Some Ruminations around the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 17 Mission

Scientific American
Some Ruminations around the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 17 Mission

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Apollo 17 Command Module

Space: the final frontier... The words from the opening sequence of Star Trek still echo from our TV sets and from our movie theaters, in reruns as well as in old and new movies. This month it is 40 years since we last saw actual astronauts set foot on an actual world not our own, as astronauts from the Apollo 17 mission left their foot prints in the Taurus-Littrow valley on the moon.

No other astronaut (or cosmonaut or taikonaut) has been further away than being in a low-Earth orbit since then. Although the final frontier keeps fascinating us, our collective dreams seem to have outreached what we are willing or perhaps able to do.

In retrospect, the words from Star Trek reflect my own dreams as a kid growing up in Sweden. I could not get enough of the space stuff. I would bike to the library weekly to try to find anything having to do with the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo programs and their astronauts. The 1962 book "We Seven," written by the Mercury program astronauts was the first book I ever checked out of our small city library. I read it over and over, imagining myself being part of the adventure of going into space.

I wrote missives to NASA, and in return received glossy pictures from space missions, letters from astronauts (who declared that they had not seen any UFOs in space!), and stacks of other material related to the US space program. Although it could take months to get a response, eventually a thick envelope would appear in our mailbox, feeding a young mind's imagination and curiosity.

My dad was a reconnaissance pilot in the Swedish Air Force. He flew, I later learned, missions over the Soviet Union during the cold war in Spitfires, surplus planes purchased from Britain after the end of World War II. I idolized my dad who, at least superficially, had the "right stuff." When I was a kid, he had graduated to flying jets and daily flew at twice the speed of sound although inexplicably always drove 10 mph below the speed limit in our car.

Both of us idolized US astronauts, and I made it pretty clear that my goal was to make it into space! My interest in traveling into cosmos soon turned into an even stronger interest in the actual science, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. I realized that one could have great adventures and make discoveries without actually leaving Earth.

Together with three of my best friends we published "Noise by Boys" where we shared our passion for science (and humor - or so we thought). One of us Boys became a biology professor in the US, one a highly accomplished science illustrator, another an actor andlevnadskonstn?r (loosely translated "a life artist") and I found myself being a physics and astronomy professor at a Texas university. Our fascination with space charted the paths for our careers in various ways.

One morning, some forty years later, I stood in our Texas backyard, looking up at the blue sky getting some fresh air to clear my foggy mind. That particular Saturday morning I was getting ready to go in to work to participate in the opening ceremony of a Meteorite Gallery at our university. A successful Fort Worth businessman, Oscar Monnig, had spent a lifetime collecting meteorites only to donate his entire collection and the lion's share of his estate to our institution with the understanding that his collection be made accessible to the public.

Since meteorites are truly "rocks from space" we had invited Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the only trained geologist that ever went to the moon, as our guest of honor. This was going to be a treat, getting to spend some time with someone who had actually walked on the lunar surface using his extensive scientific training to select appropriate rock samples to bring back to Earth. Compared to the more or less random sampling of space rocks that meteorites constitute, the manned lunar mission allowed for trained humans to make judgment calls as to which rocks to bring back.

Around breakfast time that morning we heard a loud boom outside. We often had military jets flying overhead, just as I did while growing up in Sweden, and my first thought was that a plane had gone down not far from our home. As I went outside to investigate I did not see anything suspicious on the horizon. Instead I saw a smoky track across the sky and I remembered that this was February 1, 2003, and the Space Shuttle Columbia, on its STS-107 flight, was scheduled to pass overhead that morning on its path to a morning landing in Florida.

Could that have been the trail from the Shuttle? Minutes later the news came on our television that Columbia had disintegrated in the skies over Texas that morning, with the loss of all seven crew members (my eyes tear up as I write this). It all seemed unreal. Together with an astronaut we were about to celebrate a collection of meteorites that had brought us information from space by finding their way to Earth through the atmosphere and now Columbia had met its brutal fate while trying to do the same thing.

