Last week I saw the documentary film In the Shadow of the Moon, which chronicles the NASA manned missions to the moon, from Apollo 8 (the first manned lunar orbit), through Apollo 11 (the first manned lunar landing), to Apollo 17 (the last landing, and last flight in the Apollo program). The movie includes stories and commentary from a number of the Apollo astronauts, including Apollo 11’s Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin (but not Neil Armstrong, who prefers to stay out of the public eye), and Apollo 8 and 13’s Jim Lovell.
The real star of the show was Michael Collins, the one who stayed in the command module while his colleagues walked on the moon. General Collins appeared to get the most screen time, and had wonderful eyes and facial expressions, and a delightful manner. He told us a lot about what it was like to be in the Apollo program and on a moon mission... and when asked whether he was resentful of having to stay in space, and never getting to the moon itself, he said no, that it wouldn’t have been his choice, but that there was no resentment.
For me, the whole movie was a trip down memory lane. I was a child in the 1960s — 12 years old when Michael Collins orbited the moon — and I knew all about the space program, the astronauts, the solar system. My father hoped I’d be a doctor, but I wanted to be an astronaut. I watched all the televised launches, EVAs, and moon-walks. Living in south Florida, I could often see the distant Saturn V rockets as they climbed from the Kennedy Space Center. I’d watch the launch on TV, and then run outside to look for it in the northern sky.
The documentary delighted me. And as I watched it, I almost forgot that the Apollo program and NASA’s manned space exploration ended in late 1972, and has not been revived since; my dream of being an astronaut died along with Apollo. The Pioneer and Voyager probes were exciting too, but even they were launched in the 1970s, and, of course, are unmanned. We’ve gone 35 years without sending a person out of Earth orbit.
And this week, Dennis Overbye reminds us of that in an essay in the New York Times, entitled “One Giant Leap, Followed by Decades of Baby Steps”:
Some space age. It has been 35 years since anybody was on the Moon, or more than 300 miles from Earth, for that matter. NASA says it will be 2020 before astronauts get back to the Moon, meaning that it will have taken twice as long this time from presidential declaration (Bush in 2003) to actual landing than the first time around, when President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that America would land on the Moon within the decade, and Apollo 11 launched eight years later. You are free to make your own guesses about Mars.
At least we now have the Phoenix heading to Mars — launched almost two months ago, and slated to land on Mars in time for next Memorial Day — so that’s something. And we can certainly argue that there are better ways to spend our money than to shoot it off into space.
But there are lots of worse ways and places to shoot our money, as we well know. And it’s sad that we’ve let curiosity, adventure, and exploration fall away like a stage of a Saturn V rocket.
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
’til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home,
Oh, no, no, no.
I’m a rocket man,
A rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone...
—— Bernie Taupin, “Rocket Man” lyrics
I wanted to be a spaceman
That's what I wanted to be
But now that I am a spaceman
Nobody cares about me
Hey mother earth, won't you bring me back down
Safely to the sea
But around and around and around and around
Is just a lot of lunacy
—— Harry Nilsson, “Spaceman” lyrics
You will be chosen some day to go to the moon, because in school you took up space.
—— A fortune cookie I once got