Moonshot

Apollo_11_bootprint

There are many things that give me pause or outright fill me with wonder. I’m going to write about a couple of them here. After all, finding the truly awesome, the outright wonderful, is really what all school is about. I know– that’s not what your parents or college counselors want to hear, right? But if you find the tools to seek out and register the awesome– the truly wonder-ful, your life will never be dull. Name me a better skill to have than that, and I’ll cultivate it.

The first thing that continually inspires awe reactivates whenever I happen to look up at the Moon. When that happens, I still remember that we– human beings– went there nearly fifty years ago. We went, we saw, and we returned – no conquest, just shared knowledge. We did it, ultimately, simply because we decided to go. The second thing in which I find a different sort of wonder is this: thirty years after we went to the Moon, many folks began to deny it.

I am using “wonder” here in a fairly strict sense, although it has a lot of the every-day meaning built in. Let’s start with something fairly basic to illustrate what I mean. Go outside one night and look up at the stars. We’ll assume you do this on a clear night and you’re living in a place that isn’t too smoggy to see them. In their own right, most of us will agree that they’re lovely. If you doubt that, ask Vincent Van Gogh or any number of poets. Now let’s add a bit of what my college physics advisor used to call “exact imagination.” Every pinpoint of light that you see is a set of electrons, dancing in the recesses of your eye in response to an infinitesimal jiggle of the space-time continuum, the very fabric of the Universe itself. That jiggle in turn originated another set of dancing electrons years or decades or even millennia ago in some star thousands of light-years away. The stars themselves are known to be the cauldrons that cook up virtually all the elements of which we are formed. In glancing at starlight, you are literally plugging into the ultimate network of information– the way the Universe keeps track of itself. Do you need to know a lot of facts and theories to appreciate this? No, no more than what I’ve said here. Does knowing that much and being willing to tap into the awe it inspires help me get through the day? Sometimes, absolutely. Does it diminish my sense of the stars’ beauty? Quite the opposite.

Since no one has deputized me to speak for all mankind, I’ll simply assert that most humans have been fascinated with the sun, planets, moon and the stars pretty literally since we’ve been human. The moon was especially attractive– after all, we’ve known it is “close” since at least the Ionian and Attic Greeks some 2400 years ago, and it wasn’t a huge leap of the intellect once the Wright Brothers got out of the bike shop to be thinking about visiting our neighbor. There were lots of reasons in the mix, but it was ultimately to that fascination that President Kennedy appealed when he declared into existence, essentially out of nothing, a program to land men on the Moon within the decade– about the same amount of time some of you will spend in high school and college. Nowadays we tend to be rather blasé about political speeches and declarations; after all, if we paid attention to them, we’d almost definitely go crazy or elevate our blood pressure to dangerous levels. But in 1961, after this country had packed a man into a can and shot him into space for fifteen minutes, it got everyone’s attention. There was certainly other news throughout that decade – Vietnam, dire need for civil rights activism, urban decay and the hippy “tune in, turn on, drop out” movement among them. But despite triumphs and setbacks, the drive to the Moon was never very far out of anyone’s picture anywhere in the country.

With all this said, I suppose it is time for a disclaimer. You’ll have noticed I am speaking of the Lunar landings as a fact. It happened, as far as I am concerned. I was too young to be a participant in any meaningful way– I was exactly your ages when we were putting people on the Moon. But I had eyes and ears and back then news agencies actually discussed news. I watched industries come into being, saw technology develop– sometimes literally got to watch it as I visited places where the work was happening– and above all, I could appreciate the way all the pieces fit together to reach the grand goal. I am not going to try to convince you otherwise here. I simply want to convey something of what it was like to grow up with a gigantic dream shared by millions, and then see it realized. For technical details on the “hoax or no?” question, the Mythbusters team did a brilliant job making the case for real landings. Search YouTube for “Moon landings hoax;” if that doesn’t convince you, or at least rattle any case you have for “hoax,” nothing that I can say is likely to change your mind.

What I can say is this: it WAS awesome to wake up before sunrise on Christmas Eve, 1968, and hear the first report from Mission Commander Frank Borman that the Apollo 8 had successfully burned into Lunar orbit; for the first time in history, there were men whose local celestial body was not Earth. It was more than breathtaking: it was glorious and heartbreaking when, a few hours before midnight of Christmas day, the three members of the Apollo 8 read the opening lines of Genesis while looking down on a place which has always been waste and void, and spoke of what it was like to look at the frail blue planet in the distance. There was pride in their voices, and loneliness and awe that goes, I guess, with being further from home than anyone had ever been. A couple of hours after that, as I was coming home from midnight church services, I heard the astronauts report, “Be informed there is a Santa Claus,” confirming the telemetric data assuring their return to Earth. They caught merry hell, by the way, from NASA brass for breaking script and doing something with a religious connotation. Scripted that way, you say? Possible– but it didn’t look or feel that way then.

