Finding Meaning in Apollo

I was born before Sputnik.  Yep, that old.

I grew up with the space age – the X planes, the Original 7, JPL sending Ranger to photo-bomb the Moon, JFK and LBJ, the whole enchilada.

I was crushed with Mariner 4 evaporated the Martian atmosphere into insignificance and when Mariner 2 turned the lush steamy jungle planet Venus into a sulfuric acid oven.  So many good science fiction stories were instantly pulped.

I watched Alan Shepard’s launch on a big black and white TV wheeled into our elementary school classroom.  The same for John Glenn.  When many of my friends kept baseball cards and knew the statistics on their favorite sports star, I kept track of astronaut flight assignments, and watched the Croft puppets do a real time simulation of Gemini spacewalks.

When Apollo 7 flew, I smuggled my transistor radio into middle school to listen to hourly updates on the flight from the radio news.  When she found the clandestine box, my teacher thought I was listening to the baseball playoffs like my classmates. But I wasn’t.

So, when it comes to the space, I got the bug early and hard.  The value of space exploration – robotic as well as human – is an article of faith for me; hardwired in from my earliest days.

Some years later, my college roommates could not believe that I spent three 7-hour days (during finals week!)  in the dorm TV lounge watching the Apollo 17 moonwalks live.  On the other hand, I couldn’t believe nobody else was watching with me.  (Yes, having to go to a special room where there was a TV was a thing then).

But a constant throughout those days was the criticism: ‘Why should we spend money on space?”  “We have problems enough here at home we should solve first!” “My taxes are too high, and this is just tomfoolery!” And after the first time:  “Been there, done that, why do it again?”

Maybe you thought that everybody was in favor of Apollo.  That was not the case, it was always controversial.

A couple of years later one historian offered this retrospective: “How different would the world have been if the Soviet Union had gone to the moon in 1970 and the biggest contribution the United States made to world affairs in that decade had been the war in Viet Nam?”  Yes, a very different world would have resulted; an alternate universe that should cause us all to shiver.

So, when I hear people question the spending proposals for renewed space exploration, I think ‘how old fashioned’ or maybe ‘how short sighted’.  Heard it all before; it was wrong then and it is wrong now.

I appreciated the entire summer of Apollo remembrances.  There were well-deserved tributes properly done.  If young folks think that everybody was in favor of Apollo, then we have not told the complete story.

And one last bittersweet thought:  When I came to work at NASA shortly before STS-1, space cadet that I was, I thought we would do this ‘shuttle’ thing for a couple of years, then assemble the space station as an embarkation point, and then head out for permanent outposts on the moon and to Mars and other places in the solar system.

Nope, I never expected to spend my entire professional career on the good old shuttle, with the ISS coming along right at the end.  How did we let that happen?

We need to keep that outpost on the frontier staffed and operating but more we need to take the next step.  Because I doubt if we ever have a 50-year celebration for the space shuttle – not like they will for the first boot print on the red planet.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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10 Responses to Finding Meaning in Apollo

  1. Fred Mushel says:

    Although I am quite younger than you, I also was always intrigued by the space programs, both robotic and human Spaceflight ((iPhone capitalized the S) while most friends and classmates were, like you wrote, idolizing sports, movies, TV shows and musicians. While for many people in this country who admire sports players, musicians and actors/actresses, my heroes were the astronauts and the engineers who designed and the people who built the spacecraft.
    I remember waking up early and videotaping the attempted and then first launch and landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia as well as doing the same for the first 14 Space Shuttle missions broadcast on network TV. After the 14th mission the networks stopped covering missions and cable TV was not available in my neighborhood until late summer or fall of 1986!
    I think our space programs are the best tax payer investments as compared to money wasted on many unnecessary Pentagon programs.
    Now it has been more than 8 years since the last Space Shuttle flight (the most sophisticated spacecraft ever built) still waiting for three relatively simple capsules on two of three already proven rockets (launch vehicles).
    It seems everything takes much much longer to get things done as compared to things done in “simpler times.”

