Aim For The Moon: The Space Program That Inspired a Generation of Scientists

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

— President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

“Houston, this is Alpha II, we are good for launch,” I said, moving away from my rocket. “4, 3, 2, 1. Launch!” As my Estes rocket blasted high into the sky I followed the parachute until I found it lying on the ground, payload intact: a plastic army man. Like Homer Hickam in October Sky, I learned to design, build, and launch small rockets, including mastering the physics of flight, the engineering of rocket ships, and the chemistry of rocket fuel. All inspired by America’s race to land on the moon. I was 12 years old and those experiences propelled me into a career as a scientist years later.

The day we landed on the moon was epic. It was after 10pm on a balmy summer night in Virginia in 1969 and I sat glued to my small black and white TV.  For 15 agonizing minutes, I watched as Neil Armstrong slowly made his way down the lunar ladder towards the surface of the moon. I ran between my TV and my telescope aimed at the moon, imagining what it was like. Finally, the moment arrived as Armstrong placed his foot on the surface and I screamed in joy. The next day I designed and launched more rockets.

My career, and my broad interests in science, were inspired by America’s race to the moon. Between 1961 and 1972, I grew up watching the space missions of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The astronauts were my heroes and I loved the technology. As a kid, those were magical times and they taught me to believe in the impossible. I’ve been a scientist now for 40 years and it’s hard to underestimate the power of those heady days to inspire my career trajectory. I can clearly trace the roots of my interests in science to those spectacular years when we trained the astronauts and developed the technology to land on the moon. Indeed, as I recently watched original footage from the Apollo 11 mission I shuddered once again at America’s amazing scientific achievement.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Kennedy’s challenge to congress in 1961 to walk on the moon by the end of the decade was audacious. At that time the first astronaut, Alan Shepard in Mercury 3, had only spent 15 minutes in space, launched using a modified Cold War ICBM. Nobody had orbited the Earth, there were no multistage rockets, no space walks, and no docking maneuvers. The idea of landing on the moon so quickly was fraught with risks. NASA flight director Chris Kraft had doubts about successfully landing on the moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong put the odds at 50/50, and and President Nixon had a letter prepared in case the astronauts died on the moon. But despite the tragedies of Apollo 1, or perhaps because of it, men walked on the moon in the summer of 1969. And for one bright brilliant moment the world was one and everyone basked in human’s ability to accomplish the impossible.

By today’s standards, the technology was simple and largely untested. A modern cellphone has a million times the power of the computers on the mission and everything was double-checked by hand using slide rules ( I used them until the late 1970s). The book Digital Apollo chronicles the prolonged struggles of computer designers, software engineers, and test pilots to successfully integrate test pilots with the new and complex integrated circuits needed for the lunar landings. At that time most computers were the size of a room. So NASA — working with MIT and Fairchild Semiconductor — created the purse-sized Apollo Guidance Computer that operated on just 72KB of memory (most cell phones have at least 64GB, where 1 GB = 1 million KB).

Yet by sheer will and the technological prowess of over 400,000 scientists and engineers, NASA designed, built, tested, and ran the space program and was able to complete 21 manned space missions including five lunar explorations (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16). The pace was furious and in the late 1960s, the Apollo program was launching humans into space every 2-3 months. Although the vast majority of the people that helped make Apollo a reality were men, women played key roles in the mathematics, physics, and on mission control staff, but their roles were hidden and underplayed.

Men in white shirts and skinny ties largely ran the Apollo program. Photo: NASA.
Engineer Poppy Northcutt at NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, in 1969. Photo: NASA.
Katherine Johnson doing the math that made Apollo possible. Photos; NASA.

And although I was extremely disappointed when we pulled back from further manned missions to the moon after Apollo, (I thought we’d be on Mars by the 1970s), I’ve cheered for NASA as they continued their amazing scientific achievements using 450 Robotic spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. Since Apollo, they have landed on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and several comets and asteroids including fly-bys of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And what we have learned about the Earth and our solar system since the 1970s has been stunning.

In all, the US spent $25 billion on Apollo and an average of $8.3 billion a year for space-based piloted spacecraft, <1% of the federal budget. Today, NASA’s budget is < 0.5% of the budget. Looking back, what price can you put on launching an entire generation of scientists ? Personally, the recent resurgence in manned missions to the Moon and Mars have reinvigorated my passion for spaceflight and astronomy and have inspired me to write a science fiction novel. I believe we need another Moonshot, or a similar and ongoing challenge in America, to stimulate interest in science, math, and engineering to inspire present and future generations.

“[S]cientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to government. Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress, we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.

Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1945.

For the last decades America has underestimated, and subsequently not supported, the role of science in our modern society. As a result, there has been a decline in scientific education and a decline in interest in the sciences. Instead of being a leader as we were in the 1960s, America now lags behind other countries in math and science, testing out in the middle of the pack. We have lost our global leadership. As the generation inspired by the Apollo missions moves into retirement, who will step up to keep the USA’s edge in our rapidly changing technological world?

The dichotomy that we need to spend more on domestic programs, or focus our efforts on climate change, not on space exploration, is a false one as the value of strong science in our democracy is pervasive. The truth is that every dollar spent on space programs is paid back and generates multi-fold returns to our economy every year (anyone use digital cameras, GPS, or eat freeze-dried food?). Sure, climate change is a major threat that deserves substantial economic attention with support from a global coalition, but our country can easily afford to sustain both efforts as we take care of our home planet and reach for the stars. Maybe humans need to leave the Earth to save it.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first walk on the moon, let’s aim higher and create another Moonshot goal, such as mission to Mars. Through more investments in space, we can inspire a new generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers and regain America’s preeminence in technology. Right now there are 12-year-old kids staring at the stars and dreaming of space travel just like I did in 1969. What do we want for their future?


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