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The Nation : Reigniting the Wonder of Apollo

July 10, 1994|Gregory Benford | Gregory Benford is professor of physics at UC Irvine and author, among other novels, of "Timescape" (Bantam)

LAGUNA BEACH — Norman Mailer once remarked that "The horror of the 20th Century was the size of each new event and the paucity of its reverberation." Apollo sometimes seems that way, considering its mythic proportions. I've talked with Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr. several times this spring, and he, too, seems to feel the odd vacancy.

I think Apollo will likely prove to be the enduring image of the century, greater even than the mushroom cloud, more lasting because of its immense promise.

It had a hugeness even the bomb could not equal. At takeoff, 25 years ago July 16, the biggest engine in history burned as much oxygen as half a billion people, squandering 15 tons of fuel a second, riding an 800-foot spike of flame. The roar seemed to turn your entire body into one resonating ear. It was a proper instrument for writing our signature on the heavens, big enough to be read by God.

It worked at the mythic level, in unforeseen directions. The ecology movement got a huge push from that picture of island Earth--love for the planet ironically boosted by the flight from her.

Apollo was one of the great public projects, ranking with the Cheops pyramid and Chartres cathedral as the focus of a social machine made of intricately specialized human parts. Apollo was built of Newtonian know-how, the pinnacle of half a millennium. Its price was even moderate; we bet more on horses in a year than we spent on all Apollo.

Yet, the stately adventure also had an air of play. Alan B. Shepard Jr. teed off with a credible golf swing; Eugene A. Cernan sang happily, gathering rocks; John W. Young and Charles M. Duke Jr. bounced across ancient dust in a moon buggy; everybody leaped and yelped and cavorted.

Mystery, joyful transcendence . . . and then it died.

Boredom kills more dreams than outright opposition. People couldn't fathom why we were doing it (yawn) again. Part of it, surely, was that the moon had the ring of death to it--seas of Serenity and Tranquillity that slept like cemetaries half as old as time. No aliens, no air, no ambience.

But there's another way to understand Apollo and see what might come next.

Once we had a distant, hostile goal, and men threw themselves at it, too: Antarctica. Early this century, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, with whole nations cheering them on, raced for the South Pole. The Edwardian Englishman tried to impose his own methods and died. The savvy Norwegian adapted to the hostile continent and came through smoothly.

Others tried to follow. Ernest H. Shackleton made some progress, and national rivalry became far more serious: World War I swallowed up the exploratory energies. Adm. Richard E. Byrd and others made headway between the wars, but true, methodical Antarctic exploration did not resume in earnest until the International Geophysical Year, 1957.

Wars gave the International Geophysical Year teams cheap, reliable air- and sea-transport technology. International though the spirit was, national territorial claims did not vanish; Argentina and Chile continue to mutter over their rights to turf. Still, perhaps the major reason nobody disturbs the present high-minded international air is that no serious resources seem at stake.

Scott-Amundsen: Apollo. Shackleton and Byrd: Voyager and Galileo. The World Wars, in this analogy, are like our rising concern with domestic problems--not soaring nationalism, luckily, but at least a deflection of those energies to local concerns.

Bruce C. Murray of Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory has pointed out these analogies. He remarked that a science-fictional alternate-world scenario can illuminate our predicament. Think what our world would be like, he said, if the two-term limit on the presidency had not been enacted in the late 1940s. The first President it applied to was Dwight D. Eisenhower, still popular in 1960. Quite possibly, he could have beaten John F. Kennedy.

Eisenhower would have presided over the early Space Age, 1957-64. He called space programs "pie in the sky," refused to fund research at a fast clip and warned us against the "military-industrial complex." In a parallel world with Eisenhower in office until 1964, we would have had no brave setting of the Apollo goal, no race to the moon.

Murray thinks that, by 1990, we would probably have seen some U.S.-Soviet muscle-flexing in near-Earth orbit and probably a few unmanned probes would have studied the moon. No "grand tour" trajectory for Voyager, probably no Mariner to Mars or any of the rest of it. George Bush's 1989 speech might have been a stalwart call for a manned moon landing before the turn of the millennium.

Certainly not impossible. One can scarcely argue that such a plausible, sensible space program was unlikely.

The plausibility of this imaginary history tells us that we have been lucky. We lived through dramatic times, Sputnik-Apollo-Voyager, which quite probably will be seen as Columbus-Magellan-Drake. Maybe we are now getting back to normal. Normal, alas, means dull.

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