Fast forward seven months. On July 20, 1969, an estimated 800 million people were watching or listening to TV and radio as the first manned touchdown on the Lunar surface was made. Some half a billion people were still awake six hours later when Neil Armstrong activated a TV camera and captured the legendary “small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind,” as he stepped onto the Moon’s surface. You could hear it and see it. Nowadays anyone with Photoshop and a decent desktop machine can slap together a convincing sequence, and news media propagate stories before they’ve checked into their veracity. Back then, those technologies were just being dreamt about. It was slower to get news, but it meant more. Men who knew their fellow men, and science, and had a keen sense of when rats had crept into the story– men like Jules Bergman and Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley– were as excited as the public as these events unfolded. Those men had questioned every prevarication and sidestep and mis-judgment that NASA officials had made over the decade, but when the goods were delivered, they were not stinting in their pride and praise.

I have my own reasons, besides simply wanting to, to accept all this as real. I never got to talk to Neil Armstrong– he was always an intensely quiet man and rarely did he speak of himself when he did talk– but I have spoken to a number of other astronauts. I got to talk once with Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to crew the first three generations of NASA manned space vessels, and a participant in the first two-crew space rendezvous which validated the whole Lunar Module/Command Module Moon mission profile. I looked Dave Scott, Jim Irwin, and Al Worden in the eye when asking them about some things they’d done on the Moon or orbit thereof, when I attended a tech briefing given by the Apollo 15 crew while I was a university student; Scott had been a University of Michigan student before transferring to the US Military Academy. Either these guys were consummate pilots and explorers, or they were actors of unparalleled ability. If they were actors, they surely knew their science and engineering. I’ve never met anyone who could do all those things that well– so I settled on the most straightforward explanation: they were what they claimed to be. All of the astronauts carried immense authority in discussing technical issues, but they were also human beings. They could make you see what it was to stand and look up under Earthlight on a barren landscape, or to find the “Genesis rock,” or even to hit a golf ball under Lunar gravity for “miles and miles and miles.” (So said Al Shepherd; actually it was really only about 370 yards, but not bad for a one-handed iron shot from inside a rather restrictive space suit.)

I’m nearly done now. For those of you who wish to doubt the lunar program, I will pose a couple of last questions and move on. The first is to ask yourself how long secrets stay secret in your experience. How long do things stay secret in the Bubble? Given that, how long do you think the secret of a story of the magnitude of faking the lunar landings would really hold together? We’re not talking about convincing just a few people into fooling the rest of us. There was a huge technical backup group active on every mission, often in real-time. Those people were not beholden to NASA– they were at schools and companies all over the country and even the world. If it was phony, they’d have spent their time elsewhere; as for keeping quiet about it, ask your relatives how well any kind of gag order would have worked on college campuses in the ’60s and early ’70s and see what they think. In a related vein, I’d ask you to think whether your experience is that there really are so many people who are ready to make mockeries of their own lives– the astronaut force then and since, and their families, and their friends, and basically everyone doing rocket science for the last five decades. That includes me, by the way; either the stuff I did for NASA was a farce and a lie and I am lying to you now, or it was just the next set of steps in an ongoing development. You can’t really have it both ways. If you think I am either a fool or a liar, you are at liberty to tell me so; just be prepared for me to disagree, with whatever degree of respect your argument commands.

I said I find it a wonder that people doubt that the moonshots happened. I did, and I do. I have any number of ideas why this has happened in the last twenty years or so, but I don’t know yet which if any are “the” reason(s). I think it is at least interesting that folks only began making the case after the people who would refute it were safely dead and buried. It’s pretty easy to make your case that work wasn’t done when the people who did it are gone where they cannot answer back. I know we live in an age where it is easy for noise to be generated and presented and propagated as important information. That makes it harder to know what data is real data and what is junk. It’s also an era of unparalleled mistrust in our own government, and heaven knows that’s justified. Still, it can’t be the case that everything “they” tell us is false, or it would be our civic duty to get into the streets and start the revolution. I don’t think we’re there yet, and I am betting none of you really do either. I also know we haven’t made a lot of advances in being humane, or in understanding the workings of our own minds. If we had, we’d all be seeing fewer daily reports of shootings, slit throats, torture, and massacre. Perhaps, then, it is easier to discount a record of old achievement than it is to think of new challenges to overcome.

If that’s what drives this phenomenon, then that’s just sad. Healthy skepticism is good; it is the basis of sifting information and acting with informed judgment for all citizens, and it is the second duty of any scientist or scientist-in-training (curiosity and creativity vying for the first). Here, Dr. Miller cultivates it with great love and care and has done so for many years through the Society of Skeptics. But please note the adjective “healthy” as the operative term; disbelief simply because it is convenient or comfortable or fashionable is destructive. If you find you can’t believe in the moon landing, so be it. But don’t stop with disbelief just for the fun or ease of it. That’s just lazy and destructive, and just about the antithesis of what we’re all trying to do here at Blair.

Here’s my final challenge: find something you can believe in, and give it all you have. Not a lot of Blair students plan on lives spent in advanced technologies or science. So be it. Let whatever the stars, or the grace of an athlete, or the dimly realized idea of what cities could be to live in, or an overwhelming sense of the majesty of the law– whatever it takes– guide you to something that you can give yourself to and bring others along for the ride. Fifty-five years ago, that’s what President Kennedy asked of his countrymen– us. He died, but we gave him the Moon– in the name of all mankind. All the doubters in the world cannot retract that. So– what sort of thing would be a wonder to you?

(Copyright 2016 Dr. Michael Sayers)