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January 20th: The Legacy of Apollo, with Andrew Chaikin

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Date: January 20, 2011

Title: The Legacy of Apollo

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Podcasters: Andrew Chaikin and Nancy Atkinson

Organization: The NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) http://lunarscience.arc.nasa.gov/
Andrew Chaikin’s website: http://www.andrewchaikin.com/

Description: The Apollo program to send humans to the Moon has been called the greatest technological achievement in human history, and for many it was an inspiration for their future. Today, we’ll talk about the legacy of Apollo, and who better to discuss this than science journalist and space historian Andrew Chaikin, author of the book “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” which is widely regarded as the definitive account of the Apollo moon missions.

Bio: The NLSI brings together leading lunar scientists from around the world to further NASA lunar science and exploration.

Award-winning science journalist and space historian Andrew Chaikin has authored books and articles about space exploration and astronomy for more than 25 years. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, was published in 1994, and was the main basis for Tom Hanks’ 12-part HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, which won the Emmy for best miniseries in 1998.

In addition to writing several books Chaikin is a commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, and the NPR programs Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. He has been an advisor to NASA on space policy and public communications. Find out more at his website, http://www.andrewchaikin.com/.

Nancy Atkinson is a science journalist and is the Senior Editor for Universe Today.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at signup@365daysofastronomy.org.

Transcript:

Voice: You are listening to the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast which highlights the latest news information of the Moon, on the Moon and from the Moon. It is produced from the NASA Lunar Science Institute at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Hi this is Nancy Atkinson for the NASA Lunar Science Institute. The Apollo program to send humans to the Moon has been called the greatest technological achievement in human history, and for many it was an inspiration for their future. Today, we’ll talk about the legacy of Apollo, and who better to discuss this than science journalist and space historian Andrew Chaikin, author of the book that I like to call the Apollo Bible, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, which is widely regarded as the definitive account of the moon missions.

Hi Andy and welcome to the NLSI podcast

Chaikin: Hi Nancy, nice to be with you.

Nancy: Andy, you and I grew up with Apollo as part of our lives, but there are current generations now that view this as kind of ancient history. What do you see as the lasting legacy of the Apollo program?

Chaikin: You, it’s funny to realize that, when I walk around I feel like some kind of a throwback sometimes focusing on these things that happened so long ago compared to kids now who really had no experience of it and sort of see it as ancient history. But the lasting legacy, as you say, is there and you have to kind of take the long view to see it. You know, simply put Apollo was the opening act in a story that has no end. It’s a story of human beings leaving their home planet and venturing out into the universe, and as far as we go into space in some distant epoch when we are living in other star systems and venturing throughout the galaxy, Apollo will have been the first step, so it is absolutely monumental when you look at it in that scale.

I think that on the scale of 20th century/21st century history, I think Apollo is a lasting inspiration about what humans can accomplish when they work together. You’ve probably heard the figure that 400,000 people worked together both in NASA and outside NASA within the contractors who built the craft, all the scientists who worked on the program, etc. That is an amazing group effort, all those people coming together and giving all they had to accomplish something that was just a dream.

And then when we accomplished that, we got to a place where humans had never been before, and the other lasting legacy is the view that we got from that mountaintop, the view of our Earth as a very precious oasis of life in space, and a world that really is to be cherished and protected.

Nancy: Yes, I think that is one of the greatest images ever taken.

Chaikin: Right. And we knew it was then, even as it was happening, that that was the most profound impact of the voyage. In fact, if you look at the front page of the New York Times the very day after Frank Borman and his crew became the first humans to orbit the Moon, you will see an essay by a poet named Archibald MacLeish talking about the impact of that view and the perspective of us as brothers in the eternal cold riding on spaceship Earth. So this is one of the things sets Apollo apart from other explorations is that we were experiencing it as it happened through live television and we were actually absorbing and processing the impact in real time, but then humans being as attention-challenged as they are, especially in the rapidly increasing pace of developments that we’ve had in the last 40 years, it didn’t take very long for it to become old hat and to kind of recede into history. And that is where we are today.

Nancy: Could you talk specifically a little bit about the impact – you talked about the technology we have today – the impact on the technology and science and engineering.

