If you’re interested about the moon, this is your month to watch television.
July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and many TV channels are full of programs about the event.
One of the best, “Chasing the Moon,” aired over three nights on Mississippi ETV as part of the “American Experience” series. Hopefully it will be rebroadcast in the coming weeks so that more people can see it.
The six-hour broadcast used archived film — the people who lived through the events were not pictured — to recount the history the “space race” that started when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957.
Though most of us are familiar with the larger story — starting with President Kennedy’s call in 1961 to land on the moon before the end of the decade — there were plenty of fascinating subplots before Apollo 11 touched down on a summer Sunday.
Kennedy, for example, regretted making the moon pledge almost immediately, fretting that the cost would bust the federal budget (a quaint notion today) and that the only real reason to do it was to beat the Soviets to the moon.
It took a visit with charismatic German scientist Wernher von Braun to get Kennedy excited about NASA’s plans. Von Braun, who during World War II was a member of the Nazi Party, is one of many key players in the story. He was among more than 1,000 German scientists brought to America after the war, largely to keep them out of the Soviets’ hands.
Looking back at Apollo 11 is entertaining because it was such a success story, and because it occurred during a time when the country was beset by the divisions of the Vietnam War.
NASA persevered through many failed test rockets and the tragic deaths of three astronauts during a launching pad test. The political will to allocate billions of dollars to the space program remained strong because of the Cold War impulse to catch up with the Soviets.
In short, Americans got the job done, and with a flourish. Which naturally leads to the question: Should we take aim at a similar space achievement today? In spite of all the good feelings resurfacing this month, that’s a tough one.
President Trump has proposed sending astronauts to Mars, but there has been no grand pronouncement of detailed plans, probably because the cost would be far greater than anything NASA received in the 1960s.
The logistical challenges are immense. A round trip to the moon only took a few days; traveling to and from Mars would take well more than a year.
With the government already spending $1 trillion more than it’s taking in, and with programs like Social Security facing financial reckoning days in the near future, it’s hard to argue that space travel deserves the high priority it once had. A journey to Mars seems like more of a luxury item to tackle if the government could ever afford it. Or it could let a private company like SpaceX pay for it.
Still, Apollo 11 illustrated the merits of dreaming big. The same spirit endures today. It may not involve space travel, but the story of our trip to the moon is a reminder that more great and inspiring achievements lie ahead.