Sunday, July 19, 2009

'The Moon Is Our Paris': Lindbergh and the Legacy of Apollo 11

(Above: Aviator Charles Lindbergh, left, and rocket designer Wernher von Braun in a 1969 NASA photo from the Lindbergh Picture Collection at Yale University.)

This posting is adapted from my final "Futurist" column for Congressional Quarterly, which appears in the July 20 issue of CQ Weekly.

My grandfather attended many space launches as a senior IBM contractor during NASA's moon program. But it's the parties before and after each mission that still loom large in his memory -- particularly the one on the eve of the historic circumlunar flight of Apollo 8 late in 1968, when he met Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, who was 66 by then, was chatting with Wernher von Braun, the German rocket pioneer and mastermind of NASA's towering moon ships, before my grandfather introduced himself to the famed aviator. Astronauts were in attendance, too. But in a room full of heroes, Lindy was the brightest star -- the man who inspired many people there to go into aviation and the aerospace business. Just like that evening's host, astronaut Wally Schirra, my grandfather was 4 years old when Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic, 41 years before.

Now, as the world recalls the Cold War space race, which culminated with the Apollo 11 landing 40 years ago this week, Lindbergh's legacy once again seems to put into perspective what Neil Armstrong hailed as a "giant leap for mankind."

Von Braun often cited Lindbergh's 1927 flight when answering critics, who wondered if the billions the United States spent sending astronauts to the moon was worth the investment. "I do not think that anyone believed that his sole purpose was simply to get to Paris," von Braun would say, explaining that Lindbergh's true objective was to capture the public's imagination by dramatically demonstrating the possibility of trans-oceanic flight. "In the Apollo program," von Braun sometimes said, "the moon is our Paris."

Much had indeed changed between Lindbergh's flight and the Apollo launches, two of which he attended. Just a few months before Apollo 8's first flight around the moon and a year before Apollo 11's landing, Boeing rolled out the first of its huge new 747 jumbo jets, capable of ferrying hundreds of passengers thousands of miles in nonstop luxury. Orbiting satellites were beginning to beam television signals and other communications around the globe in an instant. And the aerospace industry's needs were accelerating the development of smaller, faster computers.

And since Apollo? In some ways, technological developments in aerospace have continued along the same flight plan. Satellites, for instance, helped enable worldwide computer and telecommunications networks that simultaneously permit an airline passenger with a laptop to answer e-mail at 30,000 feet and a pilot in Nevada to fly robotic aircraft in combat missions on the other side of the planet.

NASA has continued to accumulate achievements, from the unmanned probes that have wandered the surface of Mars and the edges of the solar system to the Hubble Telescope, whose recent repair by a space shuttle crew was also a reminder that humans still have something to contribute to space exploration.

But von Braun would have been disappointed by the space program's pace, without a Paris or a moon race to galvanize the public's imagination. In the final days of Apollo, before policy makers lowered their gaze to more urgent matters on this planet, the rocket engineer detailed ambitious plans for putting astronauts on Mars in the 1980s. Under NASA's current plans, in contrast, astronauts won't return to the moon's surface before 2019 -- fully half a century since Armstrong took his first steps. In fact, the next person to walk on the moon might not have any memory of the moment when the first humans landed there; as noted in a previous posting here, six of the nine astronaut candidates NASA named last month were born after July 20, 1969.

Twenty five years ago, President Ronald Reagan challenged NASA to work with other countries to "develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade." Over budget and more than a decade late, the International Space Station really opened for business Oct. 31, 2000, when a rocket carrying its first long-term crew lifted off from a Russian spaceport. And that orbiting outpost has now served as home for a continuous succession of visitors for more than 104 consecutive months.

But does continuous mean permanent? Is that Apollo's legacy?

Future history books might remember either the space station or the Apollo moon landings as the beginning of humanity's extraterrestrial colonization. Or perhaps these "small steps" will turn out to be more like L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, the location of an 11th century Norse sailing camp. That temporary settlement, rediscovered by archeologists in 1960, predated the voyages of Columbus by half a millennium, making it Europe's earliest known toehold in the New World.

But "permanent" European colonization of the North American continent would not begin until centuries later.

The timeline for the next major phase of human migration will probably be measured in similar increments -- not in 40-year or 80-year spans. But, as Lindbergh wrote in Life magazine around the time of the Apollo 11 landing, scientific accomplishment is "not an end." It's "a path leading to and disappearing in mystery."

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