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Moon Landing Anniversary Renews Debate on Spaceflight

July 20, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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As the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA and the Obama administration are weighing the debate over sending more astronauts into space, or to shift more toward the use of robots. Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, going to the moon. Ray Suarez has our anniversary report for our Science Unit.

NASA EMPLOYEE: You’re looking great.

NASA EMPLOYEE: How are you doing, control?

NASA EMPLOYEE: We look good here. Fine.

NASA EMPLOYEE: How about you, telcom?


NASA EMPLOYEE: Guidance, you happy?




NASA EMPLOYEE: Two thousand feet…

ANDREW CHAIKIN, writer: I can only tell you that it was like your birthday and every holiday and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. It was an Event with a capital E.

RAY SUAREZ: More than 500 million people around the globe were watching July 20, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon…

NASA EMPLOYEE: OK, 75 feet, guys looking good. Down a half.

RAY SUAREZ: … and landed on its surface minutes later.

NASA EMPLOYEE: Sixty seconds.

ASTRONAUT: Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

RAY SUAREZ: Maybe you remember those first pictures sent back to Earth, grainy and ghostly. Last week, NASA released refurbished video of the landing, digitally restored with better resolution. But for those who watched the original images and then heard Neil Armstrong at the time…

NEIL ARMSTRONG, astronaut: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

RAY SUAREZ: … the memories 40 years later are fresh and cherished.

'A stark beauty all its own'

NEIL ARMSTRONG: It has a stark beauty all its own. It's like much of the high desert of the United States.

WOMAN: I watched television for 24 hours solid, because it was the moon landing. We sat up all day, watching them all night.

WOMAN: We watched the moon landing, and then we gathered up all the pots and pans and ran outside and just banged them. And that was our celebration.

ANDREW CHAIKIN: I had the sense that the whole world was stopping in its tracks to witness literally a turning point in human history.

RAY SUAREZ: His working hours on the lunar surface were tightly scheduled, but the moment was not lost on Buzz Aldrin. He saw his fresh footprints on a world that never had them. He called the scene one of magnificent desolation.

BUZZ ALDRIN, astronaut: I could also see a much broader perspective to the horizon, and that's when either I or Neil came up with the word "beautiful." And then I thought, after that beautiful trip, that really doesn't describe what I'm looking at.

Two people who represent humanity are here on the surface of the moon. What a magnificent tribute this is to the progression, to the achievement of humanity, and yet, as we do that, I can't think of a more lifeless place than I've ever seen and subconsciously realizing that what we're looking at had been unchanged probably for hundreds of thousands of years.

A little dust added as more (inaudible) but that sort of gives you a lonely, still feeling, couldn't hear anything, but it was just desolate.

RAY SUAREZ: The landing, those walks, that first moon shot was the culmination of a more than decade-long battle for space supremacy at the height of the Cold War, a dozen years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and just eight years after President Kennedy told Congress he wanted to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Getting Apollo 11 to the moon wasn't cheap: NASA had a workforce of more than 400,000 people. More than $20 billion was spent on the Apollo 11 mission and the missions leading up to it. That would be the equivalent of more than $150 billion today.

Forty years later, getting men to the moon and safely home stands unequaled by any other nation and was one of those rare moments that pulled people together across the globe.

Author Andrew Chaikin remembers. We caught up with him during celebrations at the National Air and Space Museum this past week. He was there for a signing of his book, "Voices from the Moon."

A global achievement

ANDREW CHAIKIN: It showed us what we are capable of accomplishing when we work together. It was probably the most profound group achievement in human history. It was absolutely spectacular, 400,000 people working for the better part of a decade to accomplish something that seemed like science fiction.

RAY SUAREZ: After they returned, the crew of Apollo 11 were welcomed home with ticker-tape parades and went on a world tour. Aldrin struggled with his new fame and with clinical depression. He tells the story in his new autobiography, "Magnificent Desolation," which begins with the moon landing.

BUZZ ALDRIN: Along with it, it carried whatever achievement there was, it carried a price tag. And the price tag wasn't what I really set out to do, to become a celebrity and talking about things.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, the public's interest in the missions following Apollo 11 faded quickly.

ALAN BEAN, astronaut: I think it was both the beginning and the end of something.

RAY SUAREZ: Alan Bean was a member of the Apollo 12 team, watching Armstrong and Aldrin with excitement and a touch of envy. At the time, he thought Apollo 11 was the start of a long march toward lasting manned exploration.

ALAN BEAN: We imagined this was going to happen, it was going to be an orderly progression to the moon, moon longer, to Mars, Mars longer, then whatever's next, whatever technically we could do, but it didn't turn out to be that way.

ANDREW CHAIKIN: Even by the second moon landing, there were articles in the newspaper with man-on-the-street quotes saying, "You know, it's kind of old hat. It's not like the first time."

And I read those today and I think, "You've got to be kidding. You were bored the second time we landed on the moon."

NASA's unclear future

RAY SUAREZ: There were another five moon landings after Apollo 11, but NASA's budget began shrinking. Still, the space agency did not lack for ambition.

NASA launched the Space Shuttle fleet. It was later followed by the Hubble Space Telescope and the brilliant images it captured, robotic rovers on Mars suggesting evidence of water there, and the International Space Station.

But six years after the Columbia tragedy and with the shuttle's pending retirement, the expense and risk of manned space flight is very much on the table again.

President George W. Bush set a goal of sending man back to the moon by 2020, but the question of cost looms. Norman Augustine is the chair of a government panel reviewing the space program from top to bottom.

NORMAN AUGUSTINE, Human Space Flight Committee chair: I hate to boil it down to money, but, frankly, money is the driver, as is most everything else.

RAY SUAREZ: NASA officials feel there's scientific value in a return to the moon, and Chaikin agrees.

ANDREW CHAIKIN: The moon is the jewel in the crown of the solar system. It's the only place that records as well as it does the very earliest history of the solar system. I always say that going to the moon is like being led into the rare book room of the cosmic library.

RAY SUAREZ: But other scientists and space veterans, like Buzz Aldrin, are pushing for a manned mission to Mars instead of relying on robots.

BUZZ ALDRIN: You can't really control things by sending a little piece of information every 20 minutes and then finding out 20 minutes later what it did. But if you had intelligent beings in orbit around Mars, now, what could they do? Well, that opens up a tremendous capability.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama, who met with the Apollo team today, will soon weigh whether to proceed with manned missions. This week, however, has largely been a celebration.

Aldrin was part of an anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center. Visitors have been flocking to the Air and Space Museum where, among other things, they saw the brushwork of Alan Bean, who embarked on a post-NASA career as a painter.

The moon missions gave Earth-bound humankind something it never had before...

ANDREW CHAIKIN: ... which is the view of our home planet as seen from the moon, not as a seemingly endless expanse that we experience down here, but as a very finite, very precious oasis of life in the void of space, a world that we must cherish and protect.

JIM LEHRER: There's more about the Apollo mission at We have a slideshow with Andrew Chaikin about our fascination with the moon and about the plans for a lunar base by the year 2020. And you can watch more of Ray's interview with Buzz Aldrin.