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Tue, 30 Jun 2009

T Plus Forty Years

It is perhaps a few weeks premature, but an important anniversary is fast coming upon us -- and, as seems to be the trend today, it seems to be being largely overlooked. I ascribe this unfortunate state of affairs to the twenty-four hour news cycle, and the subsequent dulling of our sense of history. When there's a desperate rush to call something (anything) "news", day in and day out, I think we tend to lose our sense of proportion, our feeling for what is (or ought to be) truly memorable.

While some of you may have opened a new browser tab and jumped over to Wikipedia to find out what memorable events happened in mid-July, I will spare the rest of you the search and say that the event to which I refer is the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

If you think about it, in the entire history of humankind, there will only be a couple of generations who will be able to say that they were alive to witness man's first tentative steps off of the Earth and out into the vastness of the universe. By itself, it was a rare and precious moment to have experienced at all, and, thanks to the miracles of electronic communications, we who were there were able to do more than simply read after-the-fact accounts in a newspaper or magazine -- we could instead watch the event as it happened. Only a handful of his fellow sailors were there to witness Columbus's landfall in the West Indies. Photographs developed and released weeks later were the only documentation of Hillary's and Norgay's conquest of the summit of Mount Everest. But, luckily for us, we were one of the first generations that was able to experience the moon landing as it happened. Being able to watch on television wasn't exactly the same as being there in person, but for the billion-some-odd of us who weren't astronauts, it was the next best thing.

In that remarkable summer of 1969, I was not quite eleven years old. I had been fascinated by space travel for as long as I could remember, and, despite my youth, I had managed to accumulate quite a store of facts and figures about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I knew which companies manufactured the capsules, the booster stages, even the space suits the astronauts wore. I knew which astronauts had flown on which missions before, and which were rookies. I knew the overall mission plans, and a great many technical details about spacecraft procedures and techniques -- thanks to an uncle who worked for North American Rockwell, one of the prime Apollo contractors, who regularly fed me "insider" documentation not generally available to the public.

Yes, you could call me Astrogeek.

After the eighteen month stand-down in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire in January, 1967, and with only a little more than a year to go if NASA was to meet President Kennedy's "end of the decade" deadline, the pace of the Apollo program started to gather speed and momentum in the fall of 1968. With so much to be done and such a relatively short time left to do it, missions began taking off at the extraordinary pace of one every two or three months: Apollo 7 in October 1968, Apollo 8 in December 1968, Apollo 9 in March 1969, and Apollo 10 in May 1969. All the essential elements of the moon landing had been rehearsed at least twice -- except for the actual landing itself.

I do recall, as the months went by and the early Apollo missions flew, starting to become aware of the growing media excitement surrounding the prospect that the program's goal would actually be reached. Starting around the time of Apollo 10, it was a rare day that there wasn't some story about the upcoming Apollo 11 mission on the television news, or in the newspaper, or in magazines like Time and Newsweek.

(It was also about this same time that a somewhat less transcendent yet still important linguistic development was born. People who viewed the space program as a waste of time, money, and talent, took to beginning their arguments with the phrase, "If we can send a man to the moon, why can't we [insert description of favored program here]?" Ending cancer, wiping out poverty, abolishing hunger, building a car that didn't self-destruct in a few years, making the trains run on time -- all these and many, many more would get this rhetorical treatment. Even though it's approaching forty years since we last went to the moon (in 1972), you still hear people use this device as a shorthand way of denigrating government programs they consider wasteful in favor of others they prefer, or as a way of bemoaning the apparent lack of technical will to solve what seem to be otherwise intractable problems.)

So the excitement mounted as spring gave way to summer, and I actually started making plans for watching the Apollo 11 mission on television. Launch was no problem -- it was scheduled for around 9:30 in the morning, so that was easy (I often rose to watch the several hours of prelaunch coverage, where the network commentators would explain the upcoming mission in simplified terms the average non-Astrogeek would be able to understand. I simply enjoyed watching the rocket poised on the pad, hissing out clouds of oxygen vapors as the fuel tanks filled, and listening to the commentaries from the NASA Public Affairs team, describing the status of the countdown and the activities being performed as it progressed.) After a few hours in orbit, the crew would depart for the moon in the early afternoon, followed by the docking maneuver used to extract the Lunar Module from its protective chrysalis atop the third stage. The first day was easy to schedule, and didn't even involve having to get up early.

After three days of coasting to the moon, the maneuver to brake the spacecraft into lunar orbit was again supposed to take place somewhat early in the morning (around 6 AM, as I recall), but I had gotten up earlier than that before, so that was not much of a challenge. The landing itself was scheduled for the mid-afternoon the next day (easy), and, finally, the first moonwalk was planned for the early hours of the following morning. That was not so easy -- if, as I intended, I was to watch the coverage from the day of the landing through the moonwalk, it meant a very long day for me. The absolute last thing I wanted to have happen to me was to somehow fall asleep before the moonwalk started and then manage to miss it. I made my parents swear oaths more binding than their wedding vows that, if I did fall asleep, they would awaken me in time so as not to miss the first lunar excursion.

