It’s now 50 years past 1969, the year man first walked on the moon. I was just reading an article in the New York Times about the instance when Apollo 10 was poised to be the ‘scouts’ for their successors, Apollo 11.
There they are, circling the moon in the tandem of space vehicles dubbed ‘Charlie Brown’ and ‘Snoopy’ after the Peanuts comic strip characters. The lunar module (Snoopy) has detached from the command module (Charlie Brown) and is descending towards the lunar surface. They’re checking out all the things Armstrong and Aldrin will be experiencing after them, making sure the machine works as designed, considering that it was designed in a gravity atmosphere to work in an atmosphere that was completely opposite! Descending slowly, hovering, taking notes, taking pictures out the small windows, discussing details to one another, relaying information to the pilot of the command module, and listening to his observations as well. They’re 47,000 feet above the lunar surface and they stop short. And then return to the command module.
Why? Because they have to. History is not going to be kind to them. The honor of being the first men to leave the Earth and land on the Moon is to be for their friends. Not for them. Years in the future, people will speak in quiet reverence the names Neil Armstrong, and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. The first men on the moon. (many will say the first Americans on the moon, but that’s another argument for another day) The names of the ones that came before, the trailblazers if you will, will be forever forgotten to history. Do you remember the names of the men who flew Apollo 10? The names of the three men that died in Apollo 1? Most don’t. Most don’t even remember how many Apollo missions there were, how many people walked on the moon. Just the names of the first two. Like Lewis and Clark, the rest are relegated to obscurity.
But let’s get back to our intrepid explorers that are hovering so tantalizing close to the surface of the moon. Poised to land, so very close, but they have to go back. Because they’re in full knowledge if they land, they wouldn’t be able to return. They’ve been purposefully sabotaged, and they know it. NASA knew what sort of men they were sending into space. Most of them were active or ex-military, were test pilots or persons of great ‘moral fiber’ and for the most part were pretty fearless. The sort of guys that would, when the disaster of Apollo 13 happened a year later, didn’t lose their heads. They ‘worked the problem’ and with the assistance of more such people back in Houston, managed to figure it out and make it back home. They didn’t get ‘written off’, they were valuable commodities and the investment in their abilities paid off.
Getting back to the intentional sabotage though. The lunar module was short-fueled on purpose (granted, there’s debate on this. Cernan believed it was, and others have disputed it, saying NASA wouldn’t be that deliberate in case there was some sort of emergency), to keep the men from making a snap-decision on their own and ‘going for it’, landing on the moon in defiance of orders. NASA knew if they had the chance they’d probably take it, I mean wouldn’t you? You’re in a craft that was designed to land on the moon, you’re already there wouldn’t it be great to just do it? What were they going to do to you when you got back home? Jail you? No, they’d more than likely just shrug their shoulders and congratulate you, and in private make some noise about you being gung-ho and so on. You had to be prevented from doing this to yourself. Follow the chain of command, and at least in this instance, be selfless.
So they did the dress rehearsal, flawlessly. Made all the notes that needed to be taken, got the experience of a lifetime, except they weren’t permitted to make history, at least not then. John Young, the pilot of the command module, was destined for greatness of his own later on. He was the commander of Apollo 16 and thereafter was the first to fly the Space Shuttle. So he made out pretty well. Eugene Cernan flew on Apollo 17 and was the last man on the moon to this date. The other man, Tom Stafford, never got the chance to walk on the moon. He participated in the Apollo-Soyuz project, and is the last surviving member of the mission.
While I am a student of history, I’m not a rabid space buff. I can’t name all the members of the early space missions, if quizzed I couldn’t name 10 astronauts that flew on the Space Shuttle. I don’t know all the names of the Mercury 7. Yes, I’ve seen The Right Stuff many times. I know a lot of things about the space program. But being able to recite all these things isn’t what makes it interesting. It’s the odd items. The quirky information.
Just thought I’d put this to digital paper. Thanks for reading along.