In two weeks, we celebrate the 47th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first successful mission to put men on the moon. I believe that accomplishment, along with the other Apollo missions, stands as one of our country’s greatest moments. Those operations required many hours of hard work by thousands of our most intelligent scientists and technicians, not to mention the $110 billion, adjusted for inflation, in taxpayer money.
It’s amazing to think that the six moon landings all occurred during a short three-and-a-half-year time period. More amazing to me is that no one has returned to the moon in over 4 decades. We’ve seen many changes in our country since 1969 – some, like the technology revolution, are a direct result of the Apollo program. For the 24 Apollo astronauts, other changes have been more personal.
I was present at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston some years back on the day Alan Bean and Tom Stafford gave a closed-circuit interview to attendees of an arts festival in Rome. They talked about the awe they felt in seeing the whole Earth from such a great distance. Everyone they had ever known was there. For Bean and Stafford, there had clearly been a shift – nothing would be the same for them for the rest of their lives.
Alan Bean, born in Wheeler, Texas, and UT Austin alumnus (BS, 1955), is a renowned painter. His subject is the moon, usually with a working astronaut or two collecting samples. His paintings all have pieces of his spacesuit, along with moon dust, embedded in the paint. In his book, My Life As An Astronaut (1989), Bean talks about his adventures and is grateful for those opportunities that came his way. He writes, “I have the nicest life in the world.”
Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, was born in Hereford, Texas. Mitchell was an avid believer in UFOs and was a proponent of noetic sciences, the study of intelligence and metaphysical philosophy. His interest in the mysteries of extrasensory perception was prompted by an intense feeling of bliss during his return to Earth.
Some of the Apollo 24 became intensely religious following their astronaut careers. Charles Duke, who lives in New Braunfels, is a well-known inspirational speaker and evangelist. James Irwin was the eighth man to stand on the moon. He spent the next 10 years searching Mount Ararat, in Turkey, for the remains of Noah’s Ark. Irwin was the first of the group to die. Eight of the Apollo 24 have died. Most recently, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died in 2012, and Mitchell died this year at age 85.
Several of the returning astronauts struggled with the fame that came their way. Although well-prepared for their missions, they were very unprepared for the intense pressure and scrutiny that followed. Most of their marriages ended in divorce. In the book, The Astronauts Wives Club, by Lily Koppel, Barbara Cernan, one of the wives, states, “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home.”
In any event, all of these heroes are at the end of their lives, and after they are gone, an incredible resource of human spirit will go with them. It’s time for the next generation of Americans to take the next step.
Michael Brown is an education consultant and a former teacher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.