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Kai Ryssdal: If you’re out walking the dog tonight, or just running some errands, take a second and look up. You won’t see much more than a sliver of the moon, but run this soundtrack through your mind all the same.
Apollo Launch: Ten, nine, ignition sequence start, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. All engines running. Lift off. We have a lift off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift off on Apollo 11. . . . It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Forty years ago tonight Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Anybody who was alive back then and old enough to remember probably won’t ever forget where they were.
DAVID SCHMITT: It was during the summer, so I was in between my junior and senior year in high school.
DEIDRE COLLIE: I was outside playing, and my mother made me come in to watch.
JERRY PULLIAM: Yeah, I was at home watching it on television with my parents. My dad was 54 years old. Born in 1915, so it was really an event going from model Ts to men landing on the moon.
There are plans now in the works to put another man or woman on the moon. But given the economy and everything else that has to be done in this country, should we?
RENE BENSON: We gotta keep up with technology. We gotta keep up with the rest of the world.
JERRY PULLIAM: Exploration like that never . . . should have never stopped. There’s always something new and exciting out there, and it’s . . . Plus, it keeps the jobs for the guys that are doing it.
DEIDRE COLLIE: I think we could spend that money on taking care of earth, and then we’ll worry about getting to the moon when earth is back in order.
David Schmitt, Diedre Collie, Renee Benson and Jerry Pulliam helped us out with our public opinion research this afternoon here in Los Angeles.
Last week, I spoke with author Craig Nelson. His new book on the lunar landing and what it took to get there is called “Rocket Men.” And I asked him if he thinks we’re going to go back to the moon anytime soon.
CRAIG NELSON: I actually don’t think that’s going to happen until we have competition like we had in the Cold War. You know, there’s a misreading of history where people look at that Apollo era and think that we’ve gone downhill or NASA has deteriorated because we don’t have that kind of giant program anymore. But really it was a Cold War battlefield. And the Cold War is over and that’s why that isn’t happening. But I do think that competition is going to heat up again, and we are going to have that coming back in 10 to 15 years.
RYSSDAL: Yeah, we don’t have the Russians and Kruschevs trying to get there, but we do have the Chinese saying they will.
NELSON: Well, the Chinese and the Indians. And in fact, Russia has two programs. It has both a state and a private space industry going at the same time. So they may come back and be competition with us all over again.
RYSSDAL: But at a time when the federal budget deficit for this year is a trillion dollars in the first nine months. And trillions more to come. There are lot of people who are listening to this broadcast who are saying, You people are out of your minds; We can’t afford to take care of ourselves in health care let alone go to the moon.
NELSON: Well, people seem to think that we run to the moon and throw out $28 billion onto the moon and leave it there. But in fact, the entire Apollo program was a fantastic economic stimulus program for all of the South. All of the Gulf Coast states were revolutionized as far as tech jobs it brought to that region. And you look at it, and it’s not just engineers and scientists that were boosted by that giant program. It was seamstresses and plumbers and welders. It was a really remarkable economic stimulus for its time. And we could certainly use that money again.
RYSSDAL: Other than because it’s there, is there a valid economic reason to go to the moon?
NELSON: People think that there’s a process of using fusion out of Helium 3, which is a substance that’s very common on the moon and very rare on the earth. And we could have dramatic changes in our energy requirements and needs, if Helium 3 proves to be a useful source of energy. And if it can be successfully mined off the moon and transferred here. There’s also the possibility of using the moon as a giant source of solar energy, since the sun never sets on certain parts of it. So if they can figure out a way to make that practical, and if we have the revolution and booster technology we may have in the next couple of years, both of those things may happen.
RYSSDAL: How much of the debate, though, over whether to go back to the moon, and in fact, some of the battles in Washington that NASA has had over the past two, three, four decades, about whether to build a shuttle and the space station, how much of that is because NASA is just really not good at selling itself and selling its product?
NELSON: I think a lot of it is because of that. And I think there’s a lack of knowledge going on with the general public. And that a lot of people see the space agency as being something very divorced from their day-to-day lives. Whereas, in fact, a huge part of the agency is directly related to people’s day-to-day lives. And it’s really a shame that ordinary people don’t really understand all the benefits they get from having NASA.
RYSSDAL: Well, here’s your chance. Run down the list for us.
NELSON: NASA does incredible things for agriculture by surveying the earth. And we’ve had incredible changes in technology from the rate of computers, to plastics, and MRI, and dialysis machines, and equipment for fire fighters. And the list just goes on and on and on, the benefits that come off it. So it certainly isn’t just throwing money at the moon.
RYSSDAL: Do you think we ought to go back to the moon.
NELSON: Well, I think if it’s discovered that one of these things is worthwhile, the solar energy or the Helium 3, then yes, we should go back. But to go back to use it as a base to go to Mars, I don’t see the point of that yet until we start seeing competition in these other areas.
RYSSDAL: Craig Nelson. His book on the Apollo program is called “Rocket Men.” Craig, thanks a lot.
NELSON: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.