Arthur C. Clarke’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released shortly before I left for Vietnam. My wife and I saw it in New York City, and it mesmerized us. No, not the fantasy about the lunar monolith beeping toward Jupiter or the insanity of Keir Dullea, in his best role ever, trying to complete the mission alone after the HAL 9000 computer (voice of Douglas Rain) has killed everyone else aboard Discovery One because it decided that they were a threat to the mission; not the absurdity of Dullea surviving several seconds unprotected in the vacuum of frozen space; and certainly not him as a decrepit old man in a Louis XIV bedroom or the gigantic fetus floating peacefully in the galactic womb. Great special effects for that time, to be sure, and the symphonic music could not have been more appropriate to them: The Blue Danube Waltz and Thus Spake Zarathustra.
But what did that mean? Clarke was famously silent on the matter. He obviously didn’t know, either. He had become enchanted with the mystical and visual effects he could bring forth, “stretching the envelope” as the fighter jocks and astronauts still say. The proof? Try the dismal and nonsensical sequel, 2010. A view of cosmic evolution? Claptrap.
But what grabbed us that hot summer day was the logical inevitability of the first hour or so: mankind outward bound into the solar system. We’d have permanent competing scientific installations as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. extended the cold war to a very cold spot — the moon; regular commercial service between earth and the moon provided by Pan American, “The World’s Most Experienced Airline” (1927 – 1991); space-to-earth videophones a commonplace. The moon and beyond for a welcome time took my mind off my actual destination. On Christmas Eve I would listen to the Apollo 8 astronauts — Borman, Lovell, and Anders — in lunar orbit reading from Genesis on Armed Forces radio at the 11th Cavalry’s base camp near Xuan Loc.
On July 16, 1969, we watched the Apollo 11 launch on the TV in our motel room in Daytona Beach and then stepped out onto the balcony where we saw a tiny intense streak of yellow light arcing out toward earth orbit, the first phase of the moon-landing mission. Four days later in my parents’ tiny living room in West Orange, N.J., we held our breath as we saw the grainy, live, black-and-white image of Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder and stepping onto the powdery surface.
The Apollo lunar voyages coincided almost precisely with my law school career. I was attending the Army’s JAGC Basic Course in Charlottesville, Va., when a classmate and I watched the night launch of Apollo 17 on TV in 1972. Apollo 18, 19, and 20 had already been cancelled — budget cuts. William F. Buckley, Jr., and the poet and novelist James Dickey (Deliverance) were there. Thirty-three years later Bill would write:
“It was very cold and still dark when the moon-bound streak of fire shot up
from the launch pad. Dickey the poet was frozen in awe and admiration. At
breakfast he threatened to break the neck of a television commentator whom
he heard saying that the cost of this lunar extravagance was the equivalent of
126,000 units of low-cost housing. Dickey was trembling with furious indig-
nation that such vulgar measurements were being used to discredit the
beauty and awesomeness of the enterprise we had just seen coming up from
its womb on a Florida beach.”
We’ve heard it all before, of course. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can . . . .” [complete the sentence with whatever benefit you can imagine bestowing on society’s parasites at taxpayer expense]. As a matter of fact, we can’t — put a man on the moon, that is. We would have to start from “Ground Zero,” where we were in 1961 when President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” The technology is no longer available, and even if it were, it would be primitive and obsolete. The first high-tech layoffs began at Cape Canaveral at about the time of the Apollo 11 launch in 1969. NASA knew what was coming. As a nation we were about to become the dog that chased the car and finally caught it, and then didn’t know what to do with it.
I stand second to no one in my admiration for the cool, intelligent, and courageous men and women who constitute today’s astronaut corps. It has been a disservice to them that they have had nothing to work with for 37 years except vehicles in earth orbit, principally the Space Shuttle, that ungainly monstrous white elephant. What purposes has it served? Well, let’s see. It was instrumental in the building of the International Space Station. The ISS is . . . uh, oh yeah . . . to be used as a jumping off place for future lunar landings, the establishment of a permanent base on the moon, and future journeys where no one has gone before. Not in my lifetime — not when President Obama himself has announced that “We’re out of money,” and he’s the guy who can print all he wants.
Yes, it launched, repaired, and maintained the Hubble Space Telescope, a magnificent scientific achievement that has contributed more to our understanding of the universe than anything has before. But in the first 16 years of manned missions, the U.S. did not have a single fatality in space. The Shuttle’s flaws have claimed 14 brave souls. It is due to be retired next year and its successor won’t be ready to fly until 2014, but don’t set your alarm clock by that prediction.
Yes, most of its missions have been resounding successes. But toward what great end? I recall the late Carl Sagan (Cosmos) being asked to comment on the triumphant conclusion of a Space Shuttle mission. He responded: “Ah, yes. Once again we have proved that tomato plants do not do well in Zero-G. This is not the exploration of space.” Some day we will look back at the Shuttle as a major wrong turn in the development of space travel, much as we now look back on dirigibles in the history of aviation.
The surviving Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts are very old men now. Two generations have become voters since Apollo 17. They cannot grasp the magnificence of the era when heroes walked the Earth, and the Moon, from pallid textbooks and old video footage. In 1995 our daughter, then 23, returned home from seeing Apollo 13. “Was it really like that?” she asked me. I told her that I remembered those excruciating days well and to the best of my recollection they hadn’t made anything up or left anything important out. She unintentionally quoted the words of Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March) at the end of The Bridges at Toko-Ri: “Where do we get such men?”
“Not under this roof,” I assured her.
During one of his “Jaywalking” bits on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno asked a young woman if she knew the name of the first man to walk on the moon. “Armstrong?” she answered tentatively.
Leno said, “Good. What’s his first name?” She replied: “Louis!”
Leno looked directly into the camera and said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
My wife and I were not alone in seeing a straight line to the future in the summer of 1968 as we watched 2001. But Wernher von Braun’s “bridge to the stars” seems now as far away as ever.