|ONE GIANT LEAP|
July 20, 1999
Thirty years ago, Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Tom Bearden remembers the moon landing, and Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the anniversary with historians and a former astronaut.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on the Apollo Moon Landing we turn to
NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael
Beschloss, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them are
former astronaut Mae Jemison, who was with NASA from
1987 to 1993; she was on the "Endeavour" shuttle mission in
1992 and now teaches environmental studies at Dartmouth University;
and Andrew Chaiken, a contributing editor of Popular Science
and author of "A Man on the Moon." Thank you for being with
Haynes Johnson, as you look back on those events with 30 years' hindsight, what is most memorable and significant for you?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I'll never forget being down at the Cape when they left for the Moon. I used to go down and cover those shots as they'd take off. And this was different from all of them, not only because it was going to the Moon, but the sense of the crowds. I remember staying up all night walking along the beaches in Florida, and the place was swarming with people. I mean, exultation, the excitement -- nobody knew what was going to happen, but they knew they were part of something that possibly was going to be history if it worked out all right, and everybody felt good about it, but that sense of something that no one had ever experienced before was electric. And, remember, too, it came at a terrible time in our history against the backdrop of a lot of failures; the assassinations of two Presidents, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, racial riots, a sense America wasn't doing well. And all of a sudden we're about to go off to the Moon. And I remember one last thing; my father was born in 1904, and he told me after it was over, he said, I never thought I would live in the century, that I was born two years before the Wright Brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, and we've seen all these things, can you imagine we're actually going to the Moon? So I think there was an enormous sense of excitement and a sense of sharing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what stands out as most memorable for you?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think Haynes is right, that it came as the culmination of an over-decade-long race in space with the Soviet Union, and it's important to remember that it was part of the Cold War and that when Sputnik first went up in 1957, there was this theory that our system wasn't capable of producing this great collective action as the space race required, that maybe our educational system wasn't up to part, that a dictatorship was better than a democracy. And here finally we won the race with this incredible shot to the Moon. I happened to be in Texas at the ranch with President Johnson, and he'd been an integral part of this. He was in the Senate at the time of Sputnik. He was responsible for the NASA Act in '58, the National Aeronautics & Space Act. He had been the Vice President in charge of space, so he set up this whole picnic table that we were going to watch the whole night of television, but then they didn't mention him on the air. I remember, he was so mad. He thought, I was part of all this, and meanwhile, it's all Kennedy, and now it's Nixon, so he then turned the television off. But I did get to see the space shot, nonetheless, and the Moon walk.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Jemison, this seems to be one of these events where everybody remembers where they were. Where were you?
MAE JEMISON: I was at home. I was just going on 12 years old. But I recollect it a little bit differently. You know, I know that for adults perhaps and those in the political arena that it was all about the space race with the Soviet Union. But as a child growing up during the space era, for me, it was really about expanding our boundaries. I had always assumed that we'd go into space. So, this, for me, was a very natural step. And I was looking forward to more. So it has a little bit different meaning, I think, depending on where you were sitting. I knew that, yes, we wanted to beat the Russians, but at the same time, for me it was just we had accomplished something, not just we as Americans but we as a species as humans, that we were expanding our presence. So it's very hopeful to me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did it play a role, that event in itself, in your wanting to be an astronaut?
MAE JEMISON: Well, I was always interested in the space program, and I had always wanted to go into space. I'd sort of play a little equivocation here and say that it wasn't whether I wanted to be an astronaut or not; I just wanted to go up there. I thought it was part of our human destiny, so it was something that I watched, but back when I was five years old, I always assumed I was going to go.
