Thirty-eight years ago I stood with my younger brother on a shoreline near midnight looking eastward across 12 miles of quiet, dark water at the brilliant jewel on the far horizon. A million people lined the beaches as far as we could see. In the distance xenon arc lights crossed upon the largest craft ever to carry humans. The thunderstorm that had earlier sent tendrils of blue and orange lightning beyond the gantry had since moved far out to sea.
At the final countdown the night burst into a blaze of silent light and the sky glowed crimson to the far horizon behind us. A full minute would pass before the sound hit us, a deep shattering moan shaking our rib cages, the trees and cars. The last Apollo Saturn V rocket lifted with the inexorably slow climb of a freight elevator. Our 8mm film would show its three stages burning successively into orbit in the clear, beautiful night.
In that minute before the rocket's sound reached us, the collective expression of the human spirit, in all its aspirations, went up from the multitude on the beaches. The shouting, weeping, praying and cheering of a million voices blended into a roar that lifted with the three on their way to the moon.
Human space flight inspires in ways that more cost-effective robot probes do not. This experience fueled my drive to study physics.
These are my thoughts this summer as I had the challenge of gathering and arranging information and images about the Apollo missions to the moon. The result of this curatorial work would become part of the exciting, new installation and display of the museum’s Apollo 17 moon rock -- in a new setting that directs the visitor’s attention to one of the rarest objects on Earth.
As I worked in the Stardome room (at the north end of the Main Concourse) with the moon rock case nearby, I thought about the coincidence that I had witnessed the launch of that very mission in December of 1972.
From that mission Harrison Schmitt brought back 242 pounds of lunar material, including the Goodwill Rock that provided the plaque-mounted specimens given to every U.S. state and territory and every nation on earth in 1973.
Apollo science is still alive in some ways today. Three Apollo missions left retro-reflector arrays on the moon to bounce laser light back to Earth. These arrays allow scientists to measure daily the distance and the motion of the moon away from Earth, at about an inch and a half a year.
Another final milestone approaches. The last and final Space Shuttle flight (the 134th ) has been authorized for launch next summer. Next August the NASA will leave manned space flight to others, possibly for decades. The Space Shuttle is the most complex thing ever built, with 2 ½ million parts and 230 miles of wiring. These difficult economic times make it hard to justify the extravagance of human space exploration.
We have, however, a rich and long history of unmanned space probes. Our 1970s launches of Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2 yielded a treasure trove of dazzling images of the outer solar system and are now far beyond it. They carry gold plaques and phonograph records explaining the culture of the species from Earth that sent them.
And we continue to roll out ever more sophisticated unmanned spacecraft. A long range probe is on its way to Pluto. A replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope is under construction, with 15 times Hubble’s light gathering ability. Other orbiting telescopes are looking for extraterrestrial planets. Further unmanned probes are planned for Mars and the moon. Others may explore oceans of salt water beneath the ice on Europa and Enceladus, moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Oh, yes. We actually did go to the moon. Had we not gone, telescopes all over the Earth would not have recorded, as they did, the flights and the return journeys. Russia and the rest of the world would have called our bluff. Indeed, Russia cancelled its manned moon program largely because of the verified success of our Apollo program.
So, I return in my thoughts to the museum’s Apollo 17 moon rock, a small, three billion year-old memento of a trip made 38 years ago.
Science Museum of Virginia