Whatever Happened to the Moon Trips?
ON July 20, 1969, millions of people all over the world were ‘glued’ to their television sets. They were watching an amazing accomplishment—the first man was setting foot on the moon.
As the American astronaut stepped onto the surface of the moon, he spoke of a “giant leap for mankind.” The imaginations of people everywhere were excited. Some considered this a breakthrough into space. There was talk of manned flights to other planets, even “to the stars.”
But the six moon landings by Americans ended three years later in 1972; there have been none since then. And at present no others are scheduled. Except for a joint United States–Soviet flight in orbit around the earth in 1975, American astronauts are not scheduled to return to space until a “space shuttle” is completed, and this is projected for about 1980.
While moon landings once captured the imagination of people, this is no longer the case. Most people are no longer thrilled at talk of moon colonies, or of scientific findings of vast importance coming from moon trips, or of bringing back more “moon rocks.” Indeed, for vast numbers of people interest in moon ventures is ‘as dead as the dodo bird.’
What has happened? Why are no more Americans scheduled to land on the moon? Why has public interest waned so much?
Why the Disillusionment
True, there were definite accomplishments made on the moon trips. Just getting there was one of the greatest feats in human history. Also, more information about the moon and other parts of the solar system was obtained. And some things were learned that could be applied to industrial use.
Yet many people feel that the billions of dollars that it takes to get a few men to the moon represent too much money spent for too little return. They feel that additional knowledge of the solar system, or knowledge that would benefit industry, can be obtained far more cheaply by unmanned space probes. Many others even feel that the money, brainpower and effort could be much better used on other scientific or industrial projects here on earth.
The Apollo moon missions alone cost well over 20 billion dollars. Other “space” ventures cost more billions. But with so much poverty, hunger, shortages and other problems among mankind, it is understandable why many people are disillusioned by vast expenditures of money for what they consider of so little practical return. Most would be happier for their government not to spend the money, and instead give them a tax refund!
That a disillusionment has set in is widely acknowledged. During a flight of “Skylab III,” which late in 1973 circled the earth for eighty-four days with three men aboard, the New York Times observed:
“After 16 years of space flight, the fact of men circling the earth once every 93 minutes for weeks on end hardly rates notice. . . .
“And only four and a half years after Neil A. Armstrong took ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ few people complain that men are no longer going to the moon.”
The Times spoke of the “listless reaction to each new spacecraft launching.” And columnist Russell Baker commented:
“To people watching those incessant countdowns at Cape Kennedy it has also seemed pointless.
“Going to the moon, for example. We all know that scientists were thrilled by the rocks, dust and what-have-you which came back from the moon, but let us not lie about our own unscientific reactions.
“Sitting there by the [television] tube watching the trip, most of us probably felt an unpleasant urge to think, ‘So what?’
“Here were some guys who had gone all the way to the moon and had nothing to do when they arrived there except take a fourteen-mile hike. That could be done in Wyoming, cheaper, and through comparable landscape.
“It was wonderful, but it didn’t really open any horizons for most of us, and it was certainly hard to see how it was going to improve man’s lot.”
Too, it has become more obvious that since such a tremendous effort is required to get just a few men off the earth, space travel will not be something for the common people in their lifetime. There will be no cheap tickets to the moon or any other place away from the earth. In fact, there are hardly any cheap tickets for travel even on the earth nowadays!
There have also been disappointments regarding the results of the moon landings. For example, scientists hoped that the more than 800 pounds of moon rocks brought back from the six moon landings would prove valuable in determining the origin of the moon. But the New York Times reports:
“For years prior to the first lunar landing, scientists argued the merits of various theories [of the moon’s origin] with great intensity, but the battle ended in a stalemate. . . .
“Everyone expected that the lunar landings would promptly settle the debate: It seemed obvious that as soon as we found out what the moon was made of, we would be able to tell where it came from. . . .
“These hopes were not realized. Analysis of the moon rocks has shown that the chemistry was different, proving the moon did not come from the earth. But it didn’t suggest any alternatives.
