Oh, the Apollo program! It was a unique effort all together. When I think about it some 40 years later, I still look at that time with wonder. It was an enormous challenge that required much energy and unparalleled dedication; it helped a great deal to feel that we were satisfying a dream of mankind. From time immemorial humans must have looked at the sky and wondered about earth’s heavenly neighbor, which illuminated the night and changed shape and position every time it appeared.
The Apollo team members were well aware of the heated race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which was ahead of us in this race when we started with Apollo. We had camaraderie and a keen recognition that the U.S. reputation was on the line and moved tirelessly towards our goal. Apollo’s work knew no boundaries or daylight hours. I remember a comment by David Scott, the commander of Apollo 15 mission, after a long briefing session at Cape Kennedy. It was midnight, but I was still briefing. He looked at me and said: “Farouk... I tell you the pay of this job is not so great, but at least the hours are long!”
But we didn’t mind. Every person was made to believe that his work was the most essential to the success of any given mission. By feeling that the success of the Apollo program depended solely on their performance, people were thus motivated to unparalleled levels. There was room for testing ideas and innovations, and developing and applying them in a timely manner. The technologies being developed were not just for manned space flight, however. At this time we also looked into the development of the satellites that now orbit the Earth in huge numbers, giving us the advanced communications we enjoy today.
Unfortunately, the Apollo spirit of innovation and can-do attitude did not last long. The last moon mission, Apollo 17, was accomplished in December 1972. Shortly thereafter America was confronted by the oil embargo of 1973. We should have, right there and then, confronted our supply of energy to relieve the U.S. from over-dependence on foreign oil. One of our colleagues had designed a methodology for acquiring solar energy from space, above the atmosphere and its clouds. A folded array of solar energy collectors would unfold to beam microwaves to a collector on the ground. A two kilometer square array would constantly supply a city like New York and its surroundings with all the needed electricity.
Nothing of the sort was put on the table in the aftermath of the oil embargo. In the late 1970s, the President appeared in the White House to address the American people wearing a sweater and asked us to turn down our thermostats to lessen our energy consumption. Members of his administration spoke of a malaise that gripped the nation. To me that was a signal that the spirit of Apollo had begun to evaporate, and we suffer from that to this day.
This is why I believe that my generation has failed the American people in one respect. We considered Apollo as an enormous challenge and a singular goal. To us, it was the end game. We knew that nothing like it ever happened in the past and behaved as if it would have no equal in the future.
It should not have been that way.
The work ethic of Apollo should have been a modus operandi – the way we do everything from that time forward. It proved that we could jump start anything and could do it on time and do it well. The Apollo way should have been the way to conduct all of our affairs. We should have forever embraced the vision, imagination, and dedication that Apollo commanded.
Today we have an opportunity to recapture that the Apollo spirit. The National Academy of Engineering has taken the initiative of defining the major challenges facing future generations in the 21st Century. I had the honor of serving on the committee that elaborated those challenges. It is time that we accept these and begin to deal with them the way things were done during the Apollo era. Through focused dedication and innovation we can inspire future generations with the Apollo spirit for a better future.
James Webb, the superb administrator of NASA, had a message for us in the Apollo days: “If you're able to get from every man that works for you all that they think they are capable of doing we would fail. But, if you are able to get from every one that works for you more than what they think they are capable of doing, then we'll succeed and we will make it to the moon.” We need all of the creative scientists and engineers to adopt this can-do attitude in facing the problems of the future. If that happens we will succeed and we will meet these challenges.
Dr. Farouk El-Baz was supervisor of lunar science planning of Bellcomm Inc. at NASA Headquarters, secretary to the Apollo Lunar Landing Site Selection Committee, and chair of astronaut training in Orbital Observations and Photography. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the Astronomical Society of London, and the Lunar Nomenclature Task Group of the International Astronomical Union. He presently directs the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.