I was an eight-year-old second grader on April 12, 1961, when my father showed me a screaming headline with two-inch-high lettering in the afternoon newspaper: RUSSIAN 1ST SPACEMAN. Sensing a historic moment, I saved the front page and pasted it into a scrapbook. That was the first of many headlines I saved through the years of the “space race.”
Six weeks later, President Kennedy announced the goal of the Apollo program: “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
As was the case for many of my generation, the Apollo program had a tremendous influence on me. The media, including network television, focused enormous attention on each mission. During the early Mercury flights, I recall riding my bike to school with one hand on the handlebar and the other holding a transistor radio to my ear so I wouldn’t miss anything, which was really quite dangerous! My awakened interest in space and rocketry led me to scour the shelves of the local public library for science books, and eventually crystallized into a determination to pursue a scientific career.
On the night of July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, I was a 16-year-old counselor-in-training at a summer camp in northern Wisconsin. I had been assigned the responsibility of being the OE (officer of the evening) that night, and with a 16-year-old’s sense of honor I carried out my duties by walking from cabin to cabin telling giggling boys to shut up and go to sleep. It was heartbreaking to miss the historic TV broadcast, but as it turned out the reception that night was very poor — the problem was not transmitting the signal 240,000 miles from the moon to the earth but rather 30 miles from the local network affiliate in Rhinelander to Minocqua, Wisconsin.
It was the height of the cold war, and America’s national honor seemed to be at stake. Only by beating the Russians to the moon could we prove the superiority of our free enterprise system over Soviet communism. Somewhat ironically, success could be achieved only by creating a vast bureaucracy.
The original Mercury astronauts were test pilots who flew jet fighters, steeped in the fighter jock culture so well captured in Tom Wolfe’s wonderful book The Right Stuff. Neil Armstrong joined the program later, and though he was an excellent pilot he saw himself first and foremost as an aeronautical engineer. His skills turned out to be well matched to his responsibilities on board Apollo 11.
Today I am not a strong advocate of human space flight, because unmanned vehicles and robots can explore the universe more deeply and far more cheaply. But I can’t help but miss the thrill of the space race. Our nation and much of the world was unified behind and inspired by a great technological quest which ultimately met success. Though we still face many enormous scientific and engineering challenges, nothing else since the Apollo program has captured the world’s imagination to nearly the same extent.