Home / Science / 50 years after Apollo 11, the charm of the moon still resonates

50 years after Apollo 11, the charm of the moon still resonates



Loudon Wainwright Jr., father and grandfather of songwriters and musicians, was a prominent literary ballad of 1960s culture and, in the same way that Americans could get bored with commemorations of his 50 years of the greatest space adventure of humanity, he felt a terrifying feeling of childhood, almost bored. , in Cape Kennedy, waiting for the launch of Apollo 11.

But the night before take-off, Wainwright heard this observation:

"What we will have achieved when Neil Armstrong comes down to the moon is a totally new step in the evolution of man. For the first time, life will leave its global cradle and the ultimate destiny of man will no longer be confined to those familiar continents that we have known for so long. "

These words were uttered by Wernher von Braun, and they shook Wainwright, agitated him, as he said in an essay from Life magazine, "in a way that does not require any amount of engineering, astronautic skill and casual confidence of the entire Apollo project could. "

Consider what we now know since Armstrong honored President John F. Kennedy's promise to send an American to the moon and bring him safely back to Earth; that we now know that von Braun, brilliant developer of the Saturn V launcher that propelled Apollo 11, almost certainly used missiles for slave development for Hitler's Nazi Germany; we know now that since that starry night, America, which had not considered revoking a president for a century, has considered charging three leaders and has already done so; and that the White House, which shone with Kennedy's brilliant vision, would be surrounded by gloomy questions about Lyndon B. Johnson's credibility, Richard Nixon's guilt and Donald Trump's mistrust.

Indeed, we live in a world different from the one Armstrong is linked to, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – the Tinker, Evers and Chance of Space – escaped in July 1969.

Neil Armstrong; Michael Collins; Buzz Aldrin
The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. NASA

Their adventure took place a month before the Woodstock Music Festival and bacchanalia, a decade before the Iranian revolution, foreshadowed the Islamist rebellion that would reshape world politics, two decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a sign of the end of the Twentieth century communism, three decades ago. Women's athletics and American football have reached their majority with the first victory of the American woman at the World Cup, four decades before the inauguration of the first black president, which would mark a shimmering benchmark for the passage of the nation, and five decades before the wildfires shooting in a synagogue would leave sad black marks on the sunny California character.

And now, perhaps, in the face of the grief of mass shooting, the divisions of American politics and the distractions of mobile phones with 1,300 times more processing power than the IBM XT PC embedded in the module. of command, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. On July 20, and the realization of one of humanity's oldest dreams, comes just in time.

Perhaps we should rethink what "coelliptic sequence ignition" means; Perhaps we could ask again how a human organism could travel through the visible night sky between Ursa Major and the Regulus star in the constellation Leo; Perhaps we need to review the risks that Aldrin took with his annual salary of $ 18,622.56 in 1969; Perhaps we should consider creating a portable survival system backpack that provides cooling water for the knitted nylon and spandex garment that astronauts wore on the lunar surface.

Cape Canaveral, July 1969
Wernher von Braun and the Saturn V rocket that propelled Apollo 11. The rocket was developed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alaska, under the direction of von Braun. NASA

In addition, we may be surprised yet again by the way a 12-inch Westinghouse color camera with zoom and 3-inch monitor displaying a 525-line, 30-fps signal could change perspective. about our species, about our world and about the lives of one-third of the current US population who was alive during this show and who witnessed it from afar and stunned in real time.

As soon as Armstrong left the lunar module, he was supposed to have taken a soil sample in case he had to leave in case of emergency. "But he took pictures instead," said Jennifer K. Levasseur, curator of the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "His first consideration was an image. He knew that he could not go to the moon without having a photo to prove that he was there. "

If revisiting these photos is not enough to get us out of the boredom of our commemoration, it may take a Canadian to help us understand the impact of what happened 50 summers ago. Perhaps the message of Marc Garneau, who was that same day on a sailboat in the Channel in 1969, will shake our webs of complacency:

"On a clear night, I looked at the moon in one of the oldest means of transport, trying to make me think of Neil Armstrong, who was coming out of his spaceship and walking on the moon. It was a source of inspiration for many of us. I have always wanted to be part of an adventure. Before becoming Canada's Minister of Transport, Garneau was an astronaut and spent 29 days in space.

