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.
Personally, I think the best science is done when there’s a well defined and lofty goal to work towards. It’s hard enough to solve problems — it’s way more challenging when you’re not even sure you’re asking the right question. That’s the beauty of well defined problems, it frees us up to unleash our problem solving creativity with less doubt that the problem we’re working on is solvable/important/timely/etc.
This is one of the reasons I wanted to work in quantum information. Even though it’s not as well defined as LANDING A MAN ON THE MOON, the goal of building an ‘efficient’ quantum computer is decently well defined. In my opinion, it’s a goal that’s comparable in importance to some major recent scientific/technological accomplishments. Namely, finding the Higgs, sequencing the human genome and landing Curiosity on Mars. I don’t want to argue about the relative difficulty or importance of these milestones, but rather, the point is that having a well defined goal allows us (scientists) to break up a problem into modular chunks, work quickly in teams (or as individuals), fundraise efficiently, and ultimately accomplish something truly amazing (with many inevitable spin-off technologies that are important for society at large.)
Moreover, the two paragraphs above didn’t mention anything about the value of inspiring young people to get interested in science. I don’t think I need to argue the importance of this to the audience at hand. Thanks for sharing these anecdotes which provide a small window into how you ended up where you are today! Hopefully some of the recent events described above are having a similar impact (even if they’re not capturing public attention to quite the same extent.)
I see your penchant for careful record keeping started at a young age, John. I’ve been trying to emulate that lately.
Nice story. I love it.
It reminds me of another story of my uncle, who is a mathematician in China. He once asked me: do you know what the most shocking news to him is in his life?”. I thought that it might be some political upheavals during the culture revolution. He said no. Actually, it was after the culture revolution, in 1979, he suddenly heard the shocking news that Americans landed on the moon 10 years ago.