Now, I had a fundamental decision to make -- what channel to watch?

In those days before cable television, most people could receive something between six and twelve television channels, and of those, there were only three television networks to compliment the local "independent" stations. Only the networks had the wherewithal to cover the space program to any meaningful extent, so if you wanted to watch the coverage, selecting a network was an important decision.

CBS was the oldest and most venerable of the networks, and, of course, they had Walter Cronkite anchoring their coverage. Cronkite was something of an Astrobuff himself, and he prided himself on being thoroughly grounded in all the technical details of the flight. But after Cronkite, the remainder of the CBS team seemed to me to be pretty much second-tier. Other "names" like Eric Sevaried, Charles Kuralt, and Charles Osgood, always seemed to be a bit out of it whenever anything complicated or technical was happening. I watched CBS space coverage occasionally, but it was never my first choice.

ABC News's space coverage was lead not so much by a lead news anchor (theirs, Howard K. Smith, was cut from the same cloth as CBS's Sevaried, and you could tell he was barely able to follow along. ABC did have an Astrobuff, though: their science/space reporter, Jules Bergman. Bergman was something of a celebrity among space journalists, but I never liked watching him. He always seemed a little too snarky, a little too self-assured, a little too good for the likes of the ordinary viewers. In addition, since many of the mission events took place "off camera", the networks used various pieces of animation to illustrate what was actually happening at the time. The quality of ABC's animations was unremittingly bad, reaching a new nadir just in time for Apollo 11, when they used blowtorches held behind plastic models of the various spacecraft to represent the spacecraft's engines firing. The propane torches burned with a stiletto-like blue flame, and looked completely unrealistic. Yuck.

That left NBC. Over the years, I had come to enjoy and appreciate their coverage. Their news team was led by John Chancellor, who prepared well enough to describe things in general terms, but who was also smart enough to leave the technicial details to their science correspondent, Frank McGee. McGee, in turn, was smart enough to not try to give viewers an introductory course in celestial mechanics to try to explain how orbital rendezvous were accomplished, instead using very practical visual aids like toy trains running on tracks around earth or moon globes, carrying model spacecraft. Unlike ABC, NBC clearly took the down-to-earth, not-entirely-serious approach to trying to show what was going on (and, it must be said, their animations, while basically just fancy cartoons, were far better than CBS's, and easily bested ABC's dopey models for visual fidelity).

So as launch day finally arrived, I settled in on the couch with the TV set to NBC, and began to participate vicariously in what would be certainly be the historical experience of my short lifetime thus far. Under clear an sunny skies, the liftoff took place precisely on schedule, the Saturn V booster carrying the spacecraft into orbit and then sending it off towards the moon. A live television transmission from the ship showed the transposition and docking maneuver, and we got to see the lunar module Eagle for the first time.

After the first day's excitement, the coverage of the mission during the translunar coast phase was not nearly as intense, mostly because very little was happening on board the spacecraft. There were brief television shows by the crew each day, each lasting about ten minutes or so, showing the astronauts cavorting on zero gravity, or taking the viewers on brief tours of the spacecraft. The mission dominated the evening newscasts, of course, but by and large, this was a period of waiting before the real mission started.

Rested and ready, I remember waking about 4:30 AM that Saturday and going out to the living room to watch the coverage of the lunar orbit insertion maneuvers. John Chancellor was in fine form, seamlessly switching back and forth between the various reporters and in-studio guests, and the NASA broadcasts of the radio transmissions between Mission Control and the crew. The actual braking maneuver took place on the back side of the moon, with the spacecraft out of communications with Earth, so the usual animations were accompanied by voiceovers from the NBC reporters. Even though this maneuver had been performed twice before on earlier missions, there was tension evident in their voices -- if the ship's engine burn was too short, the astronauts would swing back around the moon and be headed back towards Earth, albeit on an oddball trajectory. But if the burn was too long, even by seconds, the crew could find themselves on a course which would crash them into the lunar surface. As the predicted time for the spacecraft to reappear approached, the newsmen stopped their chatter, and joined the rest of us in just waiting, the radio transmissions punctuated by static. Finally, exactly at the appointed time, Houston called and the astronauts responded, the ship now safely in orbit around the moon. Since it was a Saturday, and without a prime time schedule to interrupt, the space coverage stayed on for a good part of the day. My brothers and sisters were a bit miffed that the usual Saturday morning cartoons were not on, but I didn't mind one bit. Chancellor turned over most of the anchor duties that day to a rotation of the other reporters, getting himself rested for the marathon of coverage planned for the landing and moonwalk the next day. I turned into bed early that night, since I was expecting a long day of viewing myself.