Chaikin: Right. It is profound also, because a lot of the challenges that Apollo presented forced the industries to accelerate their development, particularly in microelectronics. It is not that NASA invented all of the microelectronics that we use today but rather that the requirements of building a moon-ship and cramming with all of the electronics that it needed to do its job required the electronics industry to miniaturize at a faster pace, it required the development of computers that could fit on a spacecraft, it required all kinds of analytical techniques and real-time tracking of the spacecraft as it went to and from the Moon. The legacy today is all the communications technologies and information processing technology that we are surrounded by. That really got an amazing jump start as part of the Apollo program.

Nancy: What about the impact on the culture of the world and on people in general?

Chaikin: I think it really did show people that anything was possible. In fact there was a phrase that went into our language after Apollo, and that was “If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we…” fill in the blank. Unfortunately, you can’t necessarily fill in the blank with anything you want because not everything is an engineering challenge. Engineering challenges can be attacked with slide rules, in those days, or these days, computers, or the testing of components, whereas solving the problems we have of the intense rise in population on the planet, the disparity of wealth in the world, the political upheavals we face here at home and abroad, as well as medical problems – cancer and so forth. These are not engineering challenges and they can’t necessarily be solved in the way that Apollo was solved, with a massive effort, a well-funded project. But nevertheless, the spirit is there. The spirit that humans can overcome monumental challenges by working together I think is a valid legacy of Apollo culturally. And it also, again, gave us the perspective of space travelers. We were seeing our home from another world, and we were discovering another world. The Moon itself is a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the history of the solar system. It is profoundly valuable world for us on so many levels. And it is a spectacular place, and the astronauts – and I’ve spent hours talking to all of them about the Moon, about the experience of being on the moon and they just say it is a spectacular place. It is too bad that the political impetus for going to the Moon was so short-lived because it was part of the Cold war, so looking back we can see why that was the case. But it is too bad we kind of lost interest in the Moon and it has taken us so long to turn our attention back to the Moon and all it has to offer.

Nancy: Yeah, and unfortunately the program ended before a lot of the scientific hopes could be realized.

Chaikin: Well, and the scientific exploration of the Moon, the technology for that has improved dramatically since 1969 when we first landed on the Moon, so going back to the Moon now even robotically, we can learn things about the Moon that are just staggering. As you know, we’ve been finding that there seems to be a lot of frozen water at the poles of the Moon and this is a completely different view of the Moon than we would have had 40 years ago. And there are more and more intricacies that we are finding all the time from the technology that we have now to study the rocks that the astronauts brought back and the new data that is coming in from the spacecraft that are orbiting the Moon now.

Nancy: So even though it did end early, do you see that there is an impact from Apollo on the future of human spaceflight?

Chaikin: I think it has been problematic because Apollo was a unique event, and it took a long time for people in the space community to understand that. I think for many decades people sort of saw Apollo as a model for how to do a space program, that you get a President to get up and make a challenge and the country follows along and does great things. But that was only true that one time in the context of the Cold War. We went to the Moon when we did not because we were a nation devoted to exploration but because it seemed politically to be an important thing to do in the context of our Cold War with the Soviet Union. Once that was accomplished, then that political imperative evaporated.

And so Apollo is really an historical anomaly, and so what is required now is the development of technologies that will allow us to explore space in a sustainable way, that won’t break the bank and will allow us to do more and more and more with reliable transportation systems that get us up into low Earth orbit and then build the machines that can actually be stored in space to allow us to venture beyond low Earth orbit to the Moon and even further, to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. So I’m actually very excited about the work being done in the private sector, folks like Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, which is one of several groups trying to develop new transportation systems to give us that sustainable hardware, that sustainable architecture that can allow us to really get back in the game of exploring, not only with robots as we have been doing all along, but with now with humans again.

Nancy: Thanks very much Andy for sharing your insights on the future and past of spaceflight and thanks very much for joining us.

Chaikin: Anytime! And if anyone would like to know more about what I’ve been up to, please visit my website, which is andrewchaikin.com.

Nancy: All right, thanks very much.

Chaikin: All right, Nancy, thank you.

Voice: To find out more about this topic, visit our website at www.lunarscience.nasa.gov. Any opinions expressed are the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of NASA or the NASA Lunar Science Institute. This podcast is produced for educational purposes only. On behalf of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, thanks for listening.

End of podcast:

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