“The origin of the moon remains as much a mystery as it was before Apollo.”
Another disappointment for the scientists is that the moon proved to be without any life forms. It gave no hint of life as having existed there. This has dashed the hopes of some scientists that the moon would help to bolster their pet evolutionary theories of life’s origin.
Another reason why many people have lost interest is that they now realize that space flight is uncomfortable enough to be a burden on those who undertake it. It is not something for which people would want to trade the comforts of home. Not only is it dangerous because of possible accident, cosmic-ray and meteoroid damage, but the confinement, the pressures on the human body, mind and emotions are viewed by most as undesirable.
For instance, there is the challenge to the body and mind of prolonged weightlessness due to a lack of gravity away from the earth. This has caused undesirable changes in the cardiovascular system of astronauts, to their muscles, body fluids and body functions. It has caused a depletion of bone calcium.
Another undesirable result began to be noticed in 1964 after two American astronauts made a four-day flight around the earth. Doctors examining them on their return discovered that they had lost blood in orbit. Experiments on the very next flight confirmed the blood loss. In the eight-day flight of Gemini 5 the two astronauts lost 8 percent of their red blood cells—about a half pint of blood. A later flight of fourteen days by two other astronauts caused a blood loss of close to a full pint!
This same phenomenon has been noted in the more recent Skylab missions, the three flights by teams of astronauts in a ‘sky laboratory’ orbiting the earth. The crew of the first flight suffered a 15-percent loss in red blood cells; the second experienced a 12-percent drop. The first crew lost about 10 percent of their blood plasma; the second crew 13 percent. The third crew also lost blood.
Commenting on this, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution says: “Whatever the reasons for it all, the loss of red cells and blood plasma and cellular body fluid is a serious space medical mystery. It might be overdrawing things to say that the future of manned space flight hangs on its solution, but the truth doesn’t fall too far short of that.” And one of the astronauts involved said because of this: “I’m not willing to go to Mars tomorrow on what we know now.”
Not only was there blood loss, but it took weeks for some of the returning astronauts to regain the blood lost in flight. In one case it took four weeks before the body of one astronaut began making any new red blood cells.
Of the many other problems that make space flight unappealing to most people is the following that U.S. News & World Report notes:
“One of the crew’s [Skylab III] most disconcerting problems was caused by a combination of air bubbles in the drinking water, weightlessness and space food.
“When asked what was the toughest hygiene problem they faced, astronaut Pogue explained: ‘We have to pass so much gas. I don’t want to pass over this lightly because I think passing gas about 500 times a day is not a good way to go. . . . The only redeeming feature is that everybody is passing the same amount.’”
Longer flights, such as those at times spoken of in regard to Mars, which could take two years, pose far more serious problems. That is why Saturday Review/World says: “While the astronaut may do quite well on Mars, he had better watch his step when he returns to earth’s [gravity], NASA doctors warn. He risks breaking his calcium-depleted bones with even a little fall if he tries to use his phosphorous- and nitrogen-depleted muscles too soon after landing.”
For these, and many other reasons, a more realistic appraisal of manned flights to the moon, or anywhere else in space for that matter, has been forthcoming lately. It is now better understood that man’s “progress” in space is very limited. Even the moon trip is regarded by many scientists as only a ‘flea hop’ and not a trip into outer space.
It is also better appreciated now that talk of sending a man “to the stars” becomes absurd at this time. The nearest star outside our solar system is so far it could not be reached in a lifetime of travel. Even if it could, a star is a sun, a hot ball of flaming gas that would consume any spaceship.
Surely if manned trips to the moon and beyond had been found very useful, governments would be rushing to get there and exploit their benefits. But that is not taking place. The enthusiasm for such ventures has unquestionably diminished. So while the moon trips proved of momentary excitement, the hard reality of what is involved and how very little of practical benefit is derived for the cost has cooled the interest of both the average citizen and his government.