Where's the right stuff now?


Washington -- IN THE LAST 20,000 feet down, the computers went bonkers. Twice. Below were boulders as big as Greyhound buses. There seemed no safe place to land. Fuel for the descent was running out. Maybe 15 seconds left.

Then heart-stopping silence.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

"Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. We're breathing again. Thank you."

It was 4:17 Eastern time on the afternoon of July 20, 1969, and all over the world billions sighed or wept or cheered. Uncle Walter Cronkite, as if announcing the greatest home run of all time