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Moon Struck : It’s been 25 years since ‘Buzz’ Aldrin dazzled the world by planting our flag on the moon. Now, amid the rush of activity marking the event, many wonder: What did we learn up there?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of the cool darkness and crackling static of space came a message any earthling could understand: “Picking up some dust.”

With those words, Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr. radioed Earth that his space module was 40 feet above the moon and ready to touch down. It was 1:18 p.m. on July 20, 1969--a day when America was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and barreling on a fast track toward more political havoc.

Less than 48 hours before, Ted Kennedy’s car had careened off a bridge at Chappaquidick. Angry civil rights protests were planned in big cities for the fall and the Chicago Conspiracy Trial was soon to begin. Not a pretty time.

But when mission commander Neil A. Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface that afternoon, the nation momentarily forgot its turmoil. Worldwide, more than 600 million people were riveted to television sets and radios, spellbound as humans swept aside one of the last great barriers to manned space exploration.

“We learned that man can damn well do anything he sets his mind to do,” says Walter Cronkite, who broadcast the event on CBS-TV. “And the challenge was to keep this lesson in front of us. If we could get to the moon, we should be able to solve any problem on Earth. That’s what the moon shot said to us.”

It marked the last time America felt so confident about itself, and then-President Richard M. Nixon walked a fine line between hyperbole and pride, calling the Apollo 11 voyage the most significant week since Creation. The plaque left behind by the crew read: “We Came in Peace for All Mankind.”

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A quarter of a century later, Apollo 11’s stunning technological achievement is unquestioned. Yet the meaning of it all is up for grabs. The memory of what once seemed our finest hour has been eroded by national malaise, petty political wrangling and the abrupt end of the Cold War.

Today, there are no more Soviets to race. No more propaganda battles to be won. NASA’s once limitless horizons have degenerated into nasty budget squabbles, and a whole new generation has come of age since the last Apollo landing in 1972. Perhaps fittingly, the historic picture of Aldrin saluting an American flag on the moon is best known as an MTV logo.

So what did it all amount to, that memorable summer day when Armstrong and Aldrin hopped on the lunar surface, 240,000 miles from Earth? As the mission’s 25th anniversary approaches, a flood of books, magazines, TV specials, films and high-level conferences are trying to provide an answer.

“That first moon shot was the finest moment of the 20th Century,” says John Mosley, an astronomer at Griffith Observatory, where packed crowds have lately been watching a retrospective film on the Apollo 11 mission.

“But times change. Maybe we’re becoming one of those countries that achieves great things, then retreats to wrestle with its own problems. Others with greater vision may take the lead away from us, and that’s sad.”

For some, a fading space effort is welcome news. Why spend billions to bounce a man on the moon when people are starving on Earth? Civil rights leaders voiced these thoughts as the Apollo 11 crew took off, and many anti-poverty activists in U.S. cities echo the same concerns today.

“I don’t know anybody who even talks about (space) anymore,” says Teddy Watkins Jr., with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. “When you think of all the money that’s been spent out there in space, it could have gone a long way toward pulling this country up by its boot straps.”

Others disagree, saying America must continue its travels through the universe. The urge to explore and discover, they say, is as fundamental to human nature as the need to procreate. Just ask the men who have been there.

Indeed, Alan B. Shepard Jr., America’s first man in space, and James A. Lovell Jr., pilot of the Apollo 13 mission, have published dramatic memoirs of what it was like to visit the moon. Other experts have written provocative histories of the space program, and NASA is reissuing documents from the first moon flight, trying to put a positive spin on the benefits of U.S. space exploration.

Meanwhile, Spaceweek International Assn. is hosting several commemorative events in Southern California, including an Apollo 11 Anniversary dinner with Vice President Al Gore, an astronaut-celebrity golf tournament and “Family Science Space Day” at the California Museum of Science and Industry.

The rush of activity is nothing new, because the Apollo moon landing triggered a similar reaction in 1969. And a look back at books and statements by the three crew members, as well as by critics such as Norman Mailer, show that the debate over space hasn’t changed much in 25 years.

Then as now, faith in science collides with more troubling questions: What have we really learned from going to the moon? Has it made us better people? And what will we do with the awesome power of space flight in the future?

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As he looks out the window of his hotel room, high atop New York’s Central Park, the grand old man of U.S. space travel doesn’t offer any easy answers.

But Shepard, who captured America’s imagination with his 1961 sub-orbital ride in space, insists that going to the moon has taught us as much about ourselves--and our limits--as it has about the pockmarked lunar surface.

He explores these issues in “Moonshot” (Turner Publishing), a memoir co-written with late astronaut Deke Slayton. The book, which has begun climbing bestseller lists, is also the subject of a forthcoming WTBS special, and Shepard is promoting the book and film on a national tour.

“Occasionally I’ll give speeches and talk about my personal feelings of looking back toward Earth from the moon,” says Shepard, who led the Apollo 14 lunar mission in 1971 and was the first man to hit a golf ball on the moon.

“I realized up there that our planet is not infinite. It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.”

Like other NASA boosters, Shepard rattles off the Apollo program’s impressive scientific achievements: Unprecedented knowledge of the lunar surface. Digital computer research that’s led to the development of laptops in our time. Products such as Velcro and Teflon that impact millions. The vast, untapped promise of resources for clean, nuclear fission, such as Helium 3, on the moon.

Yet he concedes that most people don’t relate to advanced research unless it directly impacts their lives. Americans have always wanted to know their astronauts as people first and scientists second. That’s not been easy with the U.S. space program, whose current astronauts speak fluent data and little else.

