Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon!

It's an interesting coincidence that Walter Cronkite died during the 4oth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11.

I'm old enough to remember his reporting of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, etc., but his coverage of the space program is what I most remember.

With retired astronaut Wally Schirra at his side, Cronkite described, forty years ago today, the moon landing and the moon walk (when that was done by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and not by the late Michael Jackson). At our house, there was no question but that Walter would be the one to bring us that news.

This past weekend, many have quoted Lyndon Johnson's supposed response to Cronkite's statement, in a documentary about the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, that the war was unwinnable. Johnson is said to have lamented that, if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost Middle America.

I wonder if the opposite effect was at work in relation to the space program. Did Cronkite's enthusiasm for space travel bolster political support for projects such as the Apollo 11 moon flight?

As Tom Wolfe described in his book The Right Stuff, America's space program was heavily tied into our Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. The USSR's launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, was a catalyst for an acceleration of the U.S.'s nascent rocket efforts. Wolfe compared the manned flights that began in the early '60s to the ancient tradition of single combat, whereby two warring sides would each send one warrior to fight a one-one-one battle to decide the issue, rather than engaging in all-out war between full armies.

After the 1960 election, in which John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were each out to prove that they were more hardline that the other in the Cold War, it was relatively easy to get Congress to appropriate funds for a program such as Apollo, which would demonstrate the ultimate superiority in rocketry, which was becoming so important to modern warfare.

As the '60s were ending, the Vietnam War had weakened support among the American people, for a hawkish approach to the Cold War. NASA had to fight harder and harder against other priorities, in order to maintain its budget for manned flights.

Then, once the U.S. had achieved the man-on-the-moon goal, support waned further. I was totally caught up in the space program, and would have been happy if moon landings had gone on forever, perhaps followed up by a Mars trip. It was hard for this space-obsessed 12-year-old to imagine that people would take a been-there-done-that attitude about moon landings, even before the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth.

There were six more attempts at lunar landings, of which five were successful. Some planned additional flights were cancelled. And, of course, human beings have not gone beyond Earth orbit since 1972.

NASA always understood the need for a strong public relations effort. And television journalists such as Cronkite saw the potential for spectacular TV images from the manned flights. Without that PR effort, it's possible that support for the program would have eroded even earlier.
Image: NASA

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