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COLUMN: Time to take the steps to re-conquer space
IT WAS TOO important a moment for any American to miss.
So, about 8:45 that night we abandoned the newspaper building and drove over to my managing editor’s house about half a mile away.
It wasn’t as if we were slighting our responsibilities. Monday’s rag, as we called it, was only eight pages and any one of the three of us could have put that newspaper together with our eyes closed.
Besides, our top story—and banner headline—would result from what we would watch on TV that night.
We sat in amazement in Bill Diehl’s living room and watched Neil Armstrong slowly climb down the ladder of that lunar module and step foot on the surface of the moon.
I don’t recall what we said that night, but I do recall Diehl smiling and shaking his head in disbelief. It was indeed a moment to remember.
That was July 20, 1969, 45 years ago this past Sunday. In the incredibly short span of nine years, America, responding to President John F. Kennedy’s challenge, had put a man on the moon. Within days we would fulfill the second phase of that challenge and bring Armstrong and his fellow space travelers home safely again.
We went back to work that night with high expectations for the future. Now that we had put a man on the moon the universe was ours. What would be next? Mars by 1980? Uranus by 1990? Another galaxy by the year 2000?
Little did we know that within three years our manned voyages to the moon would cease. That’s right! The last time we put a man on the moon was 1972, some 42 years ago.
Oh, we’ve built a space station and sent unmanned probes to Mars, asteroids and into the tails of comets but since 1972 no human (at least one from Earth) has stepped foot on the moon, a planet or any other light in the night sky.
What happened? Well, for one thing Congress cut funding, saying that there was nothing left to prove. After all, we had beaten the Russians to the moon and that was what the space race of the 1960s was all about. Our mission accomplished, we could now spend those dollars on more meaningful projects—like the Vietnam War.
On that hot July night 45 years ago Americans figured they had conquered space. In fact, we had only, to paraphrase Armstrong, taken one small step, to a bright satellite 250,000 miles away.
Then, after that first successful step, we pulled back, limiting our manned voyages to space shuttle missions in the 1980s and 90s. Now even they have been discontinued.
In the movie “Apollo 13,” Tom Hanks, portraying Cmdr. Jim Lovell, says that abandoning manned space exploration would be like Columbus discovering the New World and then never going back. That seems to be what has occurred.
And it is not like Americans to do that. When Europeans landed on our eastern shores, they were not satisfied until they had trekked all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Our ancestors wanted to know what was out there and their curiosity led to important new discoveries.
It took this country little more than a decade to go from exploratory rocket science to putting a man on the moon. Forty-five years later we have gone no further. In fact, we haven’t even been back to the moon in more than four decades.
Yes, we have put a rover on Mars, one that photographs the landscape and gives us hints about what is on that planet, but that’s not the same as being there and seeing for ourselves. Who knows what startling discoveries an astronaut would make on the red planet?
Perhaps we don’t push forward because there is no pressure. We split the atom and built the bomb within a period of four years because of the pressures of World War II. And, in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik, the first space satellite, we made it to the moon in record time.
Oh, we can say that tax dollars would be better spent on finding cures for terrible diseases than for going back to the moon
or to Mars. The truth is, however, that Washington likely spends 10 times the money on wars as it does on trying to cure cancer.
We went to the moon for the first time 45 years ago. Forty-two years later a manned mission has not pushed past the international space station.
That needs to change.
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