Tom Stangl

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.

With the rest of my family, gathered in our darkened living room, I was one of the 600 million who watched grainy video on our Zenith black and white television of a man stepping on the moon.

Just in case you have been living under a rock, Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Viewed from the perspective of 2019, the landing of the Eagle lunar module is even more striking today.

I was an 8-year-old child when I watched Neil Armstrong take those historic first steps, so I have been devouring the coverage that is airing now.

I am watching the three-part, six-hour film “Chasing the Moon” that aired last week on public television. Documentarian Robert Stone did an artful job painstakingly going through countless hours of film and television video tape to tell the story of the space race, from Sputnik to Apollo. 

Since America won the race to the moon, it is easy to forget the high stakes of the space race. There was a period of time in the early 1960s when the Soviet Union was clearly in the driver’s seat in the race.

Even though Richard Nixon was the president who made the very long-distance call to Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, it was his nemesis, John F. Kennedy, who is remembered for having the audacity to dare to reach for the moon with a very tight schedule.

Kennedy’s gamble was to leapfrog over the Soviets to get to the moon. The price tag was steep, with Apollo costing $25.5 billion, around $150 billion in today’s dollars.

The film shows a private conversation Kennedy had after making the challenge, doubting if the nation could afford the costs of the project. Kennedy also encouraged the inclusion of an African American in the test pilot and astronaut programs, another big leap that eventually fell short.

It is interesting to me that the seeds of the space race were planted in the aftermath of World War II. 

Engineers in Nazi Germany were working on a ballistic missile system that had the potential to change the outcome of the war. When the war ended, the Soviets and Americans scooped up as many scientists and engineers as they could. The Soviets eventually sent their former Nazis home. One of the American Nazis, Wernher von Braun, became a very public face of the program.

When Richard Nixon scuttled plans to go to Mars, von Braun was publicly outraged and left the program in 1972. He died of cancer in 1977.

Armstrong and Aldrin eventually took control of the lunar lander when the landing site the computer was taking them to was strewn with large boulders. When the spacecraft landed, it had 40 seconds of fuel left.

You can’t fault the computers too much. They had less computing power than the first iPhones.

Much of the math and computations regarding spaceflight were done by human beings, called “computers.” If you have read the book or seen the movie “Hidden Figures” you know the story of these very smart and underappreciated women.

Even though politicians have called for “moonshot” priorities for things from cancer to climate, no one has been able to mobilize and unite the nation in peacetime like Kennedy did with the race to the moon.

As always, I welcome your comments. You can reach me by email at tstangl@theameryfreepress.com, telephone 715-268-8101 or write me at P.O. Box 424, Amery, WI, 54001.

Thanks for reading; I’ll keep in touch. Feel free to do the same.

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