After some quick phone conversations it was decided that we should move ahead with the opening ceremony. I believe Harrison Schmitt said something to the effect that the astronauts on Columbia would have wanted us to. He talked about the fact that space travel was, and will be for the foreseeable future, associated with great risks but that astronauts are willing to accept them. We spent a somber few hours together as we tried to get more information about what had happened with Columbia and reminisced about what the space program had accomplished and how it had changed since the time of Apollo 17 in 1972.

The Apollo program ended early for a variety of reasons, primarily budgetary. Several planned flights were scrapped. At the time, Harrison Schmitt had lobbied for an ambitious additional mission to the far side of the moon. Although there were some additional Apollo flights, none of them were to the moon.

Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab were missions in preparation for long-term stays in Earth orbit. The focus of the US program quickly changed to the development of a new transportation system for space travel, the Space Shuttle. The name seemed to indicate that a new era was coming, one where space exploration would be routine. We would simply "take the Shuttle" just as you would take the shuttle to go to your local airport. It would be safe, convenient, and inexpensive.

The first prototype shuttle, the Enterprise (named after Star Trek's USS Enterprise), rolled out in 1976. It never flew in space but was used for various sub-orbital tests and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution. Overall, the fleet of Shuttles was the workhorse in the construction of the International Space Station and in numerous other missions where human presence was essential for success, notably the repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. On that particular morning in 2003 we were reminded, as we had been with Challenger in 1986, that regardless of extensive testing there was still nothing routine about going into (or coming back from) space. The Shuttle system was not safe, not convenient, nor was it inexpensive.

The mood of our nation changed as the Apollo program came to a close. We were faced with dealing with growing mistrust of government with the Watergate scandal, with our fear about our energy future with the 1973 oil crisis, with the questioning of our role in the world after the end of the war in Vietnam. (Do the problems sound familiar to anyone?) During the course of the Shuttle era we saw the end of the cold war and the disintegration of our former space race competitor, the Soviet Union.

We also witnessed how the first moments of MTV began with the image of an astronaut on the lunar surface with an MTV flag replacing the Stars and Stripes - this went on to become the statuette for the MTV music awards and is still being used today. The iconic images of astronauts on the moon live on in our popular culture. The Shuttles are now permanently parked as museum pieces, never to fly again. Wondrous machines that kept the dream alive in some but were not ambitious enough for others.

During these past 40 years we also have experienced the computer and information revolution with computers becoming integral parts of almost everything and anything that we do. The Internet now allows us to seek, find, share digital information, information about our world, about ourselves, at an ever-increasing pace. Our eleven year old can now practice simulated Space Shuttle landings on his iPad. He can download images from the Space Telescope, or images from the Apollo missions to the moon at anytime, any day, with hardly any delay.

The rate at which we now can get information that we need and want (and sometimes that we don't need nor want!) is modifying how we view and interact with the world. This is already changing how we address the problems and issues we face here on Earth. How will this change how the children of coming generations will relate to adventure and discovery? Will virtual reality replace actual reality for many of them?

As I write this, the science team of the Curiosity rover has just let us know that evidence of complex (inorganic) chemistry has been found on the surface of Mars. Will more discoveries by the Curiosity rover and future robotic missions compel young minds to begin acting on their dreams of going to Mars and make it happen? Will private enterprise, the internet, social networking, gaming, crowdsourcing/crowd funding, play roles in how this will take place or will the route be more traditional, with large government programs?

How much room is there for the feeling of adventure, human exploration and discovery in the minds of our representatives in Washington D.C. as they are poised at the edge of the fiscal cliff? Surely not as much as there was in the mind and heart of Harrison Schmitt 40 years ago as he looked out over the valley of Taurus-Littrow.

P.S. Take a trip and see what Harrison Schmitt saw in 1972. All the pictures from the moon taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts are available online here. All the images included in this post: NASA.

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