Perhaps the memories of one of the African-Americans known as "computers" – the women recruited by NASA and featured in the movie "Hidden Figures" – will help frame the drama . Listen to Christine Darden:

"Sputnik climbed when I was in high school, and I remember the headline and I felt all the trauma of our lag in the space. But when the astronauts finally walked on the moon and saw this snowy image, I knew it had been done by people I was working with. She then wrote a computer program – handmade in seven months – that helped reduce the noise. boom of a jet.

Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin carries scientific experiments on the moon. The photo was taken by Neil Armstrong. NASA

Or maybe Kathryn Sullivan's memories will:

"The drama captured me, the adventure immersed me in the spirit. Absolutely, I never thought that all astronauts were men. They were peopleand I loved the idea that humans have a life like these astronauts – and I wondered if I could have a life like that. "

Prior to becoming Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Acting Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sullivan completed three Space Shuttle missions and was the first US woman to make an outing into space.

Perhaps we could consider the experience of Jay Apt, then Harvard University Student who had launched makeshift rockets in his Pittsburgh district, which had won a model championship and had gone to Florida to witness the rise of Saturn V in the sky, then in the heavens:

"I was standing three miles apart and the low frequencies shook my bowels. I could feel my internal organs moving. More than that was moving. Prior to becoming co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, he had completed four shuttle missions, including one as a commander.

Finally, perhaps we consider one last thing:

No one has walked on the moon since the last of the 12 Americans sank in the lunar surface 47 years ago.

Apollo 11 in Vietnam
US troops in Vietnam learned about the landing of the moon on July 20, 1969. Hugh Van Es / Associate Press

We are observing the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing of the year of the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. It's a mere coincidence, but the overlap is appropriate. The success of leaving our earthly home, as von Braun so bravely says, will be remembered as an accomplished artistic accomplishment, a scientific significance and a moral consequence.

"All the existential questions that have plagued us throughout our lives are in the eyes of these men, now 90 years old, who are coming back to this experience with perspective," Basil Hero said. "The mission of a lifetime: Lessons from the men who went to the moon" was published in April. "It changed their lives, of course. Looking at the Earth from the depths, seeing the immense emptiness that surrounded them, it is enough for them to rewire their brains. They have never looked at Earth, nor themselves, in the same way. They talked about the common good, doing things bigger than themselves. "

From the beginning, there were great complexities in the effort, engineering miracles, such as – who thought about that, or found how to achieve it? – allow the control module to direct its oxygen valve to open and establish a cabin pressure greater than or equal to 0.5 psi in relation to the lunar module after the astronauts have returned from the moon's surface to the vehicle was waiting for them in their lunar orbit.

NASA scientists planned all conceivable contingencies, knowing that there was no replenishment option once the astronauts left the Launch Complex.

They sent oral thermometers, injectors for motion sickness and pain suppression, eye drops, nasal sprays, 60 antibiotic tablets and eight antidiarrheal tablets in the space. They wrapped 53 three-ply fabrics under the driver seat of the control module. The lunar module was equipped with a radio beacon, a knife and two sunscreen containers. The trip menu included shrimp cocktail, roast beef and rehydratable butterscotch pudding. There is no report as to whether the chewing gum strips were consumed, nor what happened to the dental floss provided by NASA.

The astronauts left behind a stainless steel plaque saying that they "came in peace for all humanity," a phrase borrowed from NASA's 1958 statement of intent. statement was written a year after the Soviet Union defeated the United States by sending its Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit and the whole race for space was highlighted in the Greatest Cold War between Americans to the Soviet Union. The Saturn V booster derives from von Braun's V-2 rockets and which Hitler adopted for what the fuhrer called his "annihilating effect".

