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BBHQ Boomer Essays:

To the Moon!

Our Boomer-In-Charge at BBHQ, Hershel Chicowitz, writes about boomer memories and current events... from a boomer's perspective. He is sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, some-
times a little of each. We hope you get a kick out of our Boomer Essays.

In the 21st century, space travel seems so routine and natural. But in the 1960s, it was all a huge mystery. A trip to the moon (and back) would take at least six days. We had no idea how man would react to long-term weightlessness; we had no idea how to create a vehicle that would be able to both land on and take off from the moon. We had a hundred thousand questions, and no answers; and no idea how to get the answers. But we had to do it, and we had to do it in less than a decade.

This essay is available in its entirety to all visitors. Enjoy!

“Tranquility Base, here; the Eagle has landed.”

You probably think those are the first words spoken from the moon. Actually, they are not. See our footnote, below, for an explanation. No matter; it was the event of the century!

For thousands of years... literally, thousands of years, man had dreamed of, contemplated, and wished to go to the moon. For thousands of years, no one had the slightest idea of how to do it. Heck, the technology to put a heavier-than-air vehicle in the sky did not even exist until early in the 20th century. Sixty years later, we lived the dream of millions of people who preceded us.

In 1902, Georges Méliès, wrote and produced the first science fiction film, “A Trip to the Moon.” Though probably meant more as a work of art than a serious projection of space flight, it shows how tremendously ignorant we were at the time.

The film is 14 minutes long; we have condensed it to just a couple minutes here.

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The “space race,” which culminated in the first moon landing in 1969, ironically was an outgrowth of the cold war, the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to prove that they were the most powerful country on earth — without blowing up the earth. The U.S. had developed the first atomic bomb. But in the early 50s, the Soviets devoted enormous resources to build and deploy nuclear weapons, and jumped ahead of the U.S. Putting satellites and men into space was a natural outgrowth of this effort.

The Soviets were first to launch a satellite into space, and first to fly a man in space. Their launch vehicles were larger and far more powerful than ours. We woke up one day... and we were way behind!

On May 5, 1961, our first astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, followed the Soviet’s Yuri Gagarin by only a few weeks. But Gagarin had orbited the earth; Shepard had barely reached the edge of space.

A few weeks after Shepard’s successful space flight, the new Kennedy administration decided to challenge the country to complete a successful space landing by the end of the decade.

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The space race was on!

For a few years, it was a close race. The U.S. spent $20 billion to land a man on the moon. We allocated this money despite Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the Great Society, and the resources spent on the Vietnam War. We did not know it at the time, but the Soviet’s efforts to stay ahead on the race put a much more serious dent in the economy of the Soviet Union. Whether they wanted to or not, Soviet citizens paid a high price so that their country could stay in the race.

As President Reagan put it years later: “We win; they lose.”

In the 21st century, space travel seems so routine and natural. But in the 1960s, it was all a huge mystery. A trip to the moon (and back) would take at least six days. We had no idea how man would react to long-term weightlessness; we had no idea how to create a vehicle that would be able to both land on and take off from the moon. We had a hundred thousand questions, and no answers; and no idea how to get the answers. But we had to do it, and we had to do it in less than a decade.

Even the assassination of the president who challenged his country to go to the moon did not deter us. Nor did the death of three U.S. astronauts on the launch pad during a training session.

We all watched the progress of the space race. Most of us were fascinated by it. But in fact, few of us were directly involved in it. It was our tax dollars; it was our country. But we were not actually there at the space center. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm of the space program, the “can-do” attitude, and the optimism of the period affected all of us. It is this optimism and positive spirit that seems to be missing today, despite the successful continuation of the space program.

The Mercury program got us off the ground... literally. The Gemini program built the backbone for a moon landing. And the Apollo series put it all together. Apollo 11 was scheduled to land a man on the moon.

Apollo 11 took off on July 16, 1969. Aboard were Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong. All three U.S. television networks and a thousand other radio and television stations covered the launch. It was spectacular!

Three and a half tension-filled days later, Aldrin and Armstrong separated from the command module and headed for the moon. The television pictures they sent back were fuzzy and sporadic, but we were all glued to the television.

And we all remember the words, “Tranquility Base here; the Eagle has landed.”1 NASA kept it quiet that the Eagle overshot its intended landing site by four miles, and had less than 15 seconds of fuel left when it touched down. But at the time, none of that mattered. The U.S. had landed men on the moon.

We learned... we heard that Neil Armstrong said the first words after the moon landing. But this is not technically true. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke the first words from the lunar surface as he called out navigation data from descent to touchdown. The technical jargon from Aldrin was: “Contact light. Ok, engine stop. ACA, out of detent. Mode control, both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.”

Perhaps that’s not terribly historic-sounding... but those are actually the first words a human spoke on another world!

Now you know.

The television networks provided continuous coverage. But for some reason, the first walk on the moon could not take place for a few hours. It would occur some time in the middle of the night on the east coast. NASA could not be pinned down to an exact time. There were no home VCRs at the time; we could not just pop a tape in the VCR and watch it in the morning. So the television networks told us to turn the volume down low and go to sleep with the TV on. When the time came, they would blast a loud signal to wake us up. Yes; it was that exciting; it was that special!

So tens of millions of us were up for much of the night to hear those words that are now so familiar: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” 2 Early on the morning of July 21, 1969, man walked on the moon!

Afterwards, Neil Armstrong maintained that he had said, “That’s one small step for a man...” but that one word had gotten lost in the transmission.
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I was one of them. I was glued to the television set. And when they planted the flag on the moon, I got out my camera and took this picture. The shot is not very clear, but that’s part of its charm. This is a Polaroid shot of a black and white TV picture of a scene from a quarter of a million miles away:

For us, the trip home was anti-climactic. But there were still numerous challenges ahead for the three astronauts and the ground crew. Will the lunar module rocket blast off properly? It had been tested on earth... but this was not earth.... this was the moon! Will they be able to dock with the lunar orbiter correctly? And re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere is always a dangerous maneuver. A million things could still go wrong.

But on this unforgettable journey, the fates were with us. The flight back to Earth and the landing was nearly perfect. 198 hours and 18 minutes after it began, the most famous expedition in history came to a successful end. Man returned from a trip... to the moon.


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