Wednesday, July 21, 2004

35th Anniversary of Apollo 11

Apollo 11 changed my life.  I remember very vividly those 8 days from July 16-24 in 1969.  I was 19 years old and considered myself a space aficionado.  I sat transfixed in front of three television sets (one on the coverage on NBC, one on CBS and one on ABC) with a close friend. We lived in front of those TV's for the next 8 days, eating and sleeping there.  Every moment of the mission was indelibly etched into the circuits of my brain.  I was overwhelmed.  As much of a space fan as I was, I never dreamed that in my lifetime that humans would walk on the moon. I cried in delerious happiness and excitement when Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the lunar surface.  I vowed then and there that I would change my lifeplan and work toward the human exploration of space.  And I did.  I studied medicine, always with the thought that I would work for NASA.  I learned to fly planes; I studied biochemistry and biomedical engineering. Eventually I became a flight surgeon at the Johnson Space Center.  I still care about human space exploration and have considerable expertise in space psychology and psychiatry. I even wrote a book on my research over the 10 years I was at NASA (it's called Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts and it is still for sale here ) Some years have passed since I worked for NASA. Challenger occurred on my watch; Columbia after I left.  I now strongly believe that NASA and its bureaucracy is the biggest impediment to space exploration; and I support the efforts of private enterprise to take humans into space.  My enthusiasm has waned considerably since those years of the Apollo Program. When I remember that wild sense of joy my teenage self felt when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I can't help but believe that that this incredible achievement will remain unsurpassed for many generations. I hope not, but there is no longer any vision or glory in the government's risk-averse, mundane space program.  The most exciting thing to happen in the last 20 years has been the launch of SpaceShipOne.

When Apollo 8 (the first lunar mission) launched in December, 1968, I wrote the following poem:

Blue against black universe,
Suspended in mathematical currents,
And held by lines of luminous force;
Round in a shapeless mass of energy,
And breathtaking in a lifeless, empty reality.
Like a woman you seem, and I have known you.
Remember me? The child you nurtured?
Who dreamed within your womb so long?
Now I am born.

And, when Apollo 11 returned to Earth on July 24, 1969, I wrote another:

             AFTER THIS   (in honor of Apollo 11)
Alone in space, how does the world seem?
What standards would apply to judge this dream?
Lesser men could not imagine it--none so high exist.
What beauty, after this?
Alone, gazing wher no other men could see,
He saw the world in serenity.
The undiluted universe was there to drink--
The cup within his hands.
After this, what else should man think,
But that the universe is his?

Those lines were penned in youthful exuberance, but even now I can still feel the thrill of the dream.  May the next generation of explorers continue to "go where noone has gone before!"  And on this 35th Anniversary of Mankind's Greatest Achievement, may we continue to think that the universe is ours.

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