Sunday dawned a little overcast but basically sunny, and the television networks greeted the dawn with their usual panoply of religiously-themed programming. But in recognition of the fact that the moon landing was to take place on the Christian Sabbath, even those programs had sermons themed to space travel and man's place in the universe. I kept the TV volume on low, and sat in the kitchen eating breakfast through most of this stuff, waiting for the news coverage to resume later in the morning, which it did around 10:00 AM. While waiting for the two spacecraft to separate and the landing to begin, explanations of how the lunar module would actually land on the moon were shown over and over, for the benefit of those joining the broadcasts later in the day. After the first time or two, that started to get really boring for me, so I spent some time with my various space books, waiting for the landing to begin.

Once again, the initial maneuvers for the landing took place on the moon's far side, so Chancellor and company were reduced to brief comments and anxious waiting. Finally, the two ships swung around the edge of the moon, all proceeding well, and the actual landing now underway. In the next half hour, the astronauts would either land, crash, or waive off the landing attempt, and we could listen and follow along as events unfolded a quarter of a million miles away.

The landing was proceeding as planned, although I did catch Neil Armstrong's comment, "Downrange checks show us to be a little long." I had a general idea of what that meant -- the lander was coming down further along the landing path than planned. Although the targeted landing area was generously sized, and deliberately chosen for its smoothness and flatness, I knew this was a potential problem if the crew couldn't find a safe landing site. A few minutes later, I also heard one of the crew call out "1201 alarm." I had no idea exactly what that meant, but I knew that alarms were bad things to have happen at any time in a mission, especially now as the lander was approaching the surface -- I had learned that there was a kind of "dead man's zone" where the lander was too low and going too fast to safely abort the landing. But Houston gave them a "Go" to continue, and, with Buzz Aldrin calling out velocities and altitudes, the crew proceeded to a safe touchdown with the memorable announcement, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

They made it! I always expected that they would, but it was exciting to know that the task was actually done. The networks spent the greater part of the next few hours documenting the reaction worldwide to the successful landing; I took advantage of the opportunity to take a break, get something to eat, and rest up for the moonwalk that was supposed to take place early the next morning....

Except that it didn't work out that way. The astronauts were too keyed up to sleep themselves, and so, with everything working well, they decided to cancel their rest period and begin to prepare for the EVA about four hours earlier than planned. This was great news for me, since it pushed the moonwalk back to sometime around 10:30 PM.

And so at 10:56 PM, I was part of what was probably the largest single television audience, before or since, watching Neil Armstrong slowly descend the ladder to the surface of the moon, the black-and-white images a little ghostly looking. We billions of fellow human beings watched along as stepped off the footpad, and into history -- and we all got a chance to see it happen, live.

After Apollo 11's safe return four days later, suddenly, one of the most important things humans had ever achieved wasn't quite so important any more as far as the media were concerned. Starting with Apollo 12 in November 1969, people suddenly went back to their routines, and began to complain when mission coverage meant that their favorite prime-time programs or afternoon soap operas were cancelled in favor of "that moon stuff". The networks listened, and the level of coverage was scaled back quite dramatically. Only PBS continued to carry full-time, uninterrupted coverage of key mission events, including the moonwalks.

There was a resurgence of interest in space when Apollo 13's oxygen tank exploded on the way to the moon, but that was not a rekindling of interest in space per se, but in the obvious danger that the astronauts would not be able to get back to Earth alive. (This was much the same kind of interest shown by people who allegedly go to auto races not to see the racing but because they have a macabre interest in seeing the cars spin oput and crash.) After Apollo 13 did manage to make it back safely, media coverage again became spotty, and the networks would generally televise those portions of the mission that didn't interfere with their scheduled programming. So I could, if I wanted, switch back to NBC for a 3:00 AM moonwalk on one of the later missions -- but I didn't. I had come to enjoy PBS's coverage, and the fact that they weren't required to take commercial breaks for Tang or Gulf Oil.

I found the shockingly rapid decline in media interest in the Apollo missions to be the first of many later pieces of evidence showing how our need for entertainment could overwhelm what were arguably once-in-a-lifetime events (well, okay, six-in-a-lifetime events), relegating them to extreme off hours, two-minute summaries on the evening news, or not even showing them to the rest of the world at all. The remarkable had become unremarkable, and we had moved on to the next big thing, whatever that was.

I am hopeful that the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in a few weeks will serve not only to commemorate the event itself, but will also help remind us that, like a prophet in his own country, we often do not appreciate those things that are truly important in our nonstop rush from day to day.

Posted Jun 30, 2009 at 17:15 UTC, 3197 words,  [/richPermalink