Monday, November 25, 2013

The Man and the Moon: Tribute to JFK

I wanted to continue on the theme of President John F. Kennedy's inspiration of our space program, which Donna started with her excellent blog on Friday, Look Up To See Kennedy's True Legacy.

I remember the day John F. Kennedy died. I remember the grim expression on my teacher's face as she explained to her young charges that the president of our country had been shot and killed earlier that day in Dallas. I remember our teacher and principle running a length of black ribbon around the edges of the American flag that hung on the wall in our classroom. I remember seeing a very solemn Walter Cronkite on the evening news, remove his glasses to announce the death of President John F. Kennedy. But mostly I remember the deep grief and sadness and fear in the eyes of adults, and not grasping the weight that this moment would play in my life, or in our Nation's history.

Photo credit: NASA
Before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy had set a goal to reach the Moon before the end of the decade. In just eight short years, and in spite of his death (and maybe even to some degree because of it), our country strived forward and did the impossible...we put footprints on the Moon!

In fact, it was more than just a set of human footprints. It was twelve unique sets. And it happened over the course of three-and-one-half years and seven missions.

For me, President John F. Kennedy's Eternal Flame is not the one that burns by his grave, but the fire of achievement he ignited in the heart of America.

Reaching the Moon was not an easy task, it was a monumental struggle and despite what appears to be a lightning fast timeline in hindsight--the way was fraught with setbacks and tragedies. This is a brief summary of the amazing strides we accomplished in those very few, very short years.

The Mercury Program: All the Right Stuff

When John F. Kennedy made his historic proclamation, the Mercury program was just underway and our nation had managed all of 20 minutes of spaceflight experience. Twenty minutes!

His words were earthshaking. It was the equivalent of creating a toy boat to float in a nearby creek and then declare we could build a modern battleship...and do it in less than a decade!

The Mercury Program involved six missions and lasted about two years, from May 1961 to May 1963, sending six members of the original Mercury Seven astronauts into space. Each mission was successful, but not without hazards, malfunctions and close calls. Alan Shepard's first flight answered critical questions about if humans would be able to breathe or swallow and perform basic tasks in orbit. No one was certain of the answer until he proved it could be done.

To boldy go, indeed!

The Gemini Missions: Partnerships in Space

The development of a newer, bigger rocket for the Gemini missions was not something that breathed confidence into the next band of pioneers into space. The truth is many of the initial tests were disasters, with the rockets exploding shortly after takeoff or while on the launch pad. Despite the setbacks, the space program forged ahead.

On April 8, 1964 we launched the first Gemini mission, and for the first time, American astronauts didn't venture into space alone. Twelve missions, which lasted until the final Gemini launch on November 11, 1966 (with Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin aboard), greatly expanded our capabilities in space.

Gemini saw the first space walk by astronaut Ed White on June 3, 1965 during the Gemini 4 mission. Astronaut White would later perish along with Mercury Seven astronaut Gus Grissom and astronaut Roger Chaffee in a launchpad test of the Apollo 1 capsule. It wouldn't be the last tragedy of our space program, but it would be the last in our bold quest to reach the Moon.

The Dawn of Apollo

As the Gemini program came to a close, the Apollo missions were ready to take center stage. After the fire disaster that killed the three astronauts in the Apollo 1 capsule on January 27, 1967, there were several unmanned Apollo launches before the first manned launch of Apollo 7, which orbited the Earth but did not reach lunar orbit, was launched on October 11, 1968, just a little over a year before the end of the decade goal to reach the Moon.

Apollo 8, 9 and 10 missions, beginning on December 21, 1968 and ending with the launch of Apollo 10--the so-called Moon Landing Dress Rehearsal--from May 18-26, 1969, included two mission to achieve lunar orbit, and even a LM deployment to a height of 50,000 feet over the lunar surface, but no landing.

At the successful close of the Apollo 10 mission, the clock was ticking down to a little less than six months remaining in the decade to achieve the goal set by the late President Kennedy...

Missions to the Moon: Footprints in Time

Photo credit NASA
The first Mission to the Moon was Apollo 11, the journey which gave us Neil Armstrong's historic words, "That's one small step for man..." Like the death of President Kennedy, it was a "Where were you when..." moment in history--a memory which those of us who were alive to experience it, will never forget.

Once again, Walter Cronkite removed his glasses, but this time with an expression not of shock or grief, but unmasked enthusiasm for the event he witnessed. We'd put a man on the Moon! And we'd done it in the timeframe that JFK has proposed, before the decade ended. It was July 1969.

An overview of the seven Moon missions and those who left footprints in time:

Apollo 11 - Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing July 21, 1969 at Tranquility Base

Apollo 12 - Pete Conrad and Alan Bean beginning November 19, 1969 landing near Surveyor 3 craft

Apollo 13 - Jim Lovell and his crew's Moon landing was scrubbed due to an oxygen tank explosion

Apollo 14 - Alan Shephard and Edgar Mitchell landed Februrary 5, 1971, Frau Mauro region

Apollo 15 - David Scott and James Irwin landed July 15, 1971 in Hadley Rille area

Apollo 16 - John Young and Charles Duke, April 21-23, 1972 on the lunar highlands

Apollo 17 - Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidt landed December 11, 1972, returning December 19th

Twelve men walked on the Moon, all inspired by one man's vision and foresight.

We have not returned to the Moon in almost 41 years. We don't even have the capability to return to the Moon now, and haven't had the ability for decades. We, as a nation, have made a monumental backslide from that summit of achievement, now to an almost non-existant manned space program.

Though there may be brighter days ahead for space exploration, I don't think we will ever again see the pinnacle of achievement we reached over 40 years ago...

Because of the words of one great man.

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