The Legacy of Apollo 13

by Mark Wolverton

The intrepid crew of Apollo 13 splashes down into the warm Pacific amidst the rapt crunching of popcorn and tense chewing of Milk Duds. The movie audience breathes a collective sigh of relief, satisfied at the ending of a remarkable film.

The lights come up and the people around me rise and stretch, then begin filing for the exits, toward the parking lots, toward their cars, back to their lives. They discuss how good Tom Hanks was and whether he'll snag another Oscar for his portrayal of the valiant Jim Lovell, and hey, how about those effects, then ponder the question of where to go for dinner.

And why not. After all, that space stuff was a long time ago. That was the Sixties, and it's all over now. We beat the Russians, and that's what it was really about, wasn't it?

Watching my fellow moviegoers return to their real lives, I had the depressing feeling that most of them think so. That to them, the Apollo program was nothing more a fancy Cold War political stunt and a cool subject for a summer movie, but that's about it.

And what's worse is the realization that, the way things seem to have turned out...they're absolutely right.

I can vividly remember sitting on the living room floor before my parents' big black and white TV on a summer evening in 1969, watching Neil Armstrong make his one small step. You know, the one that was supposed to be a giant leap for mankind?

I was a nine-year-old kid then, raised on Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke stories and 1950's science fiction movies. While other kids dreamed of Roman Gabriel making spectacular plays on a mythic gridiron, I dreamed of Pan Am space clippers and space stations whirling in Earth orbit and stately vessels plying the spaceways to Mars, Jupiter, and the stars. Watching Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon that night, with the fuzzy and crude TV picture somehow making it feel more authentic, I was sure it was all going to come true. First we'd explore the Moon in nine more Apollo missions, then build a huge space station from which we'd set up our permanent moonbase. As I went to bed that night, I was certain as a sheltered nine-year-old kid can be that we'd land on Mars by, oh, no later than 1990 or so. I was realistic enough to know that I probably wouldn't be the first man on Mars, but I was sure I'd at least get to watch him on television. And in color, too.

It's easy to dream such dreams when you're a kid, and don't know anything yet about budget cuts and political exigencies.

It's over 25 years later. We have not returned to the Moon. We have not built the huge space station or the moonbase. And Mars is farther away than ever. And Jupiter, Saturn, the stars...forget it.

So what happened? What became of the "giant leap"? Why is it that it's remained nothing more small step?

The stock answer is that it was simply too expensive to continue. In 1972, when Gene Cernan became the last human being to walk on the moon, we were recovering from a bloody and protracted war and facing other economic and social concerns. We simply couldn't spare the resources to go back to the moon to collect more rocks, so we bid farewell to the new frontier of space and turned inward. From a political standpoint, it's certainly a reasonable explanation.

But I believe the real reason we've squandered Apollo's giant leap is much simpler and more profound. I believe that once we'd met Kennedy's political goal of landing a man on the moon by 1970, we just allowed ourselves to forget that, in the long run, going to the moon meant much more than winning some superpower sweepstakes.

Ask the astronauts, the flight controllers, the scientists, the engineers, the technicians. For them, the space program wasn't really about beating the Russians. It was about the fulfillment of long-held dreams. It was about exploration, pushing back the boundaries of humanity into new, unknown territory, beginning the slow, painful, dangerous process of moving into the universe, breaking free of the confines of our native planet.

The film Apollo 13gives us a glimpse of the dream those people shared. It's a chronicle of what we can do when we try, "we" meaning not just the U.S.A., but the human species. We can build a 36-story rocket, the most complex machine ever, and use it to send human beings to walk on another world. And when something goes wrong, we can even bring them back home, from 240,000 miles away, using computers about as sophisticated as today's pocket calculators.

Apollo 13didn't just make me proud to be an American. It made me proud to be part of a species that can do such wondrous things, humbled and awed at the minds and hearts we possess that give us the capacity to achieve whatever we can conceive.

And it made me sad, profoundly sad, that we seem to have forgotten that.

Apollo was the first tentative baby step. We planted it firmly, tottering a little on infant's legs, looking ahead to take the next step, then the next, until we were walking. Instead we withdrew, frightened and uncertain, not daring to take that second step. Now we're back to crawling, and we don't even dare think about standing up again.

I hope that Apollo 13will do more than win Tom Hanks another Academy Award, more than revive public and political support for a renewed space program. I hope that it will inspire some nine-year-olds to dream the dreams I had in 1969, and that maybe they'll go on to become the people to follow in Neil Armstrong's footsteps.

But we don't have to wait until those kids grow up. We can start now. We can rekindle the spirit of Apollo and realize our dreams of exploration and discovery and walking on other worlds. We can push ourselves again to create incredible machines and achieve unbelievable things. We can plan in terms of the long-term future of humanity, not merely for the next budget year or until the next election.

Or we can just get back in our cars, buckle our seatbelts, pick the stray kernel of popcorn out of our teeth, and head out to McDonald's.

It's up to us. Let's choose the future.


(C) 1995, 2001 Mark Wolverton. All rights reserved.

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