The Gift of Apollo

The Moon was a metaphor for the unattainable: "You might as well ask for the Moon," they used to say. Or "You can no more do that than fly to the Moon." [...]

Footprint on the Moon The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, have made those odd bounding motions they called "moonwalks" on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava--beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured back. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit-- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother's skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the Solar System. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened? What was Apollo really about?

The scope and audacity of John Kennedy's May 25, 1961, message to a joint session of Congress on "Urgent National Needs" -- the speech that launched the Apollo program-- dazzled me. We would use rockets not yet designed and alloys not yet conceived, navigation and docking systems not yet devised, in order to send a man to an unknown world--a world not yet explored, not even in a preliminary way, not even by robots-- and we would bring him safely back, and we would do it before the decade was over. This confident pronouncement was made before any American had even achieved Earth orbit.

Planting of the flag As a newly minted Ph.D., I actually thought all this had something centrally to do with science. But the President did not talk about discovering the origin of the Moon, or even about bringing samples of it back for study. All he seemed to be interested in was sending someone there and bringing him home. It was a kind of gesture. [...]

The Apollo program is really about politics, others told me. This sounded more promising. Nonaligned nations would be tempted to drift toward the Soviet Union if it was ahead in space exploration, if the United States showed insufficient "national vigor." It didn't follow. Here was the United States, ahead of the Soviet Union in virtually every area of technology--the world's economic, military, and, on occasion, even moral leader--and Indonesia would go Communist because Yuri Gagarin beat John Glenn to Earth orbit? What's so special about space technology? Suddenly I understood.

Apollo 11 liftoff Sending people to orbit the Earth or robots to orbit the Sun requires rockets-- big, reliable, powerful rockets. Those same rockets can be used for nuclear war. The same technology that transports a man to the Moon can carry nuclear warheads halfway around the world. [...] Of course strategic rockets were already tested on Earth. But having a ballistic missile with a dummy warhead into a target zone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean doesn't buy much glory. Sending people to space captures the attention and imagination of the world.

You wouldn't spend the money to launch astronauts for this reason alone, but of all the ways of demonstrating rocket potency, this one works best. It was a rite of national manhood; the shape of the boosters made this point readily understood without anyone actually having to explain it. The communication seemed to be transmitted from unconscious mind to unconscious mind without the higher mental faculties catching a whiff of what was going on. [...]

For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the Moon. It reads: "We came in peace for all mankind." As the United States was dropping 7.5 megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity: We would harm no one on a lifeless rock.

The plaque attached to the Lunar Module That plaque is there still, attached to the base of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, on the airless desolation of the Sea of Tranquility. If no one disturbs it, it will still be readable a million years from now.

Six more missions followed Apollo 11, all but one of which successfully landed on the lunar surface. Apollo 17 was the first to carry a scientist. As soon as he got there, the program was canceled. The first scientist and the last human to land on the Moon were the same person. The program has already served its purpose that July night in 1969. The half-dozen subsequent missions were just momentum.

Apollo was not mainly about science. It was not even mainly about space. Apollo was about ideological confrontation and nuclear war--often described by such euphemisms as world "leadership" and national "prestige." Nevertheless, good space science was done. We now know more about the composition, age, and history of the Moon and the origin of the lunar landforms. We have made progress in understanding where the Moon came from. Some of us have used lunar cratering statistics to better understand the Earth at the time of the origin of life. But more important than any of this, Apollo provided an aegis, an umbrella under which brilliantly engineered robot spacecraft were dispatched throughout the Solar System, making that preliminary reconnaissance of dozens of worlds. The offspring of Apollo have now reached the planetary frontiers.

Cassini orbiter If not for Apollo--and, therefore, if not for the political purpose it served--I doubt whether the historic American expeditions of exploration and discovery throughout the Solar System would have occurred. The Mariners, Vikings, Pioneers, Voyagers, and Galileo are among the gifts of Apollo. Magellan and Cassini are more distant descendants. Something similar is true for the pioneering Soviet efforts in Solar System exploration, including the first soft landings of robot spacecraft-- Luna 9, Mars 3, Venera 8 --on other worlds.

Apollo conveyed a confidence, energy, and breadth of vision that did capture the imagination of the world. That too was part of its purpose. It inspired an optimism about technology, and enthusiasm for the future. If we could fly to the Moon, as so many have asked, what else were we capable of? Even those who opposed the policies and actions of the United States--even those who thought the worst of us-- acknowledged the genius and heroism of the Apollo program. With Apollo, the United States touched greatness.

Earth as photographed by Apollo 17 When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what's in store for you. The Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon photographed their home planet. It was a natural thing to do, but it had consequences that few foresaw. For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see their world from above--the whole of Earth, the Earth in color, the Earth as an exquisite spinning white and blue ball set against the vast darkness of space. Those images helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness. They provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet. They remind us of what is important and what is not. They were the harbingers of Voyager's pale blue dot.

We may have found that perspective just in time, just as our technology threatens the habitability of our world. Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected final gift of Apollo. What began in deadly competition has helped us to see that global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival.

Travel is broadening.

It's time to hit the road again.

Excerpt from Carl Sagan (1994, pp.206-215)
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
New York: Random House

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