Moon Landing at 50: Apollo Astronauts Reflect On JFK's Challenge and the Future of Space Travel

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Charles Conrad Jr./NASA

They traveled around 238,000 miles from home—the farthest human beings have ever traveled before or since. Their crafts contained less technology than schoolchildren today hold in their hands with their iPhone. The astronauts relied on a primitive computer that operated at 1.024 Megaherz and a control room in Houston filled with men (mostly) working mostly the old fashioned way—lots of human brains, pencil and paper. Today, orbital trajectories are calculated in seconds by supercomputers operating hundreds of millions of times faster than NASA's 1969 model.

Fifty years have passed since Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Armstrong is among only 24 men who have flown there; only 11 other joined Armstrong's small fraternity.

As their feat recedes into history, the men of the Apollo program take their place among the pantheon of the great explorers of human history. Marco Polo. Christopher Columbus. Their courage and curiosity are rightly celebrated. Their children and grandchildren now look at the archaic flying machines that took them to the moon and back—the same way they look at 15th Century mariners in wooden boats powered by wind, who traveled through storms to discover unmapped continents.

The trip to the moon changed the astronauts in ways they couldn't predict. They were the first humans to see their blue planet, Earth, rising behind the lifeless orb of the moon—and to bring back with them a measured sense of its relative smallness and fragility. During the hours and days the Apollo astronauts were in lunar orbit on voyages between 1968 and 1972, the Vietnam War was raging, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in an arms race with the most powerful weapons mankind had ever invented, and American cities were tense with anti-war protests and racial unrest. The space program itself was a Cold War enterprise, a race to beat the Soviets to the moon.

The lunar endeavor, though, transcended jingoism and national borders. When the first moon landers returned to Earth they were greeted with ticker tape parades and global outpourings of admiration in 24 cities on the GIANTSTEP Apollo 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour. (Though, Moscow was not one of the 24 cities).

The last moon landing was on December 11, 1972. Even then, attention had drifted away from the miracle of it, and only true space buffs can recite the names of the last men to walk on the moon—Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan. By then, the Watergate scandal that would bring down President Nixon was unravelling. The Vietnam War was de-escalating, with America headed for a devastating loss. The decline of American exceptionalism was, perhaps, already beginning.

The fiftieth anniversary of the first human moon-landing is a good time to take stock of what has changed on Earth and in America since July 1969. We feature, in our first story, interviews with four astronauts in the Apollo program, which is followed (page 38) by a stunning photo essay that spans the history of space exploration from its early days to our fascination with discovering the planet Mars. We also profile an entrepreneur looking to "back up" all of mankind's knowledge by storing it on the Moon, among other places in our solar system (page 36).

As for our main act, Newsweek in March caught up with the lunar astronauts at the Explorers' Club dinner in New York City. The group included eight lunar astronauts from Apollo 7 to Apollo 17, (including Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon).

Spry senior citizens now, the men ambled about the Marriott Hotel in Times Square, trailed by network producers and fans seeking selfies and autographs, and reminisced about their voyages. In one panel discussion, Aldrin recounted how the moon lander had an electrical problem that he solved with a felt-tip pen he just happened to have brought with him to the moon. Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module above while Aldrin and Armstrong were on the moon, revealed that he was more worried about whether the white mice they would be quarantined with after their return to Earth would die of some hitherto unknown moon disease than he was about the safety of the space crafts.

Afterwards, Newsweek interviewed Charlie Duke, Michael Collins, Al Worden and Russell Schweickart. Edited excerpts: →

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Charlie Duke Left: Christopher Lane; Right: NASA

Charlie Duke

Then Charlie Duke served twice in Mission Control, as backup crew on Apollo 13 and Apollo 17, flew to the moon on Apollo 16, and was the 10th man to step foot onto the moon.
Now Duke is a committed born-again Christian, runs the Duke Ministry for Christ organization, and lives outside of San Antonio, Texas, with his wife Dottie.

