50 years after the first moon walk, astronauts are still a big draw

Panel on the first moon walk


The Pitt Honors College has hosted an annual community lecture on significant historical events for the past 16 years on topics from Watergate to the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War, but it was the chance to hear from two astronauts who have walked in space that brought a standing-room-only crowd to the University Club last week.

Jay Apt, former space shuttle astronaut and current professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Kathleen Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, were joined by Smithsonian curator Jennifer K. Levasseur and best-selling author Douglas Brinkley to ruminate on the long-reaching impact of Apollo 11’s moon landing 50 years ago. The panel discussion was moderated by David Schribman, retired executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Cindy Skrzycki, a senior lecturer in the English department who organized the event, reminded those gathered of President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech in 1962 about our goal to reach the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

What will historians say in 100 years about the moon walk?

It was a time of great optimism and can-do spirit, said Brinkley, whose book “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race” went on sale this week, and the beginning of the tech revolution. When Kennedy became president, there were very few computer classes or majors at American colleges and by 1963 they were ubiquitous, Brinkley said.

During her travels, Sullivan said, she’s been struck by how many non-Americans, of all ages, races and countries, talk to her about “when we went to the moon, not when 'you guys went,' but humankind.”

“Apollo 11 … was such a galvanizing and aspirational moment, unlike, I think, any such moment in human history,” she said. “I dare to say that because no prior moment in history had ever happened in the age of television.

“The planet … was drawn together by something that was an extraordinary, bold, inspirational adventure,” she continued, challenging the audience to find something in today’s divisive climate that has such an aspirational and unifying draw, all for the 8/10 of a penny in tax dollars that make up NASA’s funding.

“The legacy of Apollo is that people can dream great things, they can then go out and do these great things,” Apt said. “And there are people doing them right now.

“When I see the images brought back from Pluto, … streaming down from the furthest body that we have visited, I still get goosebumps. And if you in the audience do things that give you that thrill, then Apollo will have had a legacy.”

Why haven’t we been back to the moon?

The main motivator for Kennedy’s pledge to go to the moon was the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Brinkley said. Kennedy made it about beating the communists, but by 1975 the two countries were collaborating again.

The race to the moon was a bipartisan effort, he said, and at its height in the mid-1960s NASA was receiving 4.4 percent of the federal budget. But that money slowly began to slip away.

Sullivan said in the aftermath of World War II there was the workforce and industrial base that allowed the U.S. to expand scientific enterprises that were woefully behind those in Germany before the war. 

“Kennedy also was explicit in laying out that that first feat be done by people with our values,” Sullivan said. “American values of liberty, independence, justice and rule of law — those should be the values that are planted with that flag on the moon.”

But when Richard Nixon became president, he was faced with the failure of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, which made it home safely but never landed on the moon because of an oxygen tank explosion, along with growing unrest and riots throughout the country.

“He was really rattled by the thought of losing a crew on his watch,” Sullivan said, plus Nixon had taken over his Democratic predecessors’ program which he had no allegiance to. She believes the Apollo program would have gone on to other missions to the moon and the space station much sooner, if not for those factors.

Levasseur said statistics show that after Apollo 11 television viewership of the missions dropped off dramatically and people’s attention was pulled in other directions.

Is there a war on expertise going on in the U.S. now?

“We’ve had for 100 years people at the very top that have disregarded the advice from experts — sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad,” Apt said. “What's different today is that due to the wonders of the Internet, and the lack of filters, … we’re able to see opinions ricochet around the world in seconds and amplify around the world in minutes.”

Levasseur said she’s been challenged several times about if astronauts really landed on the moon, even in the face of overwhelming evidence in the displays she curates. Moon hoax theories have been around since the landing in 1969, but the Internet makes it so much easier to distribute those ideas.

“There are people who will just never be able to be dissuaded from believing what they want,” she said. “And it's a real challenge to have a place where you could come and see those bits of evidence, and have people … who look at the Apollo 11 command module and think it's made of cardboard, … or (believe) that's not really Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit because men never really went to the moon.”

Brinkley said one of the things he learned in writing “Moonshot” is that “leadership matters in the field of public discovery in science. Some presidents really promote science — Kennedy was one; Jimmy Carter promoted science a lot. We're just at a point right now with President Trump that science is not his thing.”

What was it like when you took your first steps in space?

Apt said his first spacewalk was unplanned because the satellite they were transporting failed and the robotic systems didn’t work, so they had to go out at night.

“We had never trained to go out at night, and it was really, really dark,” he said.

He went down one side of the vehicle and his partner down the other side. “And it was all I could do to manage all the tools. The thing that you have to do before you get graceful in space is learn to push off with very little force. … so I was overcontrolling for a bit, and it was dark.”

Sullivan recounted “swimming” out of the hatch and her first sight was the bottom of the shuttle. “It looks just like the model we trained on in the pool until I turned to move away from the toolkit toward my next handhold, and then I realized there are no scuba divers here, just the Earth.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.