Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Race to the Moon

On this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, I would like to express some thoughts on the role the early days of manned space flight played in my life and my appreciation for the people who were instrumental in sending humans to the moon, which inspired a whole generation of current scientists. In contrast to many of my blog posts, this one will be autobiographical with little direct connection made between science and Christianity.

I spent eight and a half years of my childhood, from when I was five years old to when I was thirteen years old in Huntsville, Alabama, the city where the Saturn V rocket was designed and where the bottom stage of the Saturn V rocket was built and tested. During the 1960's and early 1970's, Huntsville was among the cities most involved with manned space flight, along with Houston where mission control existed and Cape Canaveral where flights were launched. I was fascinated and captivated by manned space flight. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew, up I would have probably answered that I wanted to be an astronaut. Some kids could name their favorite sports heroes, but I could name all of the astronauts. The remarkable achievement of humans going to the moon, pushing the boundaries of technology and adventure, inspired a whole generation of scientists. I know that my interest in science and technology, which eventually led me to becoming an experimental particle physicist, was spawned and nurtured because of the accomplishments made in the race to put humans on the moon.

As a child one of my hobbies was making plastic models, and most of the models I made were spaceships, helicopters, or airplanes. One of the most intricate and complicated plastic models I made was of the command module, the service module, and the lunar module, which could be taken apart to recreate the steps of the Apollo mission from earth orbit to the moon landing, and the return to earth. The plastic model had all the parts shown in the opening picture at the beginning of this blog post. That extravagant model was one of my favorite birthday presents of all time.

To test the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, with its five F-1 engines which produced a total of 7.5 million pounds of thrust, engineers would strap the rocket into a stationary pad and turn on the engines while the pad held the rocket in place. Can you imagine how strong the structure must have been that can hold the Saturn V rocket in place when the engines are firing full throttle? When the rocket engines were tested, the glass doors in our house in Huntsville would shake as the rocket engines fired many miles away. When I moved to southern California as a teenager, the first earthquake I experienced felt just like the rumbling of the ground when the Saturn V rocket engines were tested in Alabama. The Saturn V remains the most powerful and largest rocket ever built by humans and the F-1 engines remain the most powerful single chamber liquid-propellant combustion engine ever produced.

The space race had such an impact on me that the first words of my book The Creator Revealed: A Physicist Examines the Big Bang and the Bible reference my fascination with the moon landing. Here is an excerpt from the first two paragraphs of the book.

       "I was mesmerized by the picture on my television screen that was being transmitted from about 240,000 miles away. The fuzzy black-and-white images of the two astronauts walking on the moon captivated me as I watched humans step onto a different world for the very first time. What an exciting and amazing moment for a ten-year-old boy! It seemed that through the miracle of scientific progress, humans could do almost anything. I was fascinated by the exploration of space and the advancements made by modern science.
       I was also the son of a pastor and was being taught in church that the Bible was the Word of God, that the stories written in the Bible were true, and that they were an accurate reflection of a God who is always truthful. These two arenas, science and faith, were in perfect harmony, at least to a boy who was only ten years old."

Exploring space is expensive. Sending humans to space is also inherently dangerous. But manned and unmanned missions to distant worlds have the ability to inspire humans and bring humanity together. They push the frontiers in many different scientific and technological areas. I believe that the cost of such projects is repaid many times over in the technological advancements made and in the human resources inspired and developed. I'm grateful for the hundreds of thousands of people who were directly involved in the manned space missions that eventually led to humans walking on the moon. It is because of them and their success that I am a scientist today. We should reflect on the tremendous long-term benefits that came about because humanity dreamed big and pushed the boundaries of exploration. Maybe there are still many adventures out there that can inspire the next generation of scientists. I think undertaking such adventures would be exciting and worthwhile.

You can purchase The Creator Revealed: A Physicist Examines the Big Bang and the Bible from the publisher at Westbow Press, or from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. I once went into an ATLAS missle silo near Altus,OK. That was amazing and inspiring. At age 11 Rocket to Mars by Von Braun also inspired. In HS Rockets Missiles and Space Travel by Willie Ley as well. In grade school my nickname was MOONMAN. In LA Grad School my math dude was Harry Lass from Cal Tech and JPL..the go-to math dude for GellMann. People inspire people in many ways.