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Michael Collins Left: Christopher Lane; Right: NASA

Michael Collins

Then Michael Collins was the command module pilot on Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, July 16 to July 24, 1969, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Now Collins is retired after a second career in the State Department, wrote an autobiography called "Carrying the Fire" which is being re-released, and remains an avid reader and exerciser in South Florida. He recently threw out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game.

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Al Worden Left: Christopher Lane; Right: NASA

Al Worden

Then Al Worden was the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 15, July 26 to August 7, 1971.
Now Worden retired from NASA in 1975, served as chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which gives grants to exceptional science and engineering students, until 2011, and has continued public speaking and attending space events. He published an autobiography, "Falling to Earth." He lives in Florida.

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Russell Schweickart Left: Christopher Lane; Right: NASA

Russell Schweickart

Then Russell "Rusty" Schweickart was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 9, March 3 to March 13, 1969, the first flight of the lunar module.
Now Schweickart is chair emeritus of the B612 Foundation, an organization dedicated to defending Earth from asteroid impacts, which he co-founded with other astronauts. He lives in California.

JFK's Bold Declaration in 1962

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Michael Collins He was very clear in his mandate to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade. So, there was no doubt about what we were going to do and when we were supposed to do it. Now, the "how" was up to us—and that's what we spent a decade working very hard at: to achieve the first lunar landing before the end of the decade. Just as he said.

Charlie Duke When Kennedy made the announcement, "We're going to put a man on the moon in 1970." I shook my head, "There's just no way. We've got 15 minutes in space with Alan Shepard's flight, and he's committing us to the moon? What a bold statement." I was incredulous. How were we going to do that? But the country pitched in. By the time I got to MIT the next year, MIT was building Apollo guidance and navigation systems. I got to work on it. I met some astronauts through that work, and I'd never seen anybody so enthusiastic and so positive that we were going to do this. So. I began to get that excitement. Maybe I could do that job. "Yeah, we're going to pull this off. We're going to do this."

Russell Schweickart It was an extremely intense period of time. But we were very focused on meeting that JFK goal. And so, in some sense it was a single-minded effort. We were certainly not unaware of what was going on in the country—and in the world. But JFK's goal was a very, very personal thing. And, I can only really speak for myself. I would say, having said that, it was clearly a very shared goal. But, for me, it was partly a national commitment.

Competition With the Soviets

Russell Schweickart It was partly a race with the Soviets, but more than anything else for me, it was doing something that was clearly right in terms of human destiny. It was clear we had to go to the Moon. It was a very logical step. There was the race to the Moon, but we, frankly, a number of us at least, would cheer when the Soviets would do another thing because it would incentivize our leadership and our managers to be a little less risk averse than they would've been. And so, while on the one hand there was a competition, at the same time, at least for me, it was very much humanity moving out as it should into the larger universe. I often say that we went to the Moon as a national program, but when we go to Mars and beyond, as far as I'm concerned, we will be people from planet Earth. And, I think we will do this internationally and cooperatively, and that to me is the way it should be.

Michael Collins Well, 1969 was a year of the Cold War. We were not friendly with the Soviet Union. The Paris Air Show was neutral territory. I expected perhaps a tinge of hostility from them. I got none. We concentrated more on the fact that we had similarities in our background rather than political different systems in our background. They flew airplanes, we flew airplanes. We lived in the sky, they lived in the sky. We concentrated more on those similarities than our political differences. I got along very well with Pavel. He seemed like someone that I could go out and have a beer with on very friendly terms. And for the moment, at least, we forgot the latent hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union. [Collins met cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev at the 1969 Paris Air Show after his lunar expedition.]

The Impact of the "Earthrise" Photograph

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The "Earthrise" Photograph Bettmann Archive/Getty

Al Worden I think Apollo 8 really turned the thinking around in this country back in those days. The photograph of the Earth [snapped by astronaut Bill Anders with a Brownie camera on Christmas 1969], that's probably the most famous picture ever taken. And I think maybe the most important thing that came out of the Apollo program was a picture of Earth. Because all of a sudden, people realized that hey, this thing isn't infinite. It's not so big that we can't figure it out. It's not so big that we can't look at it from a ways away and see it as this little small planet out there.

