Less than a year after reading the first creation story from Genesis while in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, astronaut Frank Borman huddled around a television in a small office of the White House with President Richard Nixon and his Chief of Staff on the evening of July 20, 1969 to watch live news coverage of the first human to walk on the Moon.
After completing a post-landing checklist, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong opened the hatch to the lunar module Eagle at 10:39 p.m. EDT and began descending its ladder while mounting a television camera for the occasion. Television cameras were also being prepared in the Oval Office next door to the president, who was watching events unfold moments before he was scheduled to speak with Armstrong in a split-screen television conversation.
The president had not felt this excited since his inauguration. “Hooray,” said Nixon, clapping when Armstrong stepped off the ladder to the Moon’s surface. Three days later, when meeting the Apollo 11 astronauts on deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet minutes after they had returned to Earth, Nixon said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” 1
The challenge to walk on Earth’s moon was inspired by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the planet. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation passed by the U.S. Congress for an American program in human space exploration that would lead to Apollo astronauts reaching the lunar surface through the work of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Twenty days after New Hampshire’s Alan Shepard electrified the public imagination by becoming the first American in space, President John F. Kennedy advanced the challenge in 1961, making his famous statement “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” a task readily supported by President Lyndon Johnson, who served as Senate Majority Leader when NASA was created.2
“When a great nation drops out of the race to explore the unknown, that nation ceases to be great,” said Nixon, believing that the American space program should have received more resources during his administration, when human lunar exploration came to an end with the 1972 splashdown of Apollo 17.
His opinion is similar to that of Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must and Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, who describes how asteroid impacts have resulted in climate change responsible for the mass extinction of between 35 to 95% of all plant and animal species that have existed on Earth.
Recommending Russia’s applause and affection in order to adopt a successful solution to this greatest of space challenges, presidential policy in these United States needs to move far beyond the low Earth orbit occupied by Sputnik more than half a century ago.3
1. Gene Kranz, Failure in Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 245-246. Robert Godwin, ed., Apollo 11: The NASA Mission Reports, 2 vols. (Burlington: Apogee Books, 1999), 1:218. H.R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994), 72-73. Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 428-429.
2. Robert A. Divine, The Sputnik Challenge: Eisenhower’s Response to the Soviet Satellite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 145-154. John Catchpole, Project Mercury: NASA’s First Manned Space Programme (Chichester: Springer, 2001), 278-293.
3. Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, 429-430. Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (New York: Putnam, 1999), 128-156. Michio Kaku, “Russia Takes Aim at Asteroids,” The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2010, Opinion. Kenneth Chang, “Astronauts Attack Obama’s NASA Plan,” The New York Times, May 13, 2010, National.