(My apologies - a busy work schedule kept me from completing this piece earlier today.)
One of my earliest childhood memories is the moon landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Even though I was only a little over two years old, I distinctly remember sitting in my Mom's lap, on the sofa in the den, watching our black and white DuMont console television. I remember how excited Mom and Dad were about the landing, and I remember Dad wiping tears from his eyes. I also remember Mom waking me up and bringing me back into the den later that night, as the astronauts left the lunar module and actually walked on the moon.
From those early days, I became a complete space junkie. I had an Apollo coloring book (this exact one, in fact), and I begged my mom to buy Tang (every kid knew the astronauts drank it) and for years I played with a toy lunar rover that came taped to the jar. I had a poster of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins that hung over my bed until I was a teenager. I collected every National Geographic magazine I could find that had photos or articles about the space age. I begged Mom to buy the first two volumes of the Peterson's Book Of Man In Space series, even though she balked at the $2.50 price tag. I read those books (they were really fancy magazines) so many times I had them memorized. I wanted a telescope so I could look at the moon, and maybe even see where the astronauts landed. I owned one of the first plastic models of the Saturn V rocket (which of course quickly met its demise at the hands of a hyperactive 7 year old) and eventually models of the Apollo lunar module and command/service module.
And I was probably the only first grader excited about catching the chicken pox, because I had to stay home from school for an entire week -- the week of the Apollo 17 mission -- and I got to watch virtually all of the broadcast mission coverage at home, sitting on that same rose-colored sofa in our den, still watching the black and white DuMont TV. We watched CBS almost exclusively for news in those days, and I clearly remember Walter Cronkite, Wally Schirra, and Eric Severeid anchoring the CBS News broadcasts of the Apollo missions. For me, Walter Cronkite will always be the voice of the Apollo missions.
Over 300,000 people worked for over a decade to make the Apollo 11 mission possible. They were united and inspired by President Kennedy's landmark 1961 speech challenging America (and by proxy the Russians) to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the end of the decade. By early 1964, the designs for the Saturn V rocket, Apollo command/service module, and lunar module had been approved, and contracts had been awarded for their construction. The Saturn V rocket first flew in November 1967, a little over a year and a half before the flight of Apollo 11. Impressive, yes, but it should also be noted that by the early 1960's the theoretical basis for space flight had been scribbled on university chalk boards for decades, and engineers had been developing liquid-fueled rocket technology since World War II. The Apollo program did not invent most of the technology necessary for space flight, it only refined it and applied it on a previously unimagined scale.
Still, after being shackled by an enormous government bureaucracy, and crippled by a disturbing lack of vision, such a time line seems like a fairy tale in the world of today's NASA. NASA is currently developing the Orion spacecraft (eerily similar to the Apollo design--imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose) as a manned replacement for the Space Shuttle, but the first Orion isn't scheduled to fly until 2015. And then it's another five years before the first manned Orion mission to the moon is planned. Today, government is trying to solve so many problems that they cannot concentrate heavily on a single one. Besides, we are paying for so much other stuff now that the money just isn't there anymore. And today we have no one to really compete against; certainly not an enemy that is capable of both hanging an existential threat over our heads and outsmarting us in the fields of science and technology -- though I would keep my eye on China's space program.
So here's to the three brave men, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, who piloted Apollo 11 to the moon and walked on its surface, and in doing so accomplished a feat that few had ever dreamed possible only a mere forty years prior, and which still seems impossible to trump -- at least in our lifetimes -- another forty years after. God bless them, their humility, their sense of shared sacrifice, their bravery and professionalism, and God bless America, the nation that provided the inspiration and the resources and the opportunity for untold thousands to come together and launch what is still the greatest endeavor in the history of mankind.
Incidentally, in the event that the lunar module crashed, or the ascent stage failed to launch properly, marooning Armstrong and Aldrin, speechwriter William Safire prepared an address for President Nixon to deliver to the nation. You can read it here.