Part Three - Magnificent Desolation
(1969-1970) takes Americans to the moon and back.
After the successful Apollo 8 mission, questions about the space program emerged with new intensity. Dr. von Braun’s Nazi past came into sharp focus as the public began to question his role at NASA. As newly elected President Nixon waxed philosophic about the achievements of Apollo 8, violent protests and a cultural revolution shook the nation.
But NASA pushed forward and, in January 1969, announced the crew for Apollo 11. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would be in the craft that landed on the moon supported by Michael Collins in the command module.
In July 1969, crowds flooded Cocoa Beach in anticipation of the historic launch. At the same time, civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led a peaceful protest, criticizing the priorities of the federal government.
On July 20, 1969, the biggest television audience in world history tuned in to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon’s surface. Millions watched as Armstrong delicately maneuvered the lunar module only to discover the landing site was in fact a football-field sized crater, forcing Armstrong to hover and look for a new site with a mere 30 seconds of fuel. At last, he uttered the triumphant words, “the Eagle has landed.”
Safely on the lunar surface, Aldrin and Armstrong unveiled the plaque and American flag and received a call from President Nixon. They bounced along the lunar surface, demonstrating the low gravity for viewers at home. The mission had one remaining hurdle: to fire the ascent engine to safely reach Apollo 11. To the immense relief of all, the engine successfully roared to life and sped Aldrin and Armstrong safely back to the main craft; on July 24th, the crew splashed down in the Pacific.
Despite the tremendous public excitement about Apollo 11, interest in space disappeared quickly. When Wernher von Braun teamed up with Vice President Spiro Agnew to sell the government and the nation a plan to send two nuclear-powered Saturn V’s to Mars, they could not find congressional support. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation, to its scientists and to its pilots had been met — an American had walked on the moon before 1970. But the resolve to reach any further lacked clear focus. Unmanned crafts continued to explore, even reaching Mars and beyond, but the manned space program came to a close. Rather than propelling further exploration, as von Braun had dreamed, the moon landing was the crowning jewel of the Cold War space race.