Space

Walking Off the Map of the Known World, Via Pluto

It saddened me greatly to miss Buzz Aldrin's visit to Bismarck last week. I was by then in Montana, retracing a bit of Thomas Jefferson's "Apollo program," my annual cultural tour on the Lewis and Clark trail on the Missouri River's White Cliffs stretch, and then on to the Lolo Trail just inside Idaho, west of Missoula. It's always one of the professional highlights of my year.

I was once briefly mistaken for Buzz Aldrin in Grand Forks, but that is another tale for another time.

Aldrin was the second man on the moon. Almost immediately after he stepped down onto the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, he spontaneously formulated perhaps the best short description ever offered about earth's lone satellite. Aldrin called what he saw "magnificent desolation."

Aldrin has written a number of books about his Apollo Program experience, which can be collectively summarized by the phrase, "When you've been to the moon, what's left?" I call this the Buzz Aldrin Syndrome—peaking early, spending the rest of your life trying to recover the ecstasy or learn to accept normalcy. Olympic athletes sometimes experience this, as well as soldiers who have been in harm's way, and extreme sportsmen. Meriwether Lewis suffered grievously after his return from the wilderness in 1806, when he realized that bestriding the source of the "heretofore deemed endless Missouri River" had been the greatest moment of his life. He was just 32 years old. Not only would he never do anything that extraordinary again, but nobody else would ever discover the source of the Missouri again. The philosopher Nietzsche called this "the melancholy of all things accomplished."

North Dakota's great Eric Sevareid, who covered the American space program throughout the 1960s, reflected on the probable plight of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. "We're always going to feel, somehow, strangers to these men," he said, while the astronauts were still on the moon. "They will, in effect, be a bit stranger, even to their own wives and children. Disappeared into another life that we can't follow. I wonder what their lives will be like, now." As far as I'm concerned, this is a perfect example of Sevareid's genius.

Meanwhile, NASA's New Horizons probe has been sending back stunning photographs of Pluto, once a planet, now demoted to "dwarf planet" status. The most recent photograph, taken within 8,000 miles of the former planet's surface, hurtled across the solar system at the speed of sound, but Pluto is so far away that it took 4.5 hours for the image to reach the earth. Think about this for a moment. Our scientific capacity is so great that we can project a tiny capsule almost three billion miles away from the earth and bring it into a perfect rendezvous with a small rapidly moving spheroid. This would be like shooting a .22 caliber bullet in Bismarck and hitting a bouncing ping pong ball in Japan.

One of my close media friends wondered out loud the other day whether the photographs of Pluto were worth the $700 million it cost to send the probe. I say yes, absolutely, positively, unquestionably yes. Tomorrow marks the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I regard that event as one of the handful of greatest moments in the history of humankind. It's as great an achievement as Shakespeare's Hamlet, as great an accomplishment as the pyramids of Egypt, as great an triumph as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I feel tremendously fortunate to have lived through that moment, to have sat in my parents' living room and watched the first human ever to set foot on a celestial object other than the earth. I find it appalling and unbearable that we have no rocket today that can project our astronauts into orbit, that we are forced to lighten our geopolitical pressures on neo-imperial Russia in part because they are the only space taxi that can get our astronauts up to the International Space Station.

We humans are measured by what our innate restlessness can make happen—in poetry, in sculpture, in architecture, in philosophy, in technology, in exploration. If we ever turn away from that restlessness, we may find happiness, but we will cease to be what Hamlet called "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals."

Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930. It was demoted in 2006. The man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, grew up in a puny village called Burdett, Kansas. A small quantity of Tombaugh's ashes were placed in the New Horizons probe, thus carrying the discoverer to the planetary body he discovered. What could be more wonderful than that? Tombaugh was a Great Plains farm boy who developed a fascination with celestial objects and the kind of unbelievable precision that enabled him to pick out the planetary movement of Pluto against a dizzying sea of fixed stars.

I feel some special affinity with Clyde Tombaugh. We were born on the same day (February 4), though half a century apart. After World War II, he was stationed at White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico, where my father served for two years as a desk clerk and supply sergeant. It is at least possible that they met.

