We Chose to Go to the Moon: A Millennial Reflects on The 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the Moon!

We choose to go to the Moon!

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

President John F. Kennedy
Rice University, Houston, Texas—September 12, 1962

I was not alive 50 years ago today, the day when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. And yet, I’ve been looking forward to this anniversary for a long time. This anniversary, this moment in human history, has held a special place in my heart since childhood.

I was probably in 1st grade when I first saw SpaceCamp, a lighthearted late ’80s movie about teenagers at a fictionalized version of the actual Space Camp who accidentally get launched into space aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. I don’t know what drew me to that film, especially since I was still at that age when I was watching the G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, but what I vividly remembered at that time were the details. I remember the 16-year-old “shuttle commander” having to manually hit the switch to separate the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) at 2 minutes into the launch (a detail I later learned is false, as the entire process is automated), the 16-year-old “pilot” having to maintain a reentry angle of at least 30 degrees to avoid burning up in the atmosphere (a necessary oversimplification of a complicated process), and the kids using Morse code to tell NASA they want to land the Space Shuttle at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Years later, I’d have my mind blown when I realized not only that the “shuttle pilot” is Lea Thompson, the mom from Back to the Future, but also that the littlest member of this “crew” is a prepubescent Joaquin Phoenix.

After watching that movie, I wanted to know everything there was to know about the Space Shuttle. I checked out books from the library to learn about the missions; they were written for kids, but even if I didn’t pay attention to all the words, I was fascinated by the pictures of the Shuttle sitting on the launchpad. My dad had old copies of Odyssey and Kids Discover magazines sitting around the house that I’d read again and again. I visited the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. more times than I could count. One time, I bought freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” from there. One time, I found a book that made me salivate: The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual. When the movie Apollo 13 came out, I enjoyed it, but unlike most people, I’d already learned the story in far more detail, a year earlier when PBS had aired the documentary Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back. And, right now, as an adult, long after choosing my career path in medicine, I am working on my private pilot license.

For some kids, it was dinosaurs. For some kids, it was comic books. For me, it was spaceflight.

I could wax poetic about how, as a child, spaceflight fired up the imagination or how space is something that can unite humanity or how it makes us feel humble about our place in the universe and so forth. But, that wasn’t what got me so interested in it as a kid. I just liked it because it was just so cool.

And, indeed, back in the 1960s when the Space Race was in full swing, that’s what I imagine drove most people’s interest. Sure, government and military officials at the time talked about how it was important to beat the Soviets, that it was about national security. Sure, today we can talk about how NASA is responsible for technologies and benefits that have become routine in everyday life, from the satellites that carry our broadcasts and communications and guide us from place-to-place with GPS and show us the weather, to Teflon to advanced computers to freeze-drying to flame-retardant technology to Tang—all on a budget that peaked at 4% of the federal budget in 1965 and today is less than 0.5% of the federal budget.

But, in the 1960s, that’s not what drove people to treat the Mercury Seven astronauts like rockstars. That’s not what drove over 1 million people to make the trek to Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, to pack their picnic baskets and binoculars and combat crowds to sit and watch the launch of Apollo 11. (If you have not seen the 2019 documentary Apollo 11, check it out. It’s made up entirely of high-quality archival footage found from NASA and you can see the massive crowds that watched the Apollo 11 launch. It also recreates, at least for me, the tension of those moments leading up to that landing.)

What drove people wild about this was that it was just so cool.

Crowd at Cape Canaveral, Florida, watching the Apollo 11 launch. Image credit: David Burnett, TIME (https://time.com/longform/apollo-party/)

We love great challenges, great feats of achievement. Putting a human on the Moon was the ultimate one. We had to invent a way to travel to space, invent a way to keep humans alive in space, invent a way for humans to stay alive in space outside the spacecraft, invent a way to fly the spacecraft around the Earth, fly it to the Moon, fly it around the Moon, land it on the Moon, fly it off the Moon, dock back with the other half of the spacecraft, get people back to Earth, get them through the Earth’s atmosphere, and land safely back on Earth. And we had to invent the technologies to do each of these things, none of which existed. And we needed to invent technologies and steps to account for any possible bad outcome that could happen during any of these steps. And we needed to come up with protocols and checklists and practice and re-practice and have these down cold, because there was no room to screw up in space.

And we had to do all of this by the end of the decade.

What I found inspiring as I learned more and more of these stories was about the sheer determination of these people who did this, of their ingenuity, intelligence, and inventiveness. And, especially, the rigorous standards they held themselves to.

Legendary NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz got famous for the phrase “failure is not an option,” which actually was not spoken by him but by Ed Harris in the film Apollo 13. What he did say in real life was equally powerful: After the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on the launchpad, he gathered together all mission controllers and told them:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it.

We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, “Dammit, stop!”

He then had a phrase written on every chalkboard at Mission Control: TOUGH AND COMPETENT.

Tough, because they were involved in a very dangerous line of work. Risk was their business. They were, in his words, “forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do.” Competent, because “we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

As I was going through my medical training, and right now as I teach my residents and students, I think about those words a lot. These are the standards we must hold ourselves to in order to achieve great things. And we must know that, even if we do those things, we may still make mistakes or still fail. But we must be prepared.

This tough and competent mindset became crucial during the mission after Apollo 11, when Apollo 12 was struck by lightning during liftoff. The spacecraft suffered a total systems failure and was on the verge of a launch abort. But then, mission controller John Aaron remembered that he had seen that exact failure pattern before, during a simulation they had done a year earlier. At that time, they had been able to fix it by flipping the obscure “SCE” switch to “auxiliary.” When he told the flight director to, “Try SCE to AUX,” nobody else had heard of that switch, and flight commander Pete Conrad on board the spacecraft called out, “What the hell is that?” But, thankfully, astronaut Alan Bean did know that switch, flipped it, and the systems were restored. For this moment of quick thinking that saved the Apollo 12 mission, John Aaron became known by the highest honorific given to people at NASA: a steely-eyed missile man.

In the video below, Aaron mentions the secret to being good at his job: to “have a natural curiosity about the way things work, even if you’re not responsible for them.”

And so, with that spirit, on this day 50 years ago, these tough and competent steely-eyed missile men worked together and landed us—landed humanity—on the Moon.

We could use some of that same spirit today. That toughness, that competence, that dedication to perfection, that inventiveness, that ingenuity, that imagination. And yes, that sense of the entire world coming together and appreciating something not as the work of one individual, one party, or one nation, but for humanity itself. For we all can look out at the night sky and see the Moon in the sky. And from the Moon, we can all be seen at once.

Just. So. Cool.

“Earthrise,” taken from Apollo 8 (December 24, 1968)

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