Rocket Men

Like many boys, I went through a phase of fascination with astronauts and the U.S. space program. For me, this came in seventh and eighth grade, and coincided with the release of the 1995 film Apollo 13. As time passed, the fascination waned, even though I always thought the space program was very cool.

Then, sometime in 2011 or so, I stumbled across a book for a few dollars in a discount bin at Vons, and made an impulsive decision to buy it. The title was Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon. The author was history writer Craig Nelson. Reading this book re-enlivened all the old fascination. For me, it was as close as I could get to living through the space race (which, being a child of the ‘80s, I did not). The fascination hasn’t waned again, and I’ve been reading books about the Apollo program ever since.

So today, being the 50th anniversary of the first steps taken on the lunar surface, I wanted to make mention of Craig Nelson’s book, my random encounter with it, and my hope that those younger than I will likewise get hooked by the sheer audacity and momentous success of the American space program of the 1960s. Little more can be said about the Apollo lunar missions being a testament to human (or American) ingenuity or our insatiable curiosity or dogged commitment. All this is true and has been stated innumerable times. And indeed, the fact that it has been some 47 years since anyone has visited the moon testifies to the fact that doing so is not easy, or cheap.

It may be that in my lifetime, I will witness another person walk across the “magnificent desolation” that astronaut Buzz Aldrin beheld on July 20, 1969. It may be that I will see live video of a man making boot prints in the rusty Martian dirt. But who knows? The urgency and determination that thrust the Apollo rockets heavenward was a product of a unique set of historical circumstances that we would not even want recapitulated even if they could be. And even then, the program was cut short after six successful lunar excursions because its continuation seemed to cost more than it was worth, now the thing had been accomplished. So, while a return to space beyond low earth orbit (the extent of the forays of the Space Shuttle and Space Station operations) would be very exciting, such a thing may be a hard budget item to get through committee. More likely, such missions, if they materialize, will probably be either the work of government and private companies working together, or the work of private companies alone. And this wouldn’t be a bad thing, in my opinion.

At this moment, Elon Musk’s remarkably successful space company, SpaceX, has committed to carrying people around the moon (Apollo 8 style) in 2023. I give this about a 50/50 chance of happening on time, but it would certainly be cool. Certainly, manned trips to the surface would eventually follow. Time will tell. Until then, we can look back in admiration on the pioneers—the engineers, mathematicians, scientists, pilots, and so many others, the rocket men—who did it first, and did it 50 years ago. NASA might do it again. SpaceX might do it. The Chinese, Indians, Russians, or French might do it. But when and if they do, they will only be following in the footsteps of the buzz-cut, skinny-tie, all-work-and-no-play fanatics who boldly went where no man had gone before.

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