I've been more fortunate than Tombaugh (though I haven't discovered a darn thing), because he lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. His plans to go to college were crushed by a hailstorm that ruined the family's crops and left his parents destitute. He began building home brew telescopes from local odds and ends in 1926. Four years later, at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, he discovered the trans-Neptunian planet that Percival Lowell had insisted must be out there somewhere. Tombaugh was only 24 years old.

Tombaugh has an asteroid named after him (1604 Tombaugh), but he did not get to name the planet he discovered. The name Pluto was suggested by an eleven-year-old English schoolgirl named Venetia Burney. All the previous planets (except earth) were named for Roman gods: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, so it was perhaps inevitable that the new planet would also be named from classical mythology. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, of darkness, and of death. Pluto (the Greek Hades) was able to make himself invisible. That's what led the young British girl to suggest the name. Tombaugh immediately approved.

The New Horizons probe has also taken photographs of one of Pluto's five moons, Charon. Charon was the figure in Hades who ferried the dead across the river Styx. Given the deep classical heritage of the discovery and naming of the planets, Charon adds considerable profundity to the designation of the last planet as Pluto.

It was at Fort Mandan, on the upper Missouri, in what would eventually become North Dakota, that Meriwether Lewis walked off the map of the known world on April 7, 1805. He believed, Euro-centrically, that every step he took west of Fort Mandan was the first ever made by a "civilized man." Lewis was so inspired by this idea—that he was going where no white man had ever gone before—that he began writing his journal after almost a yearlong silence. He said he was "now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width upon which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."

Boldly to go where no man has gone before—that's the essence of the human spirit.


A Crescent Moon With Eyewitnesses to American History

Last Tuesday, I got to spend the entire day with Dr. Harrison Schmitt, the last man ever to step down onto the Moon, and the second to last man ever to leave the surface of the Moon. He was speaking at the JFK symposium at Bismarck State, and I volunteered to shepherd him to his appearances in Bismarck.

Schmitt lives in Albuquerque. He's now 78 years old. Of the twelve men (all men) who have walked on the Moon, he's the only true scientist. He was put on the last mission (December 7-19, 1972) because NASA had pledged that it would send scientists to the Moon once it worked out the safety and logistical kinks, and suddenly it was determined by an imaginative-starved Congress that Apollo 17 would be the last mission of the series. So it was now or never. Schmitt turned out to be a perfect choice for the last mission. Because of his geological training (Harvard Ph.D., 1964), he discovered what other scientists have called "the single most significant lunar sample" ever collected.

For me, spending time with an Apollo lunar astronaut is as big a deal as spending a day with Paul McCartney or Michael Jordan or Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. This was the first time in the history of the world when humans left their home planet, and found a way to live safely (for a short time) on another object in the solar system. Dr. Schmitt says the Apollo moment (1966-1972) represents an evolutionary leap for mankind; for the first time we found a niche for ourselves outside the protective biosphere of the good earth. For those who might argue that the Moon landings were not such a big deal, think again. The fact that Moon flights did not become routine, that we have never been back to the Moon since 1972, and we have no plans to go back, that we now don't even have a rocket that could get us there, tells you what a big deal it was. President Kennedy said it just right in September 1962 at Rice University in Houston: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

The Saturn V rocket, designed by the German genius Wernher von Braun, spent the overwhelming majority of its 7.5 million pounds of thrust (the gigantic first stage contained 203,400 gallons of kerosene, and 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen) just getting the spaceship the first 42 miles into the sky. Such is the appalling tug of gravity, and such is the amount of force required to lift an object the size of school bus beyond "the surly bonds of earth." The rest, on a lunar journey of 240,000 miles one way, was comparatively easy.

As Norman Mailer put it in his superb study of Apollo 11, Of a Fire on the Moon, igniting a Saturn V rocket is essentially setting off a controlled explosion and hoping for the best. In the evening hours of December 6, 1972, Dr. Schmitt let himself be strapped on the top of that controlled explosion on a rocket 366 feet tall (half again as high as the North Dakota state capitol), and then somebody pushed the "launch" button and the Saturn V shook, rattled, and rolled until three men and tons of equipment were hurled all the way to the Moon. Would you take that chance?

