Chances are, anyone in their fifties or older will remember seeing Apollo 11 land on the moon. And while younger people may not be jealous of your age, many of us certainly wish we had witnessed that piece of history – human beings landing and then exploring another world right before our very eyes.
Documentaries and YouTube allow the younger set to experience some of the flavor of the late 1960s today, as well as what the moon landing meant for America and the world at the time. The zeitgeist of hope and possibility is perhaps best captured in a CBS News discussion on July 20, 1969, the landing day of Apollo 11. Hosted by the inimitable Walter Cronkite, the great journalist interviewed science fiction authors Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein about the implications of NASA’s achievement. The program included a discussion just after landing, with a second segment after the first moonwalk by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“Time just stopped for me, I think it stopped for everyone,” said a 51-year-old Clarke, describing what it felt like to see the lunar module land. “My heart stopped. My breathing stopped.”
Cronkite was equally surprised by what he saw: “I can’t imagine a moment to emulate this. The only thing I can imagine is someone coming forward and saying firmly that we wouldn’t have another war.”
Both Clarke and Heinlein then suggest that such an event could make Earth’s problems more trivial and bring the world closer together. While it might not usher in world peace, it would certainly change the planet — and humanity — forever, the authors agreed. Heinlein, then 62, whose novel the Moon is a hard mistress published only three years earlier, was particularly exuberant.
“I think this whole business today has been thought about in too narrow terms,” he said. “This is the greatest event in the entire history of mankind to date. Today is New Year’s Day of the first year. If we don’t change the calendar, historians will.” By landing on another world, Heinlein claims, humanity has simultaneously gone through puberty, confirmation, and a bat mitzvah. “This is the greatest day humanity has ever seen,” he adds, “the most important since humanity learned to talk.”
The two science fiction stars saw the Apollo landings as the beginning of human colonization of space. Clarke said he envisioned finding new ways to control gravity in space once humans could study it without the limitations of Earth. “When we get to space, we’ll learn how to control it,” he said.
Like Clarke, Heinlein saw the moon landings as just the first step. “I think this is the most hopeful thing that’s happened,” he said. “I don’t know if we will get rid of war… But I do know that your grandchildren, the descendants of all of us, will be in colonies elsewhere, the human race will not die even if we spoil this planet. ” It goes on and on… Before you know it, we’ll be at Proxima Centauri.”
With its low gravity, Heinlein envisioned the moon as a place where people could grow old in relative comfort. “Certainly before the end of the century, we will have hospitals on the moon for the elderly so that they can live much longer because of their tired hearts under one-sixth gravity and their fragile bones and so on,” he said. .
Cronkite, the level-headed reporter, was not immune to the optimism. “We have Earth-bound constraints, but it’s as inevitable now as the tides controlled by that moon that humans landed on today,” he said. “You can’t stop progress, and this is progress.”
Today, some 47 years later, it’s rather melancholy to watch great thinkers wax poetic about humanity’s future in space. Only five more human missions would land on the moon, and then progress basically stopped. There would be no colonies. No retirement homes. No one would return to deep space again. Instead of controlling gravity, gravity still controls access to space, and it remains a costly, dangerous journey.
Women in space
Towards the end of the discussion, after Cronkite speculates that “schoolboys” will spend ages learning about Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon, Heinlein makes a rather refreshing remark: Space isn’t just for men.
“I want to point out that it doesn’t have to be a man at all, and for esprit, and for the continuation of the human race, it’s time we get the other half of the human race as soon as possible.” into this,” he said. “It doesn’t take a man to pilot a starship. It could just as easily be done by a woman as a man.” In fact, he says, women like Peggy Fleming (an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating) would have saved NASA significant weight if they had been sent instead of “three great men”.
After Clarke says he can’t imagine a crew of three women instead of three men, Cronkite makes an unfortunate joke about how the women wouldn’t be able to decide who should surface. Heinlein salvages the discussion by returning to his point that women were eminently capable and “could qualify tomorrow” to become astronauts.
Finally, Clarke believes that there will undoubtedly be women going into space soon. In fact, he added, “Do you realize that the first baby will be born from Earth before the end of this century?” Unfortunately, no.
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