  2. Fred Mushel says:

    One last comment.
    After the impressive success of the first Space Shuttle flight, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov on one network covering the mission, predicted that 10,000 people would be working in space. Like in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, human space flight is way, way behind where it could be if we didn’t waste time and money on wars and other world conflicts. If only the human race can live in peace, what great achievements in space could we accomplish.

  3. Dennis Romano says:

    I was also born before Sputnik. I too am a “space geek” (and an “airplane geek” as well). I also followed the space program closely and continue to do so. I decided to become an aero engineer in the 5th grade and work in the wind tunnels at NACA/NASA Ames (which was about 15 miles from my home). NACA became NASA when I was in the 5th grade. My physics professor at Santa Clara University was doing some work at Ames and asked if anybody was interested in getting their name on the list to become an astronaut and work on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory; of course I got my name on the list. Unfortunately, the MOL was cancelled shortly after that. I went to work for the Navy as an aerospace engineer when I got my engineering degree and did so for 26 years. I then worked the last 9 years as a systems engineer at Ames on a variety of projects, including Constellation and small satellites.

    I re-read a book last month (something I rarely do), but it was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I read it when it was first published 45 years ago. The book is “Carrying the Fire” by Michael Collins and I highly recommend it.

    We NEED to explore; it’s in our DNA.

  4. Daniel Schultz says:

    Apollo did not take resources away from the poor, if anything it diverted money and talent from the nuclear arms race and provided a much safer outlet for superpower competition. That by itself is worth the full cost of the program.

    A second, unexpected, result was the effect on humans from seeing the Earth floating alone in space for the first time. Before Apollo, people thought that the oceans and the atmosphere were immensely large and could absorb any amount of human trash, after Apollo we understood for the first time how small our planet is and that we have no other place to go if we trash it.

  5. Spacebrat1 says:

    I was crushed when they cancelled Apollo. 17 was my first published launch image. Had they kept going, there would be 100’s of people living permanently on the Moon. I would have been one, and not have had to endure 4 back operations. hate to say it, but entitlements put a bullseye on the program $ and what we got was decaying crime ridden cities. how sad.

  6. lion says:

    Easier in hindsight to say the shuttle & the saturn were never up to the job, no matter what the voters voted for or the political will. There’s simply no way we can go anywhere without a fully & rapidly reusable system. NASA will discover the same with the SLS & say “you know what. Let’s do something which only needs 1 launch every 10 years, like a space station.” An omnipotent Hale in 1980 might have said “there’s no way the refurbishment required by the shuttle is going to be affordable enough to do any of my dreams” & gone into real estate instead.

  7. `Lewis Van Atta says:

    I grew up not far behind you; the first applications for shuttle astronauts popped up on a physical bulletin board while I was in college in 1978-1982. The best (IMHO) rationale for continued space exploration is the quote from Joe Strazynski’s character from the show Babylon 5, Cmdr Jeffrey Sinclair: (the science is a bit off, but the spirit is right on the money)
    “Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu, Einstein, Morobuto, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes .. and all of this .. all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars.”

  8. David Fabrizio says:

    You should have mentioned that Apollo is history and we still have poverty and serious issues. Apollo was just a convenient target.

  9. Brad Keller says:

    The way I understand it most people thought the shuttle was the gateway to the future by making space flight routine and cheap enough to afford future missions outside of low Earth orbit. Of course, regretfully, that never came to be. My question is, while NASA had studied designs for shuttle iterations and derivatives like shuttle-C and -Z, which seem reasonably attainable and logical next steps in STS’s evolution, why did the agency instead pursue the greater technological hurdles like Venturestar and the DC-X and HL-20?

    • waynehale says:

      NASA is always studying new systems to see if they can lead to breakthroughs. A little investment in early study or maybe even prototyping can pay off. Significant lessons were learned from X-33 Venture Star, DC-X, and the HL-20.

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