I would in a nanosecond, even knowing the odds. And if someone offered me the chance to fly to Mars, and land on the surface not of our near-neighbor Moon, but on another planet 140 million miles away, I'd sign on immediately, even if there were absolutely no way to return to the Earth. I'd rather die on Mars than in a hospital bed, invaded by tubes, no matter at what age.

I believe we made it to the Moon in the 1960s because of the death of President Kennedy. That's a horrible irony, but I think it is true. Like his stalled Civil Rights bill, his stalled national education funding bill, his stalled Medicare bill, all of which he could not have passed in his first, and probably not even in his second term, Kennedy's signature Apollo Moon program achieved success in large part because his successor Lyndon Johnson insisted that the United States fulfill the New Frontier agenda to honor his martyred predecessor. LBJ, one of the greatest legislative strategists in American history, used Kennedy's death and his own colossal powers of persuasion to accomplish what had eluded his much more glamorous and popular predecessor.

I feel like the luckiest man alive. On the same night last week I got to have dinner with Clint Hill, the secret service agent who jumped forward onto the limousine on the day John F. Kennedy was killed, and who probably saved Mrs. Kennedy's life, and then go to the airport to pick up Harrison Schmitt.

A good friend of mine asked the other day if the Kennedy 50th anniversary hoopla is not just a kind of swan song for the Baby Boomers, who are "once again engaging in national nostalgia for their lost youth." I was startled by the question, and I had one of those inrushes of queasiness that come when someone gets through your complacent defenses and asks a question that really rattles your soul. But I think he was wrong

Clint Hill and Harrison Schmitt. Talk about eyewitnesses to history. November 22, 1963, was arguably one of the four or five most pivotal moments of the twentieth century, and the Apollo Moon program was quite possibly the greatest single moment in the history of technology. Triumph and tragedy. In some respects Schmitt and Hill (space and assassination), summarize the entire Kennedy era. John Glenn and John Connally, Walter Schirra and Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Daniel Ellsberg, Alan Shepard and Allen Dulles. It was an unforgettable decade.

Kennedy captured the spirit of the age in his famous inaugural address, widely considered one of the greatest in American history. After explaining the many challenges he was about to face, the youngest elected president of American history said, "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation." Precisely. Would you change places with the folks of Jefferson's era, or Shakespeare's, or even Woodrow Wilson's? Not I. And if I were a woman, or an African-American, or a gay man or woman, absolutely positively not.

After dinner with Dr. Schmitt the other night I drove over to BSC to hear Clint Hill tell the appalling story of the last two days of John F. Kennedy's life. As I drove west towards BSC I looked out the side window of my car. There was a perfect silvery crescent in the southwestern sky. It was the new Moon and it was astonishingly beautiful. I slowed down to a crawl to gaze out into the night.

I ached with a sense of loss and pride, sorrow, nostalgia, an acute sense of human possibility and of lost possibility, and I nearly burst into tears. "We went there," I said to myself.

"Thanks to John F. Kennedy, we went there."


"Schmitt Next to Big Boulder." From NASA on the Commons via Flickr.

Your Chance to Meet the Second to Last Man to Walk on the Moon

In just over two weeks we get the chance to meet Harrison Schmitt, the second to last man to walk on the moon. He's coming to the great JFK public humanities symposium at BSC (November 5-7) to talk about John F. Kennedy and the space program. At 3:45 on Wednesday, November 6, Schmitt will speak about the extraordinary chain of events that followed Kennedy's May 25, 1961, call to action, before a joint session of Congress, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

If you want to meet someone who stood on the surface of the moon, this is your best chance, because the Apollo astronauts, like the Beatles, are blinking out, and it is clear that the United States is not going back to the moon in the lifetime of anyone who is reading these words. That, I believe, is both a matter of national shame and a monument to President Kennedy, who argued, at Rice University on September 12, 1962 that, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

If JFK had not said spoken these words, and—perhaps more importantly—if he had not been cut down by an assassin's bullet on November 22, 1963, we probably would not have landed men on the moon as soon as we did, and perhaps not at all, particularly after the Apollo 1 fire on January 27,1967, in which three astronauts were killed while conducting a liftoff simulation at the Florida launch pad, at the very beginning of the lunar phase of the U.S. space program. NASA overcame that terrible setback, in part to honor the legacy of the fallen President. Leadership matters. If Thomas Jefferson had not been captivated, all of his life, by the idea of exploring the deep interior of the North American continent, Lewis and Clark would never have ventured up the Missouri River in search of a "passage to India" between 1804-06. In that case, the remarkable Sacagawea (ca. 1787-1812) would have lived out her life in complete historical obscurity. We need Presidents who are dreamers and visionaries, not mere caretakers.