And yet, Kennedy realized that space travel was more than symbolic or even military.

Apollo 11 lunar landing
Neil Armstrong on the moon. The photo was taken by Buzz Aldrin. NASA

"The space program took up the idea of ​​university football," the Soviets defeated, "but Kennedy actually regarded Apollo as its equivalent of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Grand Coulee Dam of the New Deal," said Douglas Brinkley, of the Rice University historian who published this spring a chronicle of Kennedy and the race to space. "He thought technology was really the new frontier."

But the 35th President saw poetry and a reason to be national, and this poetry and that reason, as well as liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and high quality kerosene that would eventually make Apollo 11 possible, propelled his vision and mission astronauts.

In his May 1961 speech to a joint congressional session, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the scandal of watching Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin become the first man in space, Kennedy described his lunar goal: project of this period will be more impressive for humanity, or more important for the long-term exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

A year later, at Rice University, he added lyricism and bequeathed his legacy by stating, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because this goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and our skills, because this challenge is a challenge we are willing to accept, a challenge we do not want to postpone, a challenge we have. The intention to win, and the others too. "

How many parents of baby boomers – that's not-because-that & # 39; they-are-easy-but-because-that & # 39; they-are-difficult frozen concept in their brain – repeated this sentence to their children, born long after the last steps on the moon and therefore deaf to the historical traces of Apollo 11 astronauts?

Buzz Aldrin
This photo of Neil Armstrong shows Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. NASA

Kennedy's speeches on space were not an occasional commitment. He understood that the space effort symbolized the optimism, the practical side and the national goal of the United States. He thought big, and he also thought historically; Among his favorite books are Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and Winston Churchill's "Marlborough: Life and Times".

He believed that the lunar mission was the logical extension of Columbus and Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers. It is no coincidence that Armstrong brought a sample of muslin cloth and a piece of the Kitty Hawk flight propeller to the moon.

But Kennedy also understood that this effort – with its strange echoes of Jules Verne's conception of a trip to the moon – was an extension of the mobile type, antibiotics and the control of electricity. (He would not be surprised today to know that it was the forerunner of the PC and the iPhone.) Kennedy believed above all that this feat should belong to people attached to the values ​​of America.

In fact, a backtracking from July 20, 1969 to November 21, 1963 and the speech pronounced by the President cursed the day before his assassination. In these remarks, he made it clear that he understood that the mission of the Moon was a business not only of engineering, but also of romance, and that he understood that his words had contributed to transform technology into a metaphor of prestige and power.

He made this point clear by deleting, on his own, this sentence from remarks he made at the San Antonio Aerospace Medical Center. The sentence had been written by a speechwriter, down to earth, unaware that his president was staring at the sky. "Let's not be carried away by the grandeur of our vision."

These words have never been spoken.

Now, 50 years after the realization of this vision in the sea of ​​tranquility, we could stop our earthly misery and our worldly cynicism and let ourselves be carried away by the grandeur of this vision. Without this vision, we would not have our been-there-done-it the complacency, because we might not have been there and we might not have done that.

We did this in an effort involving 20,000 US companies and 400,000 American workers – much of the work from the second and third stages of Saturn V was done in California, with major trials in the Sacramento area. This effort was the legacy of manpower and industrial majesty, mainly in California but also elsewhere, built during and after World War II and fueled by the considerable productivity gains of the 1950s.

The progress of the Mercury project towards the Gemini project towards the Apollo project was both an expression of the politics of power and the power of politics. Kennedy rebuffed critics of his plan, including former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who described the company as a whole "foolish attempt to win a stunt race." Kennedy considered Apollo rather a "mission in the most unknown sea".