The USA Then and Now

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Al Worden The decade of the sixties was not good, but we were very goal oriented. We did have a fire in 1967 in the Cape and there was a lot of talk about should we continue the program or not. But the decision was made, and I think the right one, that we continue, because these things are going to happen. I don't care what kind of a test program you have, there are going to be accidents. There are going to be people that get hurt, and you can't stop because of that. I was part of the group that worked with the contractor. And I know there was not one ounce of bureaucracy involved in any of that. Everybody sat around the table and solved the problem - and came to a consensus, and everybody had the idea that hey, I'm working here to put the guy on the moon. But I think that's changed. I think we're settling back into something that's not as positive as it used to be. I think we're getting too, what do I want to say? We're getting too divided. I see us getting terribly divided, and it's very upsetting to me. And because we're getting divided, we're not getting anything done. Because one side's not going to give into the other, so I think that's a big difference. We didn't have that problem back in the sixties and seventies.

Charlie Duke The war, no question, was ripping us apart in 1972, but the space program was pulling us together. I saw the Apollo with hundreds of thousands of people involved in the program and excited that we're in a race, we're still in a Cold War, but we're in the hot war in Vietnam, but we're going to win this Cold War. And so as I went around the country speaking back in those days, I found a lot of togetherness, if you will, and the kids, the adults, everybody was excited about it: "We're going to do something that's never been done before." So, it did pull the country together. In some respects, I think we're less positive now. In some respects, I think we're more positive. The goal of being in space is still a very positive thing in our country. There are a lot of movements, I think, that are not so good, that I think we've gone off the deep end.

Michael Collins I think the space program, important as it was, was not the monumental change or the monumental challenge to our social systems. It was a relatively minor part of it. The country goes on. The United States, best country in the world—continues to be, was before, is now, and will be in the future. It was not (impacted) one way or the other, favorably or unfavorably by the space program. I don't think everything was so terrible and we metamorphosed it so wonderfully. The space program was a relatively small part of what was going on. And the country was not in total disarray.

Russell Schweickart Apollo 9 occurred when the Vietnam war was going on, Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated, Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, there were riots, there was all kinds of stuff going on of a historic nature. In fact, we were completely focused on the Apollo program and getting the program off the ground. I'm very much involved in the here and now, and at the same time what are my deepest and most significant concerns and where I put my energy is in the long term. So, I have much more interest in where we're going in the long term. We live in difficult times and there will always be difficult times; this is, in a sense, the froth on the surface of the history of the ocean, or in the ocean of history, I should put it that way. And that froth, has very little to do with what's going on in the deep ocean. Our role, and responsibility is the continued evolution of this life experiment. That to me, is what's important and that to me is what's important ultimately about Apollo and the 50th anniversary celebration. Apollo 9 was simply one of several steps along the way. What's important is having looked back at the Earth and understood that we live in this corner of the universe and that we have a responsibility. My hope is that in the middle of all the hubbub of national politics and bickering that there is a deeper understanding (or space exploration) by our national leaders. It's a responsibility in a sense that we have to generations, countless generations, in the future.

On Being Left Behind in the Command Module Above the Moon's Surface

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Michael Collins You know, I'd be a liar or a fool if I said I had the best seat on Apollo 11. However, I can say with absolute truth and equanimity, I am happy with the seat that I had. I was proud to be a part of Apollo 11. It was the culmination of President John F. Kennedy's dream of putting a man on the Moon, and we did it on Apollo 11. I was an integral part of it. I was Neil and Buzz's meal ticket home.

I was happy to have the seat that I had.