Schmitt, the only true scientist to walk on the moon, holds a B.S. in geology from Cal Tech (1957) and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard (1963). Just before midnight (EST) on December 13, 1972, at the end of the Apollo XVII's third and final moonwalk, Schmitt lumbered up the ladder into the Lunar Module. A few minutes later the mission commander Gene Cernan made the climb, one small step for a man, and the end of an era for mankind. Cernan's last words on the lunar surface were prosaic. "As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come--but we believe not too long into the future--I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." That was almost 41 years ago.

In the history of the world, only twelve individuals (all men) have walked on the moon: Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo XI, July 21, 1969); Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo XII, 1969); Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell (Apollo XIV, 1971); David Scott and James Irwin (Apollo XV, 1971); John Young and Charles Duke (Apollo XVI, 1972); and Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo XVII, December 11-14, 1972). Four of those men are already dead: James Irwin (1991); Alan Shepard (1998); Pete Conrad (1999); and the first human ever to set foot on another world, Neal Armstrong, on August 25, 2012.

Cernan and Schmitt had three separate moonwalks in December 1972 for a total of 22 hours, three minutes, and 57 seconds. Altogether they collected 243.7 pounds of moon rocks in several geologically distinct formations. They were one of three moon crews (Apollo XV, XVI, XVII) to employ a Lunar Rover (a moon convertible that looked like an Erector Set project), which at one point took them a full 4.7 miles from their lunar base camp. When Cernan accidentally broke one of the rover's fenders with his hammer, the pair of astronauts repaired it with—you guessed it—duct tape. Cernan later wrote, "I was going to have to get that damned fender fixed, and there wasn't a repair shop within 250,000 miles."

Schmitt was a somewhat controversial figure in lunar exploration. Because he was a civilian, not one of the military breed of astronaut for whom Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase "the Right Stuff," he was at first regarded as an aloof and "all business" interloper by some NASA space veterans. But once he plopped down onto the surface of the moon, on December 11, 1972, he surprised everyone. His lunar geological work was first rate, but he also took time to enjoy the rapture of the experience. He took a few spectacular falls in his clumsy space suit. After one such tumble the ground crew called him "twinkeltoes," and after another spinning fall the Cap-Com on earth, Bob Parker, informed him that the Houston Ballet was enquiring about his availability for a sublunary performance. Schmitt sang two songs on the moon: "Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie; where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free," and—later, "I was strolling on the Moon one day, in the merry merry month of December, er May."

Years later, asked to describe what he felt in bounding around on the lunar surface, with the perfect blue sphere of Earth reduced to the size of a marble in the black, black sky, Schmitt said, "It's like trying to describe what you feel when you're standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it's like."

Schmitt served one term as a United States Senator from New Mexico (1976-82), where he was assigned, naturally enough, to the Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee. His political challenger in 1982, NM Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, campaigned with the clever but unfair slogan, "What on Earth has he done for you lately?" Bingaman won, and Schmitt became a consultant and college professor.

For many years Schmitt has been one of America's leading advocates of returning to the Moon; and using that achievement as the foundation for a manned journey to Mars. He has a book on the subject called Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space (2006). Schmitt is also an outspoken Global Climate Change skeptic. He has publicly argued that special interest groups and government are using the idea of Global Warming as a means of exerting greater control over the lives and incomes of the American people.

As a lifelong space junkie, I cannot wait to shake the hand of Jack Schmitt on the fourth floor of BSC's National Energy Center of Excellence, and listen to his insights. Meanwhile, if you want to get into the mood, go see the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The plot is sentimental and the dialogue lame, but it is nevertheless, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made.


Eugene A. Cernan & Harrison Schmitt aboard the Apollo 17. From NASA on the Commons via flickr.