Ten years ago today Neil Armstrong stepped out of the spacecraft "Eagle," and men had reached the moon. This event will, in the midst of seeming indecision and confusion over energy, provoke a refrain once again: If we can land on the moon, why can't we solve the energy problem? Actually you can substitute for "energy" almost any current aggravation.
It is a good question. The answer just might be, "Well, we can." The lunar landing, for all its technical, scientific, managerial and patriotic pluses, might just be a larger plus for the United States because it is a constant reminder that the question has validity.
With that thought in mind, let's examine the lunar-landing program in the context of today's problems. One cannot but wonder why the lessons of Apollo are so unused today.
The genesis of the lunar-land effort was a smartly calculated decision by President Kennedy. The Russians had clearly stolen a technical and propagandistic lead on the United States. Kennedy asked NASA and the Defense Department a basic question: At what point can we expect to move ahead of the Russians in space? As a determination of national will and skill, a demonstration of what a free and open society can do, which he felt was vital, the answer: With a proper commitment, perhaps we can land men on the moon ahead of the Soviet Union by the end of the decade. What will it take? Dedication, unwavering support, patience. President Kennedy made the commitment, and in light of the unknowns, it was a gamble.
Early on, NASA administrator Jim Webb, handpicked by Vice President Lyndon Johnson and not even Kennedy's choice, was impressed by the immense opportunities the lunar-landing program presented. Webb saw the effort as not only a demonstration of how our society should work. Almost deliberately, he began to shape a new way to get things done in this country, all the while understanding that the institutions of that society were sufficient to accomplish the task. His attention focused on industry, Congress and the presidency. Interestingly, these are the very institutions now engaged in guerrilla warfare on energy problems.
There are perhaps too many generalizations about an Apollo-type synthetic fuels effort, but it is clear that a bold approach must be taken, that the presidency, industry and Congress must come to some accommodation.
In the moon effort, that meant NASA would build no great government arsenals. No Atomic Energy Commission-like in-house capability. Instead, NASA would be manned only to the limit of mission design, management and monitoring. NASA chose to go to the marketplace of American industry, to the airframe industry for the most part. The builders had a familiar ring: North American Aviation, Boeing, Grumman, McDonnell-Douglas, Chrysler, Vought, General Dynamics.
John Glenn wryly made the point when he recalled thinking - sitting in his Friendship 7 spacecraft atop an Atlas booster - "that this thing was built by the lowest bidder."
Congress would be a partner to the commitment. Webb, an Old State Department hand and former director of the Bureau of the Budget, understood the Hill, its personalities, its needs. As a result, the soon-to-be-constituted space committees of the House and Senate became forceful groups. Individuals such as Clinton Anderson and George Miller and others emerged as powerful ingredients in the effort. There was an openness and a dialogue between the agency and the committees. Committee staffs were strong and respected - and probing. But no adversary relationship.
There is today an impression that Congress was a rubber stamp. But it was not so. There were days of long and tedious and detailed hearings. NASA tumbled from authorization to appropriation hearings from the beginning of the year to the end, with 5,000 to 6,000 pages of testimony annually, witness-after-witness, to the point that it seemed the job would not be done if key officials would not get back to their offices. But Webb and NASA nurtured the relationship - and made it a partnership.
Webb considered every congressional request an opportunity - and in NASA's case, an opportunity to strengthen the base of the programs NASA espoused. A routine request for information from a congressman, for instance, could result in not only a prompt supplying of the information, but also a detailed dissertation of the procurement base in his state or district, how the NASA system worked, usually an invitation to visit an installation, etc.
I remember when the late senator Everett Dirksen wrote for a small piece of information and the assistant administrator for congressional affairs answered the request - obviously written by a staff member in a routine manner - and the letter went back to Dirksen. Webb saw the reply in his reading file. He summoned the individual and, in a tutorial tone, spoke of an "opportunity" missed. Dirksen was the Republican leader; NASA needed his enthusiasm and support; the routine request should not have been handled routinely.
NASA established a special attitude and approach with the White House. NASA would fly the missions, and the White House wasn't to interfere with the technical. NASA would suffer the defeats, make the tough decisions; the White House could take the bows, if desired.
When the Soviets did the first walk in space, the United States quickly followed with the same capability - when Ed White walked in space. This was an example of Webb at his best within the administration. He drafted a carefully worded memorandum to President Johnson. It was a masterpiece of governmentese; it appyared that Johnson was on top of the situation, had participated in a tough, momentous decision - yet NASA made the decision and, if the mission failed, it was clear that Webb would be the individual responsible. Webb encouraged Johnson to make the announcement - thus Johnson was involved, the program got top-level recognition and importance, and the orchestration required no decision by the president.
NASA also used the program to demonstrate, in contrast to the Soviets, how an open society works. NASA exposed itself to public scrutiny. there were no "sunshine laws" and Freedom of Information Acts. NASA chose to reveal its successes and its failures. Television and print media became an integral part of the program. The whole world witnessed the unfolding of the story. Interestingly, as NASA's successes built up, it looked almost too easy. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. Webb insisted on balance and a strong aeronautics program continued, weather and communications satellites were designed and built for the first time, and spacecraft were sent to Mars and Venus.
I remember a film we made after Apollo 8, Frank Borman's great Christmas flight around the Moon in 1968. We asked leading public figures to explain what this mission meant to them. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher, marveled at it all and said the beauty was that "it, was done by ordinary men."
A member of Congress saw the film, heard that line, and demanded that it be deleted.
"They're not ordinary men!" he snorted.
But they were. And there are more out there. CAPTION: Picture, no caption