Did you know that the last man to step foot on the moon did so forty-five years ago today? In fewer than four years, NASA achieved six successful lunar landings--the first on July 20, 1969 and the last on December 19, 1972 with the Apollo 17 mission. NASA and the last few Apollo crews made great strides by, among other great feats, deploying a lunar rover and exploring the moon for multiple days. However, as the astronauts were just gearing up for the next stages of exploration., President Richard Nixon placed a capstone on Apollo a program still in its youth, like the beardless robust Greek god for which it was named.
Never give up, never slow down, never grow old and never ever die young. -James Taylor
Singer and songwriter, James Taylor could have been speaking for space enthusiasts when he spoke those lines. They believed that the first, “giant leap for mankind” was the first of many. To them, Star Trek, which began broadcasting at the same time Apollo was getting off the ground, seemed like a prophecy. Certainly, the world would be seeing weekly flights to the moon by the early seventies, as von Braun had envisioned. After all, the Wright brothers’ first flight was relatively recent history and people still remembered it had taken a mere eleven years from that first flight at Kitty Hawk to the first commercial plane trip out of St. Petersburg-Tampa. The time span between the first transcontinental airmail service to the establishment of the first transcontinental airline? Three years. The span between the Soviets’ first rocket and the Americans’ Moon landing? Twelve years. The optimistic anticipated similar strides in the space industry.
If space flight matched that momentum, , what would keep us from continuing straight onto the next planet?
Politics. President Kennedy set Apollo in motion to beat the Russians. As long as the United States was competing with the Soviet Union, the space program could ensure generous funding. But when the Cold War ended, the political fuel for space exploration began to diminish. The historian William Burrows argues that Apollo had been undertaken “for exactly the wrong reason.”
Perhaps. On the other hand, maybe it was precisely the right reason for the time. Apollo provided a momentous, peaceful demonstration of American systems at work, to persuade other nations to choose our systems. And maybe that still is a good reason for an ambitious space program.
Richard Nixon offered an answer. His task group on space, led by Vice President Spiro Agnew, understood that the heroism of astronauts would drive support for the program. But space had developed an industry that had become economically indispensable. It had taken on a momentum of its own. The question was how to keep that momentum going in the cheapest way possible. Nixon’s decision: a reusable spacecraft that would send people into orbit at the lowest cost. And so was born the Space Shuttle. Columbia took off in 1981, completing 28 flights over the next 22 years. It and the four other Shuttles notched a total of 135 missions, launching satellites and carrying out experiments in space until the program ended in 2011.Right at the tail end of Apollo, in 1972, an orbiter called Mariner 9 mapped nearly all of Mars and sent back the first photos of the Martian moons, along with a massive amount of data—and tantalizing hints of life. During our Bicentennial, the Viking landers, equipped with a biology instrument to detect life, descended on Mars. They showed good evidence of water and generated data that took two decades to examine.
Meanwhile, other probes were leapfrogging Mars and heading to the outer reaches of the Solar System. The Pioneer series set speed records after they launched and sling-shotted past the Red Planet; Pioneer 10 reached the speed of 82,000 miles an hour. In 1973, it brushed by Jupiter, taking pictures just 81,000 miles above its surface. The probe showed that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is probably a gargantuan storm. Pioneer 10 then soared on the solar wind, passed Neptune’s orbit, and in 1983 left the Solar System, where it continued to send back data. Pioneer 11 took more pictures of Jupiter, explored Saturn’s rings, and examined the planet’s moons. The Mariner series took close looks at Mars. The probes told an alarming story: Venus is far hotter than its position from the Sun would warrant. Consisting almost entirely of carbon dioxide, Venus’s atmosphere offered planetary proof of the Greenhouse Effect. The Mariners showed one key practical benefit of planetary exploration.
Politics played a huge role then as they do now. At a time when other countries, notably China, are making strides towards sending humans to the moon, the United States has a renewed interest in not only sending astronauts and robots to the moon, but also in creating an outpost on the moon as a staging platform for missions into deep space.
Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the National Space Council's first meeting on Oct. 5 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. UdvarHazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Image Credit: NASA
"We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but [also] to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond." - Vice President Mike Pence
1. How does discovery (the result of exploration and science) contribute to our security and to making life better for all?
2. What are the implications of politics on funding for exploration and science?
3. How can everyday citizens make sure that the U.S. takes the lead as humans move deep into deep space?
4. Research Jupiter's Great Red Spot. How might understanding this storm enable us to better understand Earth's atmosphere?
5. What is ticker-tape? What are examples of modern day versions of a ticker-tape parade?
6. When do you predict the first astronaut will step foot on Mars?
7. Who is Apollo? Where did other space programs get their names?
8. Did you know that NASA has thousands of lesson plans and other resources available for use in the classroom? Checkout the resources here:https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/index.html