|Some good news|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Beschloss, expand on something that both Haynes and Doris have touched on, the fact that Americans could use some good news at that time. Remind us what was happening.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, that was at the end of the 1960's, the summer of 1969 was Richard Nixon's first summer as President. He was beginning to pull troops out of Vietnam, but very slowly, Americans were very angry about the fact that he was extending that war, as he was to do for about four years. There were anti-war protests all over the country. The Woodstock Music and Art Festival was only a couple of days really before the Moon landing. That was a celebration but it also gave you a little bit of a sense of the counterculture. This was a society that was coming apart and for at least a moment when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, here we were in the middle of an exhilarating national experience, in which we were all united. We thought it was a wonderful thing; it was almost like landing on Normandy on D-Day, or building the interstate highway system in the 1950's. I was out in Illinois. I was 13 years old, and I got caught up in the space mania too. Pan Am, when there still was a Pan American Airways, had little kids write in for reservations on the first commercial flight to the Moon, and they'd send you a little card, which I still have, and I have reservation - something like -- 1648, and I thought this was something that was just very normal, Americans to do these things, and we'd have these experiences again. The sad thing is that over the last 30 years we Americans have had very few experiences of that kind that we all agree on and that bring us together.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andrew Chaiken, was it a unique historical moment in that the development of technology, politics, and also the economy came together to make this possible?
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Yes, it really was. I mean, looking back on it, I cannot escape the feeling that Apollo happened at a unique moment, and that it really was a historical fluke. I mean, if you think about it, the reason we went to the Moon, even though I agree with Mae Jemison that it had the impact as a milestone not only for this country but for the human species, the real reason we went to the Moon was to beat the Soviets, and at that time in the early 60's Kennedy was motivated by the perceived threat to the country from the Soviet advances in space; the economy was strong, so we could pay for something like a Moon landing, although there was a lot of political opposition to it; and the technology was just becoming available. I mean, if Kennedy had tried to do this, or if Eisenhower had tried to do this, which he was not inclined to do, even a few years earlier, we wouldn't have been ready. When I look back on this now and - by the way - it's not just Apollo XI - there were five more landings, and they did amazing things on each one of those missions -- in fact, by the time the program ended, they were driving a battery-powered car across the Moon and onto the sides of lunar mountains, and picking up rocks as old as the solar system itself, so it really was a mini age of lunar exploration. But I'm really struck by how strange it is to be looking back on something like going to the Moon as a thing of the past. It's almost - I like what Gene Cernan said, who was the last man to walk on the Moon - and he said it's almost as if Kennedy seized a decade out of the 21st century and spliced it into the 1960's, it was almost like this taste of the future that we got, and then we said goodbye, and we stopped doing it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to come back to that, but just very briefly, Mr. Chaiken, give us a sense of the size of this undertaking. How many people did it take, engineers and all the rest, to get those people on the Moon?
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Well, it was clearly the largest effort certainly in peacetime in human history -- four hundred thousand people around the country working for the better part of a decade just to accomplish that first landing -- teams at NASA at universities in the military, at government contractors, and you know, I experienced these missions as a kid just like Mae Jemison did, sitting in front of the TV, and that was one experience of it, and then when I wrote "A Man on the Moon," I spent eight years talking to the astronauts and many of the other people who worked with them. And I have to tell you that even now -- and I keep meeting people from other phases of the program -- I still can't comprehend Apollo. It is just such a vast undertaking. And to me that is really the impact of it, is that it stands as probably the quintessential story of human cooperation and ingenuity -- the fact that people were able to band together and to accomplish something not only to accomplish something that seemed like science fiction but to do it with a deadline, and it was a truly remarkable period in our history.
|The opening act|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Jemison, comment on that, yes, and also tell us about what was achieved scientifically, bringing those -- the species of rocks and dust back -- what was achieved?
MAE JEMISON: Well, I'd like to go back and just tie in a piece of what happened during the 60's even though many people look at the 60's as a time of the country falling apart. I think growing up that it was a very hopeful time, that we were looking at experimenting and expanding; we were talking about including more people. So really going to the Moon was part of that expansion for me, and so I look at it a little differently. What did we accomplish? Well, we brought back Moon rocks. It's not just, ooh, we can get to hold onto them. But you get to understand some of the geology of the formation of the solar system, other planets. What does that mean to us? Would we have an opportunity to go there and establish a lunar base? Could we live there? On top of that, there were a series of just scientific technological achievements that were necessary. You needed to be able to monitor people from a distance. You also had to have the capability to do docking, new navigation techniques, new materials. So there was an extraordinary amount of science that occurred. And one of the other things that was very exciting is the fact that as we went to the Moon, as we built this research, this technological feat -- it also pumped up the rest of the U.S. science research base so that other achievements were made in other areas, as well as the whole idea of the importance of science and science literacy, that we need to make sure that this happens for our students.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, go ahead.