The Bigger Bang: Asteroids

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USGS/NASA Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty

Russell Schweickart In the last decade and a half, I've dedicated myself to ensuring that we're going to be in a position to be able to deflect any asteroid that we pick up in the future that might threaten, if not end, this experiment that we're all part of. One might think that the real challenge in terms of protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts are the technical issues that are involved in it. And there are very, very serious, challenging technical issues, but they are going to be solved. I mean, we are very close to that now. But what we discovered—as we got wrestling with the real issues involved in deflecting an asteroid we know is coming—are the geopolitical issues and challenges. That's where the real difficulty is going to come. I would say if, but when we get hit by the next asteroid, because we will, hopefully a small one. But when we get hit it will be because of a failure of the political world to make a coordinated and cooperative decision to spend money to deflect it. That's a very, very challenging geopolitical decision that's got to be made. In the end, it's going to be the planet that's going to decide to protect itself. Not any one nation. And that, is going to require a planetary decision—politicians aren't elected by the planet. Ultimately it will be the planet, the people of planet Earth, to protect the Earth when that challenge comes up, and it will.

On Elon Musk and the Privatization of Space Exploration

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Russell Schweickart The real juice in space exploration today is coming from these new entrants into space technology led by private industry. NASA has a large responsibility and will continue to have one, as will other national space programs. But government programs have a way of, over time, becoming ossified and risk averse. Whereas, the new entrants coming in are very, very innovative. They're competing with one another, they've got all kinds of great ideas, and, you know, we see that in the form of Elon Musk and SpaceX with the first stage landing and being used multiple times. Even, two first stages from the Falcon 9 Heavy, coming back and landing in formation. I mean, it was incredible. You would never have seen that coming out of NASA or the government. So, that kind of thing is very exciting. And I think that's certainly, in the near term, that's where all the juice is going. If you listen to Elon Musk, I take him at his word. I think he very, very deeply believes that we will become a multi-planetary species. And, he simply articulated it for many of us. He didn't invent the idea, but he was brave enough to state it outright, and he believes it. That's what he cares about, it's what I care about, I think it's what many, many people care about, even subconsciously.

On Money for Space Programs —and the Future

Charlie Duke I think astronauts and the accomplishments of the space program are still respected. I think the political climate did change: "Why are we spending so much money on the Moon?" My answer to that was, 'We didn't spend a dime on the moon. It was all spent on the United States of America.' We had 400,000 people. A lot of people benefited from the technology that was developed in the space program. There have been many studies showing that the rate of return on our investment has been significant from the space program and the space race, if you will.

Michael Collins The space program is a relatively minor element in our American society. I don't want to exaggerate the importance of how important the space program was then, how important it was now. I am a true believer in the space program. But I don't want to go overboard and say, "It's going to fix this, and world peace and racism and women and everything," you know? It was a good achievement at the time. That's all. I just don't want to exaggerate that somehow.

Russell Schweickart My hope is that in the middle of all the hubbub of national politics, parties, and bickering, and all the rest of it, that there is a deeper understanding within national leaders. Whether the Congress or the administration, both hopefully, that space exploration is something that is a deeper level of responsibility. It's a responsibility in a sense that we have to generations, countless generations, in the future. That is the future of where life is evolving, and I would hope that a piece of their commitment to their NASA annual budget, and to international cooperation, and to enhancing, or supporting imaginative, deep exploration arises out of that deep recognition, that's what I hope. At the same time, what we see every day in the newspapers, and on Twitter and everywhere else, is the BS, the froth, the bubbles, the bickering, and all the rest of it. But, I hope underneath that there's a bit of a deeper understanding of our responsibility to the future.

