A few weeks before the scheduled launch of Apollo 11, which was intended to land the first humans on the moon, presidential speechwriter William Safire got a call from Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman. He suggested that the White House might want to have a speech ready in case the mission went awry. When Safire tried to grasp the point, Borman added, “Like what to do for the widows.” The first men on the moon might never leave it.

That speech was written but, fortunately, never delivered. The mission was a complete triumph. That recollection lives indelibly in the memory of everyone who was old enough to understand what was happening in July 1969.

Fifty years after that epochal achievement, it’s easy to assume that the outcome was foreordained. Looking back, it seems as though the American combination of adventure and ingenuity ensured success. But it was always a close-run thing, and hope was always shadowed by fear and fretting.

The journey began after a profound national shock: the launch of the first man-made satellite, known as Sputnik, by the Soviet Union in 1957. Americans were frightened by the prospect that space would be dominated by a formidable enemy.

“Soon, the Russians will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses,” Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson warned. Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under intense public pressure to catch up with the Soviets.

But the threat of being outdone persisted. In 1961, after Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, orbiting the Earth, President John F. Kennedy summoned a spirit of urgency. In a speech to Congress, he said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

It was an audacious goal, with no guarantee of success. Even if Americans could reach the moon, the Soviets might get there first. There were innumerable opportunities for failure — and tragedy. In 1967, three U.S. astronauts died when a fire erupted as their craft sat on a launch pad. Apollo 10’s manned lunar module suffered a malfunction and nearly crashed on the moon.

When the Apollo 11 lander descended toward the surface, astronaut Neil Armstrong saw only dangerously cratered, boulder-strewn terrain, and was almost out of fuel before he found a safe spot to land.Finally, he reported to mission control, “The Eagle has landed,” and a worldwide audience breathed a sigh of relief.

Even then, danger loomed. Once Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the lunar surface and returned to their module, there remained “the possibility that they might not be able to launch from the moon’s surface,” recalled historian John Logsdon years later. Once they did, they had to retrace their 240,000-mile route back to Earth and land safely.

For the entirety of human history, the notion of traveling to the moon had been nothing more than a fantastic dream. The achievement was a milestone that will never be forgotten. But somehow, it soon elicited boredom and complacency.

With the race won, and the Sputnik embarrassment avenged, Americans soon gave up lunar endeavors. The last astronauts to tread lunar soil departed in December, 1972. Lunar bases were never built. Manned missions to Mars, which once were assumed to be the inevitable next step in space exploration, have yet to materialize. The next people to land on the moon may well be Chinese.

The present moment, with all its political furies, has been called “the age of anxiety.” But anxiety even more acute than ours existed even at the moment that humans were extending their limits beyond our earthly home. Americans didn’t know then that the United States would get to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union — or that the Cold War, which spawned the race, would end in their favor.

That generation had its own divisions — even over the lunar mission, which many Americans considered an expensive waste.

Those Americans confronted their fears, strove mightily to overcome them and achieved things that were once beyond reach.

So it has been for the 243 years since July 4, 1776. All of us can find reassurance, instruction and inspiration in what the lunar pioneers did. And, more broadly, in what we as a people can do.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.