This article was first published in Technology Review’s October/November 1969 issue. It is being published online in celebration of Apollo’s 40th Anniversary.
I cannot remember just when I became convinced that men would land on the moon someday, just as I am now convinced that men will go on and land on other bodies in the solar system.
When I was a child, I gave no special thought to a lunar landing, because Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (of the 25th century) already were making much longer journeys to imaginary planets. To be sure, the little books from the Hayden Planetarium said that one would be able to leap about remarkably on the moon, but they also told what your weight would be on Mars or Jupiter or Saturn.
A moon-trip definitely was real for me before President Kennedy in 1961 announced the national goal of a lunar landing in this decade (I remember asking myself then whether the nation was so self-doubting, so sick, that it needed such a tonic). When I visited Antarctica as a science reporter in November, 1960, it struck me that the glimpse I was getting of icy emptiness was the closest I would ever come to the feeling of walking on the lunar surface.
Often since then I have rolled that thought around in my mind, as a way of expressing the sense of the extreme which Antarctica gives. But I never was prepared for the familiarity of the view when the ghostly dots and lines from the little television camera on the moon spread across a screen in the large auditorium of the Manned Spacecraft Center near-Houston, Texas, the night of July 20,1969.
The Benignity of an Age of Science
It is to be present at events like the televising of the moon-walk and to write about them that I became a science reporter almost as soon as I graduated from college in 1957. I believe that events in science and engineering are the keys to the world in which I exist.
The first science story which truly excited me was medical. In Charlotte, N.C., where I was working at the time, I happened to see a closed-circuit television broadcast of an open-heart operation, in 1957 still an experimental procedure. A surgeon in Philadelphia, whose voice could be heard along with a kibitzing panel of leading heart surgeons, cut open the patient’s chest to reveal a beating heart, throbbing about wildly in the open air. I reflected then that until open heart surgery had become practical, the largest number of such operations had occurred on top of a pyramid in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, as religious sacrifices. But here a modern physician, with the confidence born of scientific knowledge, was operating on the heart to heal it, not tear it out. To do this, he stopped the beating with a drug and turned over the heart’s functions to a heart-lung machine while he scraped out the coronary artery (a number of the panel thought the operation rather unlikely to be useful for long).
There it was, the spirit of experimental investigation linked to the desire to heal. I have never been cured of that image of the essential benignity of an age of science.
Sensing the Quality of Exploration
Despite the fact that a whirlwind of interest in space, set moving by Sputnik, also led to my finding a market for science reporting, I never saw a rocket-firing of any size until November 9, 1967, when the first U.S. Saturn V lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Fla., on a flawless first test of the moon booster.
It was only my third visit to Cape Kennedy. The first had been a brief Air Force Reserve trip aboard a DC-3 in 1962, just before John Glenn’s three-orbit flight. (This was less than a year after Yuri Gagarin’s one-orbit inaugural of the era of manned space flight–Will the Russians get a man to the moon as quickly after Apollo 11?)