But many of his science advisers feared that US technology was not navigable enough for the trip. Chris Craft, NASA's first flight director, said: "Men on the Moon; Has he lost his mind? "

Apollo 11
About 10,000 people watched giant television screens in Central Park, New York, as Neil Armstrong headed for the lunar surface. Associated press

Today, the Apollo 11 Command Module is a relic of another age, 11,700 pounds of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium , built in Downey, California, by North American Rockwell. It is a brownish cone twice as big as the human being, but bears the proof of the realization of human dreams with its human cargo. Its surface is marked, charred and bumpy on July 24, 1969, when Smithsonian curators examined the capsule with specialized digital scanners producing high-resolution images. they saw graffiti left by Collins:

"The best ship to come on the line. Bless her.

This spacecraft traveled the country and the world after the lunar mission and, as we approached the anniversary of last year, he performed a victory tour celebrating his victories in Pittsburgh, Houston , St. Louis and Seattle. Thousands flocked to see him.

"It's clearly a pride for Americans and a nostalgic memory for many old people to remember as a pioneering step for the United States." United and for humanity, "said Michael J. Neufeld, chief curator in the space history department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "Unless you're crazy about space, you probably do not know the details of the landing, and they're pretty remarkable."

The craters of the moon bear the names of Columbus, Darwin, Diderot, Einstein and Fermi, explorers and scientists whose legacy is now well established. What about men who landed in the middle of these craters? What about men who left the Earth in white suits and now have white hair?

"We still wonder what this turning point means," said Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, director of the Center for War and Society Studies at the University of Tennessee. "People were convinced that it would not be the last step but rather that it would open a new frontier. Scientists who were so enthusiastic in 1969 would have been stunned to learn in 2019 that we did not return and that we did not go further into an inhabited spaceflight. "

He added: "It will depend a lot on whether Apollo is the beginning of something or the last momentum of this kind of technological change. There are periods of very fast transitions – it was one of them, a heroic age – and periods of plateaus. For the moment, we do not know. "

APphoto_Moon Control of the landing mission
A celebration at the NASA Mission Control Center in Houston after the return of Apollo 11 to Earth on July 24, 1969. NASA

But now we turn our eyes to the moon again. It is part of the commemoration of 1969. But that's also part of the 2019 commercialization (NASA put in place at the end of last year a commercial program of lunar payload services).

These looks are motivated in large part by the regrets that the prize once won has been dropped so quickly and because other nations, China and India in particular, also have aspirations, skies to conquer and rivals to impress or intimidate. Japan is planning an unmanned lunar mission for next year. Even an Israeli non-profit organization sent a vehicle, SpaceIL, to the moon, although it crashed on the lunar surface in April.

And today, there are private American companies ready to do what NASA can not afford.

In May, General Manager of Amazon Jeff Bezos Unveiled plans of a lunar lander with the evocative name, Blue Moon, perhaps channeling the ballad of Rodgers and Hart (and his moon cry referring to "a dream in my heart"). "We will build a road for space," said Bezos, "and then, incredible things will happen." The Bezos initiative is supposed to be the first step towards a space colony.

Part of the new moon attraction – China is drawing worldwide attention to its aspirations to establish a lunar base, or perhaps a colony, an impressive first step being the recent landing of its Chang-e 4 on the hidden side of the moon. – is to create a way of access to the universe.

But another element of the current lunar lure is that exploration of the outer edges of the solar system takes so long to bear fruit; The New Horizons space probe, launched in 2006, in the middle of the second term of George W. Bush, for example, was approved by Pluto in 2015, during the second term of Barack Obama. The relative proximity of our own moon has its own psychic gravitational force – a force that seems to grasp President Trump in May, when he promised to put the Americans back to the moon by 2024.

New York City welcomes Apollo 11 teammates
A parade of magnetic tapes marching in New York for Apollo 11 astronauts. Associated press

"Under my administration, we are restoring the greatness of NASA," Trump said in a tweet announcing his intention to seek an additional $ 1.6 billion from NASA to develop Artemis, named in honor of the twin sister Apollo, and intended the lunar surface.

