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Apollo/Saturn 5 Visitors Center
A Saturn 5, restored and placed in a museum at the Kennedy Space Center, inspires awe even today. (credit: J. Foust)

Restoring the wonder

There is a general spirit of optimism with regards to the future of human space exploration as a result of the Presidential announcement in January and the actions that have taken place since. The recommendations of the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy will be released soon and this will further define the direction America should take in the decades ahead. In his April 12 column, Dwayne A. Day stated the shift in rhetoric from “leadership” to “exploration”. (See “The feminization of American space policy”, The Space Review, April 12, 2004) Absent of any geopolitical imperative like the space race with the Soviets during the 1960s, exploration is indeed appropriate.

Cold war threats aside, Apollo really was about manned exploration of the Moon. America did it and did it extremely well. Many still look upon the entire Apollo era with a degree of wonder. It all seemed so fantastic at the time. In hindsight, it seems even more so now. Why? For starters, the concept of actually sending astronauts to land on the Moon was so audacious. Second, the technology to do so, by and large, did not exist at the time president Kennedy made his announcement in May 1961 to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. After all, virtually all calculations then were done using slide rules! There were countless technical challenges that would have to be addressed with no guarantee they could be surmounted. Third, an entire infrastructure to get men to the moon would have to be built, and on a scale never before seen. At Cape Canaveral, a massive Vehicle Assembly Building—the largest building in the world—would have to be built. The Saturn 5 stages would be assembled there. To transport the rocket, Launch Umbilical Towers had to be built, and massive Mobile Transporters to move both LUT and Saturn 5 to the largest launch complexes in the world. Everything was on a massive scale. The list goes on and on. And finally: you want it when? Eight and half years? Are you out of your mind?

What inspires wonder to motivate current and future generations to explore our universe?

America not only did brilliantly, it accomplished it on schedule. More than three decades later, Apollo instills wonder even in those, like me, who witnessed the whole thing. That wonder was, and is, as much a result of the technological achievements as the lunar explorations themselves. The Saturn 5 that was destined for Apollo 18 but never launched is now displayed in its own building at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center. Meticulously restored, it lays on its side, stages separated, stretching for hundreds of feet along the huge display hall, from the mighty F-1 engines to the tip of the command module escape tower. I have watched the expressions of teenagers stand there with their mouths open in disbelief, and men and women shake their heads in amazement.

That sense of wonder surfaced briefly when the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were successfully deployed on Mars and sent back stunning images of their environs as they scooted over the Martian landscape. In many respects, the wonder of these exploratory missions must be an essential element of future manned missions back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. But what inspires wonder to motivate current and future generations to explore our universe? For many of an earlier generation it all began with a book.

It began with Bonestell

Anyone who has studied the history of space exploration will inevitably come across the name of Chesley Bonestell. If one book could be said to define the aspirations of an entire generation of future scientists, engineers and even astronauts, that book would be The Conquest of Space, published in 1949. A collaborative effort of Bonestell and Willy Ley, it became a best seller in its day. In Melvin H. Schutz’s book, A Chesley Bonestell Space Art Chronology, Ron Miller wrote, “The late Carl Sagan said that he didn’t know what other worlds looked like until he saw Bonestell’s paintings of the solar system. Joseph Chamberlain, director of the Adler Planetarium, maintained that ‘It might even be suggested that without Bonestell and his early space age artistry, the NASA era might have been delayed for many years, or it might not even have happened at all.’”

It might even be suggested that without Bonestell and his early space age artistry, the NASA era might have been delayed for many years, or it might not even have happened at all.

How could one book have such an impact? Bonestell’s paintings of future lunar exploration, orbiting space stations and the surface of the outer planets were rendered in such exquisite detail and the text written with such believability (backed up with hard science that reflected emerging technology) that it instilled a sense of wonder and belief that exploration of our solar system was indeed possible in our lifetime. Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, the first American female astronaut to walk in space, spoke of this book’s impact on her life at her induction into the Astronaut Hall of Fame earlier this month at KSC. Dr. Sullivan’s accomplishments before, during and after her career at NASA are impressive to say the least. She stated her future path was all but determined as a child when she read The Conquest of Space that she got from the library. The book had the same effect on thousands of others who eventually entered careers in aerospace or related fields.

What might have been the impact on America’s space program if this book had not been published? Thousands of men and women would not have been inspired to pursue careers in all the fields of science that would be essential to America’s nascent space exploration program in the 1950s that became a reality in the 1960s. Of course, a great many other events also converged at this time that allowed the ultimate goal of landing on the moon to happen. Nevertheless, this shows the profound impact something can have on one’s view of life, whether it is a book, a person or an event.

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