Among the millions of words written about the 1960s Moon Race between USA and USSR, one word that once exemplified the spirit of those times is finally coming back into today’s 21st Century space endeavors: Dream.
The conquest of the Moon was very much a climax for dreamers. America proved with the Apollo space program that there is a human curiosity to pursue dreams. The bigger the dream the more it triggers all of mankind’s attention.
Dreams, large and small, have dominated the history of our great nation.
America’s founding fathers dreamed of a country founded on morals and the premise that all men are created equal. The curiosity about the West Coast sent dreaming settlers pushing toward the Pacific. There was the flight of the “dreamer” Charles Lindbergh and his historic airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Finally the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969 fulfilled an ultimate dream of mankind.
Today there are three more big dreamers joining NASA who want to go to Mars, the Moon and beyond: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Orbital ATK.
A new era in space exploration is happening in 2017. Florida’s Space Coast, centered on Kennedy Space Center, is alive. Private industry construction is exploding on the government property around NASA, building new generation rockets and manned spaceships for missions back to the Moon, Mars and even asteroids.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK have already become major players in sending supply ships to the orbiting International Space Station. Blue Origin is building a massive facility for their rockets and manned spaceship within eyesight of the KSC visitor center.
All this dreaming is in strong contrast to the celebration this week of the 45th anniversary of NASA’s fifth successful Moon landing by the astronauts of Apollo 16 on April 20, 1972.
The three-day scientific exploration of the Moon by Apollo 16 garnered little attention by the public despite proving why humans are necessary for exploration of extraterrestrial worlds. There was minimal live coverage after the landing, and Americans were only reminded of the moonwalkers during regular newscasts on radio, television and the inside pages of newspapers.
Apollo 16 was one of the most important of the six successful Moon landings, overcoming in-flight technical obstacles and discovering a landing site completely different than what geologists had predicted.
The moon rocks of shattered breccias and anorthosites picked up by the two Apollo 16 moonwalkers were a surprise from the predicted igneous rocks of volcanism.
That was the main discovery of Apollo 16—that scientists were wrong with the prediction that the Descartes Mountains were formed by volcanism with the Cayley Plains flooded by lava.
Geologists watched on TV as the moonwalkers picked up rocks disproving their volcanism theory, vindication of why humans explore to seek the truth.
The American dream of scientific bases on the Moon and eventual commercialization to the ultimate vacation lunar “get-away” were tarnished by the reality of three Apollo 13 astronauts’ dangerous brush with death from April 11-17, 1970, two years before Apollo 16.
Indeed, it was American ingenuity and the classic “can do” attitude that brought Apollo 13 safely home after an oxygen tank explosion crippled the life support system of the Apollo command spaceship Odyssey half-way to the Moon. Using their moonship Aquarius built for two, the three astronauts survived near freezing temperatures, suffocating carbon dioxide, and dangerously low power levels.
Apollo 13 was the third attempt at landing on the Moon, following the epic Apollo 11 landing and later that year the Apollo 12 touchdown on Nov. 19 next to an unmanned lander sent 18 months earlier.
While the world watched Apollo 11 with incredible intensity, just four months later the thrill seemed to be gone as the pinpoint landing of Apollo 12 garnered just a fraction of the attention. It didn’t help that during the second Moon landing there was no live coverage of the moonwalks as the portable television camera was rendered useless when accidentally pointed to the Sun.
The Apollo 14 moon landing on Feb 5, 1971, was a confidence builder, repeating the intended Apollo 13 mission to the Frau Mauro valley and fulfilling a dream of original Mercury astronaut and moonwalker Alan Shepard.
On July 30, 1971, Apollo 15 landed beside a huge, wandering lava bed to begin the first, three-day scientific exploration with the mobility of a lunar car. Those moonwalkers brought back the “Genesis Rock,” a 4 billion-year-old piece of the Solar System’s creation.
By the time Apollo 16 rocketed off launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on April 16, 1972, Apollos 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled by the US Congress and the public apathy toward the dream of a permanent lunar outpost was at an all-time high. Americans were jaded by a 1970s-valued $40 billion-plus price tag for the Moon Race and questions about the tangible rewards on Earth.
And, keep in mind, during NASA’s quest for the Moon, the U.S. Congress also financed the expensive and divisive Vietnam War, while Americans struggled with racial strife and inequality in their own backyards.
When Apollo 16 landed on the Moon on April 20, 1972, America’s space dreams had shifted to the Space Shuttle, which was still on the drawing board. Commander John Young, now 86, was on his fourth spaceflight, and would be standing on the Moon during the last of three excursions outside of moonship Orion when the NASA Capsule Communicator told him Congress had okayed funding for the dream of a reusable Space Transportation System, aka the Space Shuttle. Space hero Young didn’t realize that nine years later on April 12, 1981, he would be the commander of the maiden voyage of Columbia—another of America’s bold dreams in the Space Age.
Young and his moon-walking mate, Charlie Duke, 81, explored the lunar highlands area called Descartes, camping out in their moonship Orion for three days and driving their Lunar Rover for 17 miles in a serious scientific exploration in the middle of a mountain range.
The intense geology training on Earth paid off for the Apollo 16 astronauts as they were at first puzzled not to find the predicted igneous rocks, and instead found rocks brought up from the upheaval of the Descartes Mountains. The 211 pounds of lunar rock, dirt and core samples were a scientific bonanza that is still being analyzed four decades later.
When the final Apollo 17 moon voyage landed Dec. 11, 1972 with Gene Cernan, deceased, and rookie Harrison Schmitt, 81, NASA’s dreams had shifted from Moon bases to a space truck. The dream of the Space Transportation System was for reusable Space Shuttle orbiters to pay for themselves by hauling commercial satellites and experiments into low Earth orbit.
That dream literally blew up with the Space Shuttle Challenger launch explosion on Jan. 26, 1986. The expensive and inefficient Space Transportation System was revealed to be too complex and dangerous as a reliable parcel service to outer space. Instead it became the only way to build the incomparable, $100 billion International Space Station.
Now with the Space Shuttle retired after 30 years, 133 successful flights and two disasters, America is without a manned spacecraft. NASA’s dream now is building the six-person Orion spacecraft for use hopefully by 2020.
Today the big dreamers are the three private space companies—Space X, Blue Origin and Orbital ATK—all vying for their manned spaceships to fly to the International Space Station, the Moon and Mars.
For the 21st Century Space Age, there is still much to dream about.