Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2285th Meeting

President Robin Taylor called the 2,285th meeting to order at 8:18 pm April 29, 2011 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Ms. Taylor announced the order of business and introduced four new members of the Society. She noted a recent article publication by a member of the General Committee.

The minutes of the 2,284th meeting were read and approved.

Ms. Taylor then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Roger D. Launius of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Mr. Launius, who is senior curator for the museum's Division of Space History, spoke on “How We Remember Apollo.”

Mr. Launius began by discussing humanity's ancient and continuing fascination with the Moon. He spoke of its fundamental role in mythology and various superstitions, as well as its iconic presence in popular culture due largely to the Apollo missions.

He explained that ballistic missile development in the 1950s led to the possibility of launching satellites, made real by Sputnik in 1957 and emphasized by Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight in 1961. In this critical context of Cold War rivalry, John F. Kennedy tasked his administration with designing a spectacular response to the Soviet Union that would demonstrate American technological prowess, resulting in the Apollo program proposal.

Mr. Launius related the annual Apollo budget, then about half of NASA's total budget, to the Gross Domestic Product. It peaked at almost 0.4% in 1966 and he noted this was a significant investment, over twenty five billion dollars total, that wasn't intended to be sustained. At the time, public opinion was either split or against funding human trips to the Moon and less than half the public thought Apollo was worth the cost, though a majority approved of the program in general if cost wasn't mentioned. People still tend to overestimate the amount spent on spaceflight and NASA accounts for less than 1% of the modern federal budget.

Creations of the Apollo investment include three human spaceflight centers, Launch Complex 39, the Vehicle Assembly Building, training facilities, and the Mission Control Center, he said. In 1965, the program employed 36,000 personnel and 360,000 contractors, and more in later years. There was a collective sense of a “national mission” that inspired both intense pride in success and self-flagellation for failure.

The Apollo 1 capsule fire caused the first astronaut fatalities in a spacecraft and was a harsh reminder that space exploration is an enormously risky endeavor. Some members of Congress argued for canceling the program as too dangerous and expensive, though Mr. Launius implied they would later forget this position after the program's many successes.

The Apollo program achieved three circumlunar flights and six landings before 1972, an outstanding achievement that included tremendous technological developments and scientific returns. A key moment for the program was the 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast of Apollo 8's greeting and images of the Earth while in orbit around the Moon. The year had been a challenging one for America and the broadcast was a Christmas gift to “all of you on the good Earth,” reminding the world of humanity's grand accomplishment.

Mr. Launius then presented iconic photographs he felt represented the pervasive impact of the Apollo program. First, Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag on the Moon's surface. This carefully planned photo communicates a marking of territory reminiscent of past ages of explorers. Second, Aldrin's picture of his suit's footprint. Without an atmosphere or seismic activity, his footprint will likely remain preserved long into the future. Mr. Launius expressed some concern that upcoming private rover missions may risk disturbing the historic site while attempting to photograph it. Third, a Saturn V rocket launch, depicting the enormous raw power that, with precise human control, made the missions possible. Fourth, “Earthrise” had a notable impact on the global environmental movement by juxtaposing the only place in the universe we know life exists with the gray, lifeless expanse of the Moon's surface. Fifth, the “Whole Earth Disk” from Apollo 17 was similar to “Earthrise” in its effect upon the environmental movement. Sixth, Aldrin and what he called the “magnificent desolation”, the image that made the front page of nearly every worldwide newspaper after the landing. Finally, Jack Schmitt at the lip of a large crater and apparently alone in a vast expanse of barren landscape.

Mr. Launius spoke of multiple proposals to return humanity to the Moon, starting with the Space Task Group Report in 1969, which described a potential progression including a space shuttle, a lunar space station, a lunar surface base, and eventual missions to Mars. In 1972, only the space shuttle program was approved. In 1989 and 2004, Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, announced their intention to return to the Moon but there have been minimal increases in NASA's budget.

He noted the justification for returning to the Moon or mounting a manned mission to Mars is a significant question that hasn't been seriously addressed in the last decade. Of the traditional reasons for exploration, only glory still applies to space travel, as nothing sufficiently profitable has been found. He believes the quest for glory has motivated much of humanity's historical space programs but we must find sufficient economic justification to sustain such grand activities.

Mr. Launius is concerned that a small but growing percentage of Americans don't believe we landed on the Moon. In 1970, a non-scientific poll showed about 6% of the population didn't believe but several years ago a similar poll showed 26% of Americans under age twenty-five “question” whether we landed on the Moon. Mr. Launius notes that the growing group of disbelievers are young people and he suspects a lack of first-hand knowledge and an existing distrust of government may be factors. In response, Mr. Launius asserts that the landing occurred at a time when a rival superpower had the intelligence capability and incentive to expose a faked landing but they have never objected to the accepted history.

With that, he closed his talk and Ms. Taylor invited questions.

One person commented that emphasizing the technological benefits of the program could help communicate its impact to young people. Mr. Launius replied that he rarely highlights this as it is difficult to determine what part NASA played in the development of technological spinoffs.

Another asked about the motivation of proponents of Moon landing conspiracy theories. Mr. Launius, with a disclaimer that he can't speak for individuals, believes it's a mix of profit incentive and anti-American bias.

In response to a question regarding John F. Kennedy's definition of “before this decade is out,” Mr. Launius explained Kennedy changed this line of the speech shortly before delivering it to provide flexibility, but that NASA was clearly focused on 1969.

Elaborating on the treatment of the Moon landing hoax in education, Mr. Launius said there's a failure to teach critical thinking skills in school and hopes to hold relevant future workshops for teachers. He also feels NASA can best respond by providing the public with detailed answers to common questions or misconceptions.

A final question about China's potential interest in a Moon landing was met with skepticism that any country currently has an active program to return humans to the Moon.

After the question and answer period, Ms. Taylor thanked the speaker and presented him with a framed copy of the lecture announcement signed by the members of the General Committee.

Ms. Taylor made the usual housekeeping announcements and invited guests to apply for membership. She announced the 80th Joseph Henry Lecture. At 9:57 pm, she adjourned the 2,285th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 51
The weather: Mostly cloudy
The temperature: 17°C

Respectfully submitted,

Justin Stimatze,
Recording Secretary

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