“I wanted to get away from that and show these guys as real human beings,” says Andrew Chaikin, author of “A Man on the Moon” (Viking), an authoritative history of the Apollo program. “We never really absorbed the moon experience because we didn’t know what it was like for these guys.”

How many readers, for example, know that Armstrong--widely perceived in 1969 as shy, remote and tongue-tied--had a sly wit and played ragtime piano in bars near Edwards Air Force Base? It’s all there in Chaikin’s 670-page book, along with stories of astronauts who had epiphanies and religious moments as they hurtled back to Earth from the moon. Lovell is a good example.

“After my trip, I got a better sense of our role in the universe, and it made me feel humble,” says the man who flew the Apollo 8 and 13 missions.

He’s now written his story in “Lost Moon” (Houghton Mifflin), focusing mainly on the oxygen tank explosion that nearly killed his crew and caused them to abort their 1970 landing. The astronaut also recalls his 1968 flight, which was the first to orbit the moon and beamed back one of the most historic photos ever taken of the Earth.

It was the famous “blue marble” picture showing terra firma in the icy blackness of space. The picture eventually became a U.S. stamp, a rallying symbol for environmentalists and a marketing tool for everything from Reeboks to Whole Earth Catalogues. Lovell worries that the photo’s underlying message has been lost.

“Back in the 1960s, you had a moment when everything seemed possible with the space program,” he says. “But today, we’re vacillating over space priorities. We study everything to death. We’ve lost the momentum to explore that we once had. Under John F. Kennedy, we were gung-ho to reach the moon.”

*

If there was a spiritual nadir for the New Frontier, it was early 1961. On April 12, the Soviets announced that cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin had orbited the globe. Five days later, the Bay of Pigs invasion collapsed on Cuban beaches.

Out of such turmoil the Apollo space program was born. Kennedy, eager to fulfill the promise of his “Get America Moving” rhetoric and determined to catch up with the Soviets, asked his top advisers what the United States should do to win the space race. The answer, however daunting, seemed obvious: Go to the moon.

Kennedy promised a landing by the end of the 1960s and the goal was met. Yet it happened largely because of circumstances that would be hard to duplicate now, says James Kauffman, professor of communication at Indiana University Southeast and the author of “Selling Outer Space: Kennedy, the Media and Funding for Project Apollo” (University of Alabama Press).

“You had a charismatic President, a worthy opponent in the Russians and a very compelling myth for most Americans,” Kauffman explains. “Going to the moon was a reflection of the old frontier story that this country loves: Good guys clash with an enemy, go into the wilderness and come back victorious.”

Digging through records of congressional testimony, Kauffman notes that many scientists and military experts initially opposed the moon program. Some believed it was unnecessary to put humans on the lunar surface, since robot technology could get there faster and cheaper. Others objected that the cost of the Apollo moon program, then pegged at $24 billion, was exorbitant.

“None of these critics could brush aside the frontier argument, and so the Administration relied heavily on that in its rhetoric with the American people,” Kauffman says. “The moon was to be our destiny, pure and simple.”

A President rallying such an effort today would face tough obstacles, he adds. Americans are no longer paranoid about Soviet scientific expertise, and concerns over the budget deficit make new spending programs suspect.

Former President George Bush learned this in 1989, when he tried to inspire the country with a new space push culminating in a manned voyage to Mars. The effort fell flat and was eventually abandoned. Few people seemed to notice.

*

Is it because space travel seems passe? Or that a vital human element has long been missing from America’s space exploration programs?

Those concerns surfaced in 1969, even before Apollo 11 blasted off from Earth. Norman Mailer, on assignment for Life magazine, wrote “Of a Fire on the Moon,” an account of the mission that deviated sharply from mainstream press coverage. Instead of beating his chest, the author took a skeptical view of the event, referring throughout to himself and his private thoughts:

“He hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the 20th Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity. . . . The world would cheer America for a day, but something was lacking, some joy, some outrageous sense of adventure.”

One problem, Mailer suggested, was that the astronauts seemed rigid and machine-like, with no human detail. When Armstrong made his famous comment on the moon--"That’s one small step for man, one giant step for mankind"--the author despaired that even this epochal moment had lost its magic:

“It was as if on the largest stage ever created, before an audience of the Earth, a man of modest appearance would walk to the center, smile tentatively at the footlights, and read a page from a data card.”

Many of the books written by astronauts in later years did little to dispel this concern. For example, “First on the Moon” by Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins (Little Brown, 1970), remains a breath-taking recapitulation of the mission. Yet there’s scant evidence of the crew’s innermost thoughts.

Today, Chaikin, Kauffman and others worry about the space program’s continuing lack of human scale. Shuttle flights seem to blend into one another, and their scientific experiments are not widely understood.

But some suggest that critics have failed to celebrate the romance in space technology that’s been there all along. You just have to know where to look.

“Long after the Vietnam War is footnotes, people will remember that we went to the moon, and that it was a great adventure,” says Los Angeles author Mike Gray, who has written “Angle of Attack” (Penguin), a history of the Apollo program.

“Five hundred years from now, we’ll be occupying every flat surface in the solar system that isn’t boiling, simply because it’s out there. It’s our business to spread life. We are the intelligent life force,” he adds.

For Gray, who also penned “The China Syndrome,” the unsung heroes of Apollo are the nearly 400,000 technicians who worked tirelessly to make the program a national success. If Nixon’s name is on the moon, he argues, their names should be up there as well.

Meanwhile, the poetry of space travel remains potent and alluring.

“Once we solve our short-range problems, visionaries will point us to Mars,” Gray says. “And we’ll go not because of technology, but because we watch ‘Star Trek.’ These are the myths of our time. Like the moon shot itself.”


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