernher von Braun and 120 other Germans who changed their allegiance after World War II and began developing rockets for America.

The scientists' goal was clear: To develop rockets powerful enough to thrust human beings into space. But there was little interest in space travel in those early days.

That changed on Oct. 4, 1957.

While tests were continuing in Florida, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite, a 22-inch, 190-pound metal machine.

"The people in the White House thought launching a satellite into space was a stunt," said Jay Barbree, an NBC News correspondent. During his 51-year career with the network, he is the only journalist to cover every American manned spaceflight. "Until the Russians rubbed our noses in it, finally, someone had to do something."

Almost immediately after Sputnik, the drive to surpass the Soviets began. It was four months after Sputnik before America could launch its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit. Later than year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And in 1959, NASA named its first astronauts, called the Mercury 7.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard rode Freedom 7 into space, flying for 15 minutes, 22 seconds on America's first manned mission.

Twenty days later, President John F. Kennedy, in a special State of the Union address, set his ambitious goal - to put a man on the moon and bring him safely home by the end of the 1960s.

"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish," Kennedy said.
Project Gemini followed in 1965 and 1966. But it would be Project Apollo, named for the Greek god of the sun, that would bring NASA its brightest moment.

‘One giant leap'

With each Apollo launch, NASA came closer to landing on the moon and fulfilling Kennedy's vision. NASA had spent $24 billion in the 11 years since the agency was created, all in preparation for Apollo 11.

And on July 20, 1969 - 40 years ago Monday - the first part of Kennedy's goal was reached. With Armstrong at the helm of the Lunar Module, nicknamed "Eagle," and Aldrin at his side, man landed on the moon at 4:18 p.m.
"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," Armstrong said. A few hours later, at 10:56 p.m., Armstrong made his famous "one small step."

The success of Apollo 11 led to five more lunar landings - and 10 more moonwalkers - with each crew staying longer and collecting more samples than the one before.

NASA wanted to use the enthusiasm of Apollo 11 to chart an ambitious course for the future. The agency wanted to have a space shuttle in the air by 1976, a lunar base and a manned mission to Mars by the 1980s.

But the glory days were ending. The public had viewed the moon missions as a race with the Soviets, and with Apollo's success, the race was won. Other news - an unpopular war, the civil rights struggle, Watergate - was pushing space travel off the front pages, and some politicians began to view the $20 billion space effort as expendable.

Congress gave NASA's goals a low priority, and for six years, until the space shuttle program began in 1981, America was out of the space race.

To the moon and beyond

One of NASA's top priorities today is getting Constellation fully funded and operational. During the Apollo program, astronauts stayed on the moon for just a few days. The Constellation program will put astronauts there for six-month stays, where they'll learn how to live in low gravity situations and where systems can be constructed that will assist in the much-longer journeys to Mars.

"If we want to go to Mars, we have to have a test bed somewhere that we can develop technologies and understand responses in partial gravity," said Gale D. Allen, the director of strategic integration and management at NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, who also serves as a member of Brenau University's Board of Trustees.

"We know zero gravity," she said. "We know 1G. But we don't know in partial gravity, what the reaction of the human body, the safety and the health aspects are."

But getting money from a fickle Congress will be tricky at a time when deficits are at an all-time high.

"It was easier to get that money in the '60s because we were fighting the Cold War," said Ben Wynne, a history professor at Gainesville State College. "Now they'd wonder why we need to spend that much to go get a bunch of rocks."

Without those funds, however, America may fall further behind in space technology. Many observers already believe China will get to the moon before Americans return. India and Japan are also aiming at launching lunar excursions. And Russia continues to have a strong presence in Earth's sub-orbit.

"America is the still the leader in space, but we're not the leader in every sector," said Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the space industry. "The Chinese have an extremely modern program. The Chinese will under promise and over perform, and they want to get to the moon very badly."

The American space program was borne of the idea of being first. The question facing NASA and its Congressional supporters is: Does the nation want to lose that leadership in space?

"It's not just a thrill ride for a few astronauts," said John Casper, a former astronaut from Gainesville who flew four shuttle missions and who is now associate director of the shuttle program. "It's a matter of national prestige. ... I think if the Chinese or Indians beat us to the moon, it'll have a huge impact on international politics."

For NASA officials, the battle is in securing funding for programs that many consider discretionary, especially in today's economic climate.

"It's difficult to justify in some eyes spending the money we do, although it's less than a half a percent of the federal budget, I just want to slide that in there," said Allen.

President Barack Obama has requested $18.7 billion for the space agency in 2010, including a 5 percent increase in funding for the Constellation program. At the same time, he has proposed $3.5 billion in cuts for the program over the subsequent five years.

The president also has appointed the Augustine Panel, so named for the panel's chairman, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, as an independent group that will review all of NASA's human spaceflight plans. A full report is expected from the panel in late August.

Human spaceflight is extremely expensive, and some critics of NASA say the agency should devote more of its efforts to developing unmanned probes. But Allen said a combination of the two is the best approach.

"There are some aspects of exploration once you land on the surface, you've want robotic capability to maybe check out areas you weren't sure about and to look at some of the geology," said Allen. "But you cannot replace or substitute the human brain for being able to determine which rock is the right rock to pick up and once you pick it up what is the next step. We haven't gotten robots to do that kind of logic."

To get the space program back in the forefront, to get stronger support from Congress, NASA needs to fully engage the general public as it did during the Apollo program, said Pamela Melroy, an astronaut whose three space shuttle missions helped build the International Space Station.

‘We absolutely need something the public can rally around," Melroy said. "Right now, it's not easy for people visualize anything other than astronauts floating around in space. We need something like going back to the moon and on the Mars to do that."

To achieve this "something," many people believe Obama should take a page from Kennedy's presidency and set a firm, national goal for space exploration.

"I'm very hopeful that President Obama has the wisdom to proceed with the Constellation program as it has been set up because it was set up by some of the greatest minds in the country," Barbree said. "It wasn't something done overnight. It was studied for years."

Such a national goal, if it could be funded, would allow for a renewed emphasis on science and mathematics in schools, said Barbree.

And it might restore a national pride that was so important during the Apollo days, when the young space program could do no wrong. It could be a rallying point for a nation that many believe is divided.

"If you put it out there and let them do it, they can do it," said Gainesville resident Tracy O'Shields. He was stationed on the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. "We can do anything. This country can accomplish anything it wants to every day."

Times staff writers Keith Albertson, Melissa Weinman and Carolyn Crist contributed to this report.



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