(WEHT) – On a clear night, have you looked up at the moon lately? Chances are, you have. Imagine traveling up that far – 240,000 miles.
In 1961, these words filled the US Capitol:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
-John F. Kennedy
Mitch Lumen, Director of Science Experiences at the Evansville Museum, joined Brad Byrd to talk about how JFK’s words became a reality in 1969.
Transcription of interview:
Brad: Mitch, thank you so much for joining us. More than a few people thought JFK’s call was just a political gesture. How did it happen in 1969
Mitch: You asked a question that historians will be asking for decades to come. The race to the moon was a political one. It was at a time when we were in a Cold War with our adversaries, the Soviet Union. This was probably the only time something like this could have ever happened – when the entire country could get behind something united to do one thing. I do want to mention that not the whole country thought this was a good idea. Only 20% thought going to the moon was worth the expense.
Brad: This started in the 1940’s with test flights. As we see the Saturn Booster going up with three astronauts on board, it took so many men and women coordinating this. Tell me about that. It was a team effort, but so many teams involved in that effort.
Mitch: It was a team effort and most people alive today were not born in 1969 so they would not have known that the 1960’s was a time when over 400,000 people were involved in the project to get people to the moon. It was enormously expensive. It nearly broke the bank, but this country managed to see it to the end. It wasn’t just the end in 1969. There were other missions after that.
Brad: Being a teenager in the 1960’s, many of us felt like we were going to go outward. With all this technology, it seems like we’re turning inward: cell phones, sitting by ourselves inside a house, getting information – some of it not-so-good but how did that turn around? Why did we stop?
Mitch: We stopped as a nation because it was very expensive. While we were achieving the goal, it was important to not give up Kennedy’s promise, the will of the people, and the will of Congress to keep it funded. But after two missions, it became commonplace. It became non-important and public interest waned, so there was no way our country and our representatives could justify spending money on something that not everybody thought was a good idea in the first place.
Brad: You think a lot of people who were not born then understand the scope of doing this – especially with the technology then considering what we have now? As to how difficult this was – we had the deaths of three astronauts including Gus Grissom in 1967. There was a lot of sacrifice involved in this. You were talking to me earlier about the last explorers. Many of them have died. There are a few survivors of that generation.
Mitch: I could respond in any number of ways, many of these people helped make this mission but only a few got to go to the moon. Today living, there are only 12 people who have landed on the moon and walked or circled the moon and came back. The bigger thing that’s going to be hard to understand: living in the 60’s was different because of the threat of annihilation by another country. We were at war – a Cold War with the Soviet Union. That spurred the country to start this goal and then we all know how it ended in 1969.
Brad: There are so many fragments out there now that influence our lives – especially with technology with all the platforms we broadcast on and send out there to those satellites. But there has been talk about possibly jumping back into the pool or back onto those rockets and heading to Mars. What do you think?
Mitch: I personally think it’s a good idea. I don’t think we could get to the moon and back again in 8 more years even if our president said it’s going to be a goal. It’s very expensive and people weren’t made to live in space. We’ve found that out over the last 50 years. Space is hard. Space is expensive. Things are really far away. The moon was a relatively easy target but Mars is a much more difficult goal to achieve. So we’ll have to see…
Brad: Is there still that question: are we alone in this universe? Could that be a driving factor in possibly going to Mars?
Mitch: Can we be alone? Are we alone? I don’t know the answer to that one either. But I think it would take something like learning that we are not alone to really bring this world together and to really see that place that you and I were talking about earlier before we went on air where in 1968, people saw the world as it truly was, a small blue marble in space as viewed from the moon.
Brad: Did this event change you in any way? You’ve always been in love with astronomy and the solar system and beyond.
Mitch: People who know me will think it’s odd that this was not something that motivated me to do what I’m doing now. It was just another night in Ohio for me – the home state by the way for Neil Armstrong. I can’t say it was a driving force, but it was something I always admired.
Brad: As Shelley Kirk will tell you, he was a Purdue alum.
Mitch: He was.
Brad: He was indeed. I’m going to leave you with this thought. When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, he radioed down to Mission Control and he said, “I can almost touch it.” That was almost prophetic because about seven years later, we did touch it.
Mitch: It’s hard to believe from that one year when John Glenn was the first man in space, and in less than a decade we’d achieve something that people have wanted to do since we first saw that orb in the sky.
Brad: Well, Mitch, as always it’s great to talk to you. Who knows what we’ll be talking about eight years from now. We’ll see. And we’re taking it back to Shelley.
(This story was originally published on July 23, 2019)