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.