In 1961, James E. Webb, the legendary director of NASA during the crossing of the moon, had a bold view: "We have scientists, we have technology, we have the resources and we have the power and the know-how needed the job. We probably do it again, even though it remains uncertain that NASA can accomplish Trump's task about half the time needed for the moon's efforts in the 1960s.

It is now clear that Kennedy's fast track to the moon has allowed NASA to focus on this effort, but virtually nothing else. What was sacrificed, it is the space station which, with the focus, the budget and the appropriate schedules could have constituted a base camp for future trips on the Moon or on Mars. Instead, NASA has achieved the equivalent of a camping trip on the moon.

"We did not have time to properly use the space station," said Roger Launius, chief historian of NASA between 1990 and 2002. "NASA has created many outstanding projects. of more complex magnitude than going to the moon.But that would have been within our reach in [these] 50 years."

When NASA's 1958 Space Exploration Plan, developed during the Eisenhower years, was replaced for the Moon Run, the space agency received an infusion of funding, attention and glamor who delighted her. "But," said Launius, "that also meant that NASA could not get any other things that it wanted."

Despite his expectations, he also could not expect solid public support in the future. The official story of the NASA mission says it well: "Most NASA officials did not understand when the moon was landing in 1969, it was because Apollo was not conducted under normal circumstances and that the exceptional circumstances 11 would not be repeated. "

The American lunar effort was the natural product of a century of engineering and physics. After all, the 20th century was also that of the mechanized death of the Nazi death camps and the advanced rocket used by Germany to attack Britain. And unlike the century that preceded it and the one that followed, the twentieth century was also the era of ideological competition.

"The Soviet Union and the United States believed that technological leadership was the key to demonstrating ideological superiority," Armstrong said. "Everyone has invested enormous resources in ever more spectacular spatial achievements. Everyone would have memorable successes and suffer tragic failures. It was an unparalleled competition outside the state of war. "

Astronauts were passionate about the defeat of the Soviet Union in the war of space for which they had been engaged. In the end, it did not surprise them.

"But what surprised them was seeing them not only as Americans, but as citizens of the planet," Basil Hero discovered during his conversations with surviving lunar explorers. "They have never stopped thinking on a global scale. They saw the Earth as a living organism and have seen us all as planetary brothers. "

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," the Apollo project had the effect of "He has the best merit of fortifying and encouraging."

It reinforced the Americans' confidence in a moment of desperation and encouraged them to dream again as they experienced the nightmare of the Trifecta of Vietnam, racial tensions and campus upheavals. As an American company outside the war, Apollo's only real rivals are the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal. And, like the transcontinental railway and the Panama Canal, it has made the world smaller and closer to the people.

"I'm struck by the frequency with which non-Americans speak when" we "went to the moon – not Americans, but human beings," said Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut. "It was a galvanizing and unifying moment that does not resemble any other moment in human history. The planet was conceived together not by war and chaos, but by a daring expression. "

We went to the moon. Your eyes may shine with this month's hype. But these eyes are turned to a world that has changed, which has been completely changed by what Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins have seen and by what they did 50 years ago, not by war and chaos, but by a bold expression.

Like Loudon Wainwright Jr., may we all be impressed by this "totally new step in the evolution of man". In addition, Apollo 11 still has the ability to teach and amaze.

One detail that has largely eluded the attention is the caching of lunar soil samples that were quietly scattered half a century ago.

The scientific world is aware of the seismic experiments conducted by the Apollo crew and laser beams sent from Earth to help measure the central mass of the moon and the moon's radius. Soon, NASA scientists are finally trying to uncover the secrets of the soil samples that have been sealed, intact since Armstrong stuffed them into a collection box, never exposed to Earth's atmosphere, waiting for news analytical technologies not available in 1969.

More exploration. More discoveries, yet another expression of American optimism about the future and the American faith in progress.

Shribman is a special envoy.


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