Nolte: America Went to the Moon and then Went Shopping

Space Frontiers/Getty Images
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

The most dangerous part of going to the moon is the blast of energy required to break away from the Earth’s gravitational pull. Fifty years ago, that meant NASA would need a rocket 100 times more powerful than the Mercury boosters that put the first American into orbit.

The Saturn V was designed by a former Nazi, Wernher von Braun; it was taller than the length of a football field, weighed 6.5 million pounds, and carried almost a million gallons of fuel.

Sitting above all that fuel, concealed within Saturn V, was the Apollo Spacecraft that would take us to the moon.

Most important, there were three men strapped to the top of that Saturn V; and on July 16, 1969, those three men were Commander Neil Armstrong (38), Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin (39), and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (38).  Their mission was to fulfill the pledge of John F. Kennedy, the slain president who had audaciously announced eight years earlier — before we had even launched  a man into orbit — that before the end of the decade, America would land a man on the moon and safely bring him home.

The Saturn V is a three-stage launch vehicle. With 7.5 million pounds of thrust that require a half-million gallons of fuel, the first stage launches the payload 42 miles into the air in just under three minutes. It is here that the first separation occurs. Explosive bolts fire, and those first stage rockets and their fuel tanks are released to fall safely into the Atlantic Ocean.

At three minutes and 12 seconds into the mission, what’s called the interstage skirt is ditched and the second stage rockets fire up for about six minutes. This burn gobbles up another 340,000 gallons of fuel and propels the craft another 100 or so miles.

At about nine minutes into the mission, the second stage rockets are cut loose to reveal a single third stage engine (the J-2) that will burn for a little over two minutes. When it shuts off, the Apollo spacecraft is cruising at nearly 17,500 miles per hour 119 miles above the Earth.

After one loop around the Earth, the J-2 fires again to hurl the astronauts towards the moon, which is 238,000 miles away.

And it is here that things get crazy.

Three hours and 24 minutes into the mission, it is time to separate again. Tucked away within the third stage rocket, within what remains of the Saturn V launch vehicle, are three vessels: the Lunar Module (LM or “lem”), codenamed “Eagle”; the Command Module, (the CM; the cone-shaped vehicle the astronauts return home in — the only part of this entire machine that is not  eventually abandoned) codenamed “Columbia,” and the Service Module (SM), which is the propulsion and support  system.

At this point, the Command Module and Service Module are one vehicle (the CSM) and after the stage three opens wide, the CSM exits, does a complete 180, and re-enters to connect to the LM. This incredible maneuver is done while hurtling through space at around 20,000 MPH.

Say goodbye to what remains of Saturn V. The stage three floats off into space as the awkward-looking CSM (with the bug-like LM attached to its nose) begins its three-day journey to the moon.

Nearly 100 hours into the mission and 62 miles above the moon, the CSM is now in the moon’s orbit, and it is time for two men (Armstrong and Aldrin) to climb out of the CSM and into the LM. Collins will stay behind in the CSM as Armstrong and Aldrin disconnect the 32,000 pound LM from the CSM and pilot it to the surface of the moon.

The calls signs now change. “Apollo 11” is now split into “Columbia” (the CSM) and “Eagle” (the LM).

With alarms going off and fuel running out, in order to land safely, Armstrong is forced to take control of the lem and manually pilot it to avoid landing in a crater. His heart rate will exceed 150 beats per minute.

At 102 hours, 45 minutes, 40 seconds, the call signs change again. Having landed the Eagle, Armstrong and Aldrin are now “Tranquility” because they are operating from their base on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility.

As Collins circles the moon some 30 times, Aldrin and Armstrong will call the moon home for a total of 21 hours and spend only a little over two hours outside on the lunar surface. There they will collect samples, set up experiments, talk to President Nixon, plant the American flag, and salute the American flag.

About 124 hours into the mission, it is time to head home, time to lift-off from the moon, and this requires yet another separation. The LM will leave its bottom half, the landing pad, on the moon forever. After reaching lunar orbit and while moving at incredible speeds, the LM and the CSM reconnect in mid-flight. Aldrin and Armstrong exit the LM to join Collins in the CSM. The LM is ditched to crash into the moon, and it is time to head back home.

