Let's Keep Dreaming

Apollo 11's Achievement Was Not To Answer Our Questions But To Deepen Our Wonder

July 20, 2009|By Ernest F. Imhoff

I was watching the bright half-moon last week, slowly fading in the light of the morning sun.

The space program has grown opaque in the same way after two Apollo 11 astronauts first walked on the moon 40 years ago today. It even came to seem half a program. The shuttle stagecoaches in Earth orbit have attracted less and less national interest except when the Challenger exploded in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.

I was at Cape Kennedy four days before the Apollo 11 liftoff. In a predawn hour, Neil Armstrong, Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins walked past us going to work, carrying their air conditioners. They smiled and nodded to the waiting press corps. It was so routine - and so amazing.

The three brave, confident pilots would soon fly to another heavenly body; two would try to explore the lunar soil on foot, while the third circled in wait to pick them up.

Hope was in the air. Tension, too. We were getting paid as reporters filing stories stuffed with facts, yet I wondered - without writing it - would we ever see these guys alive again? Would two actually land and walk safely on the moon? Would all three return home?

Astronauts had already died in accidents. I once stood near a friendly Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom at the Martin Marietta Co. in Middle River, where his Titan II launch vehicle was being readied for two-man Gemini trips in space. Not long after that, on Jan. 27, 1967, Mr. Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee were killed in a flash fire in their Apollo I capsule during a simulation on the ground.

The answer to my private questions was "yes." Apollo 11 was a hugely successful human adventure. They flew the hardware well, they bounced around on the moon, they collected rocks, they took pictures and they came back alive. Other Apollo missions learned more and more.

Yet there was a vague letdown after all the hoopla. What did it mean?

Space, in my mind, was more than a great news story or beating the Russians or fancy rocketry. Space was a realm to dream about. Buck Rogers was a dud for me as a boy, but Copernicus was cool. Learning real things was fun; I found out the Polish astronomer turned the world on its head by overturning an old theory that we were the center of the universe. He said we're a speck of dust in the geographic scheme of things.

There's fun, too, when mystery lurks. Of course, some questions have answers we can know and others may never.

Is there life out there? What kind? If we find it, beyond the certainty of some evidence and much guesswork, will it be so far away or so primitive that it makes little practical difference to us here?

How much money and human risk can we spend to justify it for knowledge, poetry, spirituality and adventure?

Will those radio telescopes ever capture signals from extraterrestrial intelligence? A best-selling 1960s book by Walter Sullivan, sure of confirmation, declared, We Are Not Alone. To some, it's still a question.

It took billions of years to cook our life and our Earth into what they are today. Might not the conditions for Earth life, developed over eons, be so unusual that we may be in fact alone?

Anyway, what's wrong with being alone? We've done it for a long while, and we've created wonderful things. Of course, we're also ruining our nest - and we can't leave soon.

(My dreams and comprehension have limits. I may never understand that black hole business.)

In the exhaust of the Apollo liftoffs, promoters said Mars would be the next big step for mankind. In a mechanical way, it was and is. It has been a fine frontier for scientists and technicians to send unmanned landers and rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Unmanned probes elsewhere also yield good results. Images of Saturn and Jupiter are celestial artwork. Hubble's photographic universe is thrilling. This kind of exploration feeds dreams as well as science.

In retrospect, the moon was an easy target for space-faring humans. In comparison, Mars is far more distant, difficult and costly with its complicated planning (back to the moon first), nine-month voyage and return scenario.

Beyond Mars, space is an endless ocean. Against that, our small and shallow seven seas, our four little corners of the Earth and Christopher Columbus seem unsuited for metaphors of exploration and extraterrestrial colonization.

Generations and decades may come before humans walk for the first time on another planet, long after they strolled for the first time in 1969 on a lunar satellite. A national debate would be needed.

Until then, let those big-ear telescopes keep listening and those clever machines keep sending pictures, observations and material for dreamers.

A dreamer doesn't forget Pioneer 10. The spacecraft left earth in 1972 and departed our solar system a decade later. It has stopped sending signals but keeps trucking on, headed toward the red star Aldebaran. It may get there in 2 million years.

Ernest F. Imhoff is a retired Evening Sun and Sun reporter and editor who covered the space program in the 1960s. His e-mail is ernimhoff@aol.com.

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