Viewport: July 20, 2009
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the June/July 2009 issue of Air & Space.
Anniversary celebrations by their nature look backward, but I hope that on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we Americans will consider what that achievement can mean for us today. At the National Air and Space Museum, home of the Wright Flyer as well as hundreds of Apollo program artifacts, we’re reminded daily that the span from the first flight by the Wright brothers to the first steps on the moon was only 66 years. The pace of that technological advance has never been matched. The industry that took that magnificent stride was formed in two world wars and in the years between them, when competition, in the form of national and international air races, spurred exponential progress.
When President John Kennedy in 1961 committed the country to going to the moon before the end of the decade, nobody knew how we were going to do it. At the time, the Soviets were beating us in every category. They had launched the first satellite and the first man into space. Later, they beat us to the first spacewalk. But America rose to the challenge. If you read any of the books describing the efforts leading up to that moon landing, you can’t help being impressed by the steadiness with which the plans were executed. Step by step, test after test, the cast of thousands working on the Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter programs and on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions taught themselves how to get to the moon. I’ve heard that you couldn’t tell the NASA employees from the contractors because they were completely integrated in a classic example of what can be done as a team.
Not that working on Apollo was any Sea of Tranquillity. You read stories about contractors and NASA employees working nights and weekends. So that they wouldn’t waste time going home, they slept in their work areas—on the floors of plants where the enormous rocket stages were assembled and in the labs where delicate, complicated spacecraft that looked like nothing anybody had seen before took shape. Under staggering pressure, engineers tussled over hardware designs and mission profiles, and there must have been at least one time in the experience of every single person involved with the program when he or she thought, “We’re not going to make it.”
I think there’s a lesson there for us. Today we’re in a tough situation: Unemployment is high, the financial system is shaky, and we’re all worried about the future. But if we look back to see what our predecessors did under unbelievably difficult conditions, we might realize that today’s struggle is another opportunity for Americans to do what we’ve done so well in the past: Invent, keep our eyes on the goal, get the job done. The Apollo artifacts in the Museum on the Mall and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia prove that whatever we Americans put our minds to, we can do.