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Elizabeth, I just want to jump in and say that, you know, even though we're looking back on this and even though we have not been back to the Moon, I want to echo what Mae just said, which is that, you know, Apollo really was the opening act in a story --
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. And I want you to look forward now for me, because we don't have a lot of time --
ANDREW CHAIKEN: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: -- and tell me what happened and what's happening now.
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Well, I mean, Apollo was just the beginning, and basically we can look ahead to the next century and say with confidence that human beings will walk on other planets, it's part of our make-up as human beings, and, in fact, in the next millennium I would say it's likely that we'll even go to other stars, and Apollo will always be seen as the beginning of that endless story which will go on as long as we have the ability to build machines and venture out into the universe, and we're lucky to be alive when it all started.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris Kearns Goodwin -- sorry -- there was another aspect to this, the fact that we saw Earth from space. Talk about that.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I'm sure that's true. There was a sense of humility and a sense of how small we are in this large universe that I think when you saw those pictures coming back, we saw ourselves from another vantage point, but I think the most important lesson of Apollo is not simply scientific, not simply the space race, but it shows what happens when a democracy mobilizes collective effort and will and has spacious goals and puts its mind to the task. We obviously saw that in World War II when we did this incredible production enterprise that allowed us to beat the axis power. We saw it with the Moon race, and sadly we don't see it in the same way today, and I think if we remember Apollo, we should remember not simply the scientific achievement, but what it means when we're willing to work hard to put the resources and to collectively achieve something. We have poverty in this country; we have income distribution problems; we have educational problems. We could do it again, and if we remember that, then we've remembered something important about Apollo.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you also -- do you agree that's the main legacy, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think it was a human story that transcends everything else, and I think Doris is right about the cooperation and certainly right about the science and technological achievements of the 20th century that were going on simultaneously when America was falling apart -- we were doing the best and the worst times, and out of this came quite a remarkable achievement but it's a human story which we can all share.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Beschloss, do you think that --
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Doris and Haynes are absolutely right, but one thing it also shows is that when a leader asks for something, he should really argue for it on the right terms. John Kennedy made the point that we need to go to the Moon fast by 1970 to win the Cold War. The Moon landing really didn't have much to do with the Cold War at all. In retrospect, it had almost nothing to do with our winning the Cold War, and the problem with that was the second we landed on the Moon, people said, all right, we've done it, now it's not necessary, and that is one reason why the space program has been largely in the dumpster for the last 30 years.
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Do I have time to make one more comment?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. Actually let me ask Mae Jemison about that. Do you agree that that's why the space program hasn't been as active recently?
MAE JEMISON: I think that there is a whole problem with we've been there, we've done that, and so actually there were three more missions that were set to go, and the equipment was already built, so yes, we did very much have that syndrome. At the same time, I think that it is this whole idea of why are we going into space to help people to understand why do we want to continue and also inclusiveness, who do we include in exploration, who do we see as our -- as our leaders, as our science, our military, our political leaders, and so part of the reason, I think, the space program is lagging a bit is because we haven't had that scientific leadership; we haven't had that push, and sometimes people haven't seen the space program as inclusive, and so I'm real thrilled that tonight Eileen Collins is going to be launching as a commander.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The first woman to command a shuttle, right, a shuttle flight?
MAE JEMISON: Exactly. And I would be derelict if I didn't say that what we have to do now is to look forward and to figure out what are we going to do, how do we maintain this impetus, how do we make sure that we are including as many people as possible, using all of our talent, as space has fundamentally changed our lives, not just our perspective, but what we expect to be able to monitor, to be able to understand our own planet, ourselves, and communicate with one another.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Andrew Chaiken, you get the last word.
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Well, I want to say, you know, Kennedy did say one other speech that I remember, which is that we choose to go to the Moon -- he said, we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things not because they're easy but because they're hard; and I think Kennedy understood that space exploration was good for us because it's good for societies to do hard things.
ANDREW CHAIKEN: Thank you.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Thank you.
MAE JAMISON: Thank you.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Thank you.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|