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The Next Generation in Space Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty

On The Next Generation in Space

Charlie Duke I try to get the kids to take the hard courses, challenge yourself in school. Don't just try to drift through school, you know. You never know what's going to happen in your life. I mean, when I was a kid there wasn't any space program. But I kept my view wide, and I had a sort of a plan, and the only thing I knew is I wanted to be a pilot. And so, I became a pilot—and then all of a sudden I was in flight school, and Sputnik went up. You know? "Wow, there's a new way to flight. We're going to space, maybe." I just kept going one step at a time. I'm very active with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. We give scholarships to deserving kids all over the country studying science and engineering. It's good to see the kids being challenged today and the interest in the space program. When I applied for NASA, there were 3,500 applications, all men back in those days. In 2017, NASA had 18,000 applications for the astronaut program. So, the interest is there, you know, and the desire to explore in this younger generation is all there. It's very exciting to me.

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On Diversity in Space Exploration

Russel Schweickart I think today it's wonderful that we're not a bunch of white men, but white, black and brown men and women. That's what it should be. What we're seeing is, in a way, the evolution of humanity moving further, and further out into the universe. As far as I'm concerned, that ought to be representing Earth life and not men, women, Russians, Americans, whatever. We're the life in this corner of the universe and I think we're moving out into the cosmos, and that to me should be done together.

Charlie Duke The International Space Station has all kinds of astronauts and all different nations together up there. And so, there's now a lot of diversity in the program. I think NASA is colorblind. You're going to pick the best—whether the name is James or Jim or black or white, you know, pick the best.

On Science & God

Charlie Duke I don't see any conflict. Science is based on immutable laws, and the laws of the universe were put into effect by a designer. I call him God. And so, the question of science to faith or science to religion is really a question in my mind of evolution or creation. Evolution is just as faith based as creation is faith based. Creation is just as scientific as evolution. And so, you never can prove either one scientifically, so it's a matter of belief. I think the evidence now, in my view, points more toward that there's a designer of the universe. It's too orderly. The thought that things just happen by accident is beyond my comprehension these days, though I was raised, [to believe in] the Big Bang and all of that stuff. There are a couple of my astronaut buddies that still hold to that view. And we are good friends, and we had a discussion last night, as a matter of fact, on this very subject. So, we can disagree, but still be buddies.

On Climate Change

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Michael Collins I have a friend, a fellow astronaut, Walt Cunningham, who is one of the disbelievers. He thinks that these variations in temperature are ancient and you can trace it back centuries. I disagree with him. We get into some discussions about it. I think all the, pardon the word, crud, that we toss up into the sky is bad, bad for the health of our planet. It may not raise the temperature immediately, but it has long-term effects. Most of it is carbon dioxide. And Walt says, "Well that's wonderful, forests love carbon dioxide." And that is true. However, where I live, it's the acidity of the change in the water that I notice. Places where I scuba dive, the reefs are whitening and dying. The same thing is happening in Australia, to the Great Barrier Reef. So it's not just a question of temperature. It's a question of acidity. It's a question of increased temperature as well. I think we're doing dangerous things to our environment today, to our planet. And we need an emphasis not only on the research, but on bringing that research more into the public eye in terms that are going to touch us.

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Finally, About Those Mice. . .

Michael Collins The white mice did not appear upon the scene until after we came back to the Earth and we were put into quarantine. We had a large colony of white mice. The scientists were worried that we brought back dangerous pathogens from the Moon. And therefore, the ultimate success of our mission depended on the health of these white mice. I just sort of made fun of that here and there. But it was a real consideration. If the white mice had died, uh-oh...we had brought back something very, very dangerous. How dangerous, I don't know. I think Neil said, well, the chances of our doing that were infinitesimally small, but the implications, the dangers of our doing it were meaningful beyond all belief. If you took a tiny number and you multiply it by a huge number, what did you get? I don't know, you got some kind of quantity that the authorities thought worth building this gigantic building full of white mice to ascertain, that's all. I like to say, you know, when it's all over and done with, the success of Apollo 11 was not of man, it was of, you know, in that famous book, Of Mice and Men. It was really of mice, okay? The success of Apollo 11 depended on mice.

Moon Landing at 50: Apollo Astronauts Reflect On JFK's Challenge and the Future of Space Travel