Boomers remember 52nd anniversary of moon landing

It is a day no baby boomer can forget: July 20th, 1969, when for the first time ever, the United States put two human beings on the moon. Although now other nations have designs on manned moon landings, only 12 men have set foot there so far, all Americans. A little more than a year ago, when U.S. astronauts began flying again to the International Space Station on American-made rockets, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs reminisced on the American space program in general— what it has meant to him, what it has meant to the world. So today, on this eve of the moon landing’s 52nd anniversary— and the eve of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s launch in his own rocket “New Shepard”— we republish Greg’s piece.

May 30, 2020 – Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9.

What perfect timing— the month of May— for two Americans finally to lift off again into space, not from a Russian launch pad in Asia, but from American soil. This pandemic has brought much of our movement to a halt… but not our quest for the cosmos.

As older baby boomers might remember, it was also in May, 59 years ago, that Alan Shepard, in his capsule dubbed Freedom 7, became the first American to soar into space. The space race was on.

Alan Shepard after the flight of Freedom 7, May 1961.

And as even younger boomers will remember, that put us on the path to create the Apollo program and win that race against our Soviet rivals, landing six times on the moon. Still, today, only twelve men have left their footprints there. One of them was Alan Shepard, ten years after his first flight on Freedom 7. Nice bookends to grow up with.

After the final mission to the moon, it was 8-½ years before Americans reached space again, this time in the Space Shuttle. It was a magnificent vehicle. All told, there were 135 missions, and I had the privilege of anchoring a 90-minute television broadcast from the Kennedy Space Center for each of the shuttle program’s final 22 flights.

Apollo launch rocket. Photo by George Merlis.

It never got old. Every launch was unique: the weather, the time of day, the trajectory toward the target, a different crew, a different payload, a different mission. But more momentous, with every launch, watching from my anchor desk 3.1 miles from the launch pad (considered the “blast radius,” as close as anyone got, save for a handful of emergency rescue personnel in a bunker), I was infused, sometimes emotionally overwhelmed, with a sense of awe: awe for the power of the vehicle, awe for the brilliance of the engineering, awe for the precision of the flight plan, awe for the courage of the astronauts. The head of NASA’s manned space program once squeezed his thumb and forefinger together right in front of me and said, “We’re always this close to disaster.”

And now, here we are again, astronauts blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center, nine years after the last launch from Pad 39A but still, “this close to disaster.” That’s what it takes to explore the cosmos. So many moving parts, so many forbidding forces, so many unknowns.

Greg on camera, anchoring a space shuttle launch for HDNet TV.

But man was meant to explore. Not to ignore the implications for native peoples, but where would we be today without the inquisitive adventurers of centuries past, who crossed into the unknown in their sailing ships and found new worlds? There are practical goals in space travel, as there are practical benefits from the exploration we’ve already seen— from home insulation to fire retardants to polarized sunglasses to freeze-dried foods to solar panels to the Dustbuster. But more important are what separate us from other species: curiosity, knowledge, invention, exploration. Now, from conception to ignition, it is once again an all-American enterprise.

I produced an hour-long program once at Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center— Gagarin was the one human being who beat Alan Shepard into space. As a reflection of the Cold War, it is hidden in a forest of birch trees about a hundred miles from Moscow. For many years now, to get to the International Space Station, U.S. astronauts had to spend months there learning the Soyuz system, because they launched in Soyuz capsules atop Soyuz rockets.

Greg with Russian engineers.

Not any more. As one of our astronauts temporarily based there told me (while living in an American-style two-story clapboard house surrounded by a white picket fence which Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, thought would be a nice touch for our people), the Russians’ procedures weren’t better, or worse, just different. But when he said it, he winked.

With SpaceX building the Crew Dragon capsule that just carried our astronauts back into space from Florida, and with other companies also in the game, NASA now is more the manager of space flight than the galvanizer, but that’s not as big a change as it sounds. Private enterprise has always cobbled the ships together, to carry our modern adventurers out to do what man was born to do. Not even a pandemic can stop us.

The New York Times, July 1969.

Toward the end of the shuttle program, I asked NASA’s then-Administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a four-time shuttle astronaut, whether we’ll ever go back to the moon. “Yes, but we’re in no hurry” he said, summarizing America’s place in space. “Maybe someone will even beat us there. But do you know what they’ll find when they land on the lunar surface? Six flags. And they’re all ours.”

Now, even more flags are in our future. Somewhere. And they’ll be hoisted into space once again by an American rocket, from American soil.

4 Comments

  1. This is a real nice article! I remember well the moon landing in 1969 – I had just graduated high school. We should remember that it was Werner von Braun and his crew who made it possible for the rocket development program in the 1950’s and 60’s

    As for Bezos, Musk and Branson, they are just billionaires flouting their wealth for us Peons to be amazed with (for those stupid enough !). They only did what the astronauts did 60 years ago – nothing new or newsworthy here !

    1. Bezos, Musk and Branson are investing their own profits in creating ways you and I could someday fly to space without needing a government program. If they want to risk their lives on the initial flights, that’s their “privilege”. Initial flights of passenger air vehicles had spectacular crashes; this new transportation mode will have its share.

  2. I agree with Greg and Denver on this one. Like many Boomers, what the U.S. has been able to achieve in space–and translate into major scientific advances here on Earth–has always left me in awe. Such imagination, brilliance and execution. It’s only natural that the torch be passed to the private sector.

    I had the great privilege of meeting several Mercury 7 astronauts, including Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, at a 1980s conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the then National Space Institute, for which at the time I was writing articles on Nasa projects, such as Landsat and the yet to be launched Space Shuttle. The author James Michener, a space lover, was the conference keynote speaker, with whom I also got to speak..

    I wish I had had the good sense to exit my star-struck stupor and had recorded those conversations, some of which took place at small gatherings in their private hotel rooms. What a charge for a young writer always looking starward, but stuck on planet Earth.

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