Some 195 hours into the mission, Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins strap themselves into that capsule (the CM) and ditch the SM.

The capsule and its three passengers hit the earth’s atmosphere at 24,000 m.p.h., burst into flame, fall for miles, and finally — after eight days, three hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds — and after its three parachutes open precisely and perfectly, Apollo 11 splashes down in the Pacific Ocean just 12 miles from the recovery ship.

America, by way of three brave men and thousands of scientists, contractors, and workers, accomplished all of that in 1969, 50 years ago, and did this in the age of vacuum tubes; did this at a time when the computer power you carry in your pocket seemed impossible and if it were possible it would have filled warehouses.

For some perspective of the miracle of Apollo 11, think of this…

Fifty years before man landed on the moon, less than 35 percent of homes had electricity, movies had no sound, television was decades away, the human mind could not even comprehend a computer, and that first flight at Kitty Hawk was just 16-years-old.

In 1903, man could only stay in the air for 59 seconds and 852 feet.

A mere 63 years later, man walked on the moon.

And what have we accomplished in the 50 years since…?

Sure, we have the space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, rovers on Mars, but come on…

Had we advanced our desire to explore the heavens as much over the last 50 years as we did during the 50 years prior to that, the moon would have been colonized by 1980; a permanent space station, where we would build and launch spacecraft, would have been in operation by 1990, and a man would have landed on Mars in 2010.

What’s more, we would now have starships — yes, starships, just like the one in Star Trek, all over the heavens exploring, exploring, exploring…

I understand that not everyone thinks the way I do, and in most cases I even understand why. But for the life of me, I cannot begin to comprehend a people that have everything they need to explore space and, other than rovers and telescopes, do not.

It’s too expensive!

It’s too risky!

How can anyone with the knowledge that literal infinity awaits us, is right out there, fail to grasp that human space exploration is more than worth both the risk and the price?

To me, not wanting to explore space is like purchasing a two story home and refusing to see what’s upstairs.

You’ve never looked at your second floor?

I went up a couple of steps and glanced around.

You don’t want to know what’s up there?

Why? I have all the room I need down here.

But there could be anything up there.  

I’m perfectly comfortable where I am.

There could be a suitcase full of money up there!

And then I gotta bring it down and take it to the bank and report it and pay the taxes… No thanks.

I’m no space nut. I was not one of those kids who built model rockets. But I do understand what the space program did for this country, not just for our national pride (which is important), but how the relentless push to achieve Kennedy’s radical challenge dramatically improved life here on Earth —  and no, I am not talking about Velcro.

Read this list and then imagine what the world would look like if you multiplied the intensity and invention of the Kennedy decade by the five decades that followed.

But what did we focus on instead? Smaller phones, larger TVs, giving everyone access to porn, and fooling ourselves into believing 3D movies are a new technology, not one invented 60 years ago.

Okay, that’s pretty cynical, and I also realize that if America put the first man into orbit, we probably would’ve declared victory and the Space Race would have ended there. Sure, Kennedy was a visionary, but after the Russians humiliated us he was also politically astute enough to know he had to move the goals posts to the moon.

Competition breeds greatness, and the U.S. is now so far ahead I guess we can all just chill.

Hey, what else should we expect from a fat (literally) and self-satisfied American culture where our poorest enjoy electricity, air conditioning, video games, cell phones, and flat screen TVs?

Color me naïve, but you would think that after our prosperity took care of all the basic human needs that we would take that opportunity to look outward, to find our national sense of purpose in the infinity that holds the stars.

Unfortunately, we chose instead to do what every craven civilization before us has done after winning all the wars: we have moved our sense of purpose inward. Rather than a grandiose and idealistic journey to the stars, we “journeyed” to the goddamned mall or launched ourselves on a narcissistic journey of self-exploration, one so perverse and destructive, this is now considered an enlightened way to revisit the miracle of Apollo 11:

You know, as I enter my mid-fifties I care less and less about a future that no longer belongs to me. It’s up to y’all now, you younger folks, to fight for a future that does belong to you.

For God’s sake, for heaven’s sake, for your own sake, don’t do what my generation did, don’t do what I did — don’t piss it all away at the mall.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.

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