Apollo 11

Apollo 11 patch

(Shenandoah) -- Nearly 57 later, these words echo in history:

"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

"We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon...we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too."

President John F. Kennedy spoke these words at Rice University in Houston on September 12th, 1962. Although Kennedy clearly set the parameters for landing a man on the moon before the end of the 1960's in a speech before Congress in May of 1961, his address on that sweltering day in Texas reinforced the nation's intent to accomplish what many thought was impossible.

All this month, America has celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Specials commemorating the flight of Apollo 11 have dominated televisions networks such as the History Channel, Discovery, PBS, CBS and others. The golden anniversary of that "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" has reawakened this country on the history of the space program, and its importance to science and society in general.

As I wrote in previous blogs two weeks ago (all right, so I took a week off--hey, I was on vacation), the first moon landing was one of the most cherished moments of my early childhood. Unfortunately, one of the saddest moments was the LAST moon landing. The United States stopped sending astronauts to the lunar surface after Apollo 17 in December, 1972.

To understand why the U.S. ended something it was spectacularly good at is to remember the political climate of the late '60's and early '70's. America was bogged down in assassinations, war protests, civil rights issues and other problems. Instead of being celebrated for great achievements, the space program became the punching bag for everything that was wrong with this country. Politicians and the media took aim at the high costs of spaceflights,, while virtually ignoring the economic benefits of the missions to the economy in terms of jobs and products created. "The money spent on space could be better spent on earth," was the old catchphrase.

Another factor was that television viewers were getting turned off by the constant coverage of the space missions. Even the early Mercury and Gemini missions prompted scorn from viewers angry about their favorite programs being interrupted by our astronauts' latest exploits. After Apollo 11, coverage of the remaining moon missions declined (except for Apollo 13, when the astronauts faced a life-and-death situation halfway to the moon because of an explosion in the service module). After all, why watch men walking on the moon in living color when you can watch "Green Acres" or "Medical Center?" That was the nation's mentality.

Former Astronaut Clayton Anderson, the Ashland, Nebraska native who spent more than 160 days in space on two separate missions to the International Space Station, summed up the moon program's demise in a recent interview on KMA's "Morning Line" program:

"The only reason those problems were canceled was that there was no program," said Anderson, "or the program needed to be diverted to another program--namely the Vietnam War. Spaceflight is always about the dollars available. It's always going to be difficult, it's always going to be dangerous, it's always going to require dollars, and those are things we have to continue to battle if we want to do cool things in space."

Thus, the critics of manned missions to the moon won out. The Apollo program ended, and human spaceflight was confined to missions in earth orbit. While the U.S. racked up impressive achievements with Skylab, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, not to mention all the unmanned space undertakings, it wasn't the same. Space missions became a lower priority in this country.

I've been waiting to say this for years. Now, I'm going to say it: we goofed by ending the moonflights.

Critics suggested by ending the space program, everything else in this country would improve. Look around this country 50 years later. We're not sending astronauts to the moon. But, have poverty and hunger ended? Have problems with race relations ended? Do all Americans have adequate housing? Have slums in this country disappeared? Has crime become a thing of the past? All these things were supposed to be cured by spending less money on space, and more money on problems here on earth.

Spoiler alert: things in the country didn't improve by ending the Apollo program.

In fact, by ending moonflights and making space travel a lower priority, the U.S. lost its sense of adventure, pride, termination and unity. The "can do" attitude in this country was replaced by "can't do," "won't do," "afraid to do," and "too expensive to do." We lost our edge in science, technology and innovation. We lost our nerve.

The good news is, other people in this country figured it out. Almost 47 years after the last landing, public and private efforts are underway to return to the moon. Recently, NASA announced plans for Project Artemis, with the ambitious goal of landing a man AND woman on the moon by the year 2024. Most of the plans center around NASA's development of the Orion space vehicle and Space Launch System, or SLS--the replacements for the Space Shuttle.

NASA faces a challenge from private contractors. SpaceX proprietor Elon Musk--a man who has never believed that money spent on space is better spent on earth--is developing the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, and has previously discussed the possibility of moonflights. Other possible suitors include Boeing, the company building the Starliner spacecraft, and Jeff Bezos, who announced plans for a Blue Moon landing craft back in May.

And, the United States faces competition from other countries in returning to the moon. India recently launched its first unmanned moon mission. China landed a similar unmanned vehicle on the lunar surface earlier this year. And, don't think Russia will sit quietly while other countries shoot for the moon.

All this points to one revelation: it's no longer of question of IF humans will return to the moon, but WHEN. Whoever does it, it needs to happen for many reasons. Anderson believes moon landings are needed as a stepping stone to exploring Mars and other plants.

"I truly believe we can't go to Mars safely without going to the moon," said Anderson, "and testing concepts, machinery and infrastructure ideas that we're going to need to survive on the moon. I like to tell the analogy that Mars is like going to Disney World, right? Your dad and mom are going to take everyone to Disney World, but they're going to take everybody to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City first, because it's closer, it's cheaper, it's maybe a little easier to get around, and you can learn the ropes, and you can know what to expect before you go to that big destination of Disney World.

"We have lots to learn before we send humans to the planet Mars successfully, and where they're able to do useful work when we get there," he added.

Granted, the old arguments about the risks and expenses of sending humans back to the moon will resurface (along with the constant idiotic claims that the moon landings were faked--sorry, but I'm not going there). But, if we want more technological and medical advances, if we want the U.S. to regain its competitive edge on so many fronts, America must return to the lunar surface, and to prove that the initial exploration of Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean, Shepard, Young, Cernan and others who strolled on the lunar surface was not in vain.

We need an improved mentality in this country. We need to be more interested in what's happening beyond the stars than "Dancing With The Stars."

And we need to remember the words spoken by JFK on that late summer afternoon in Houston, one year before his death:

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."

Mike Peterson is senior news anchor/reporter with KMA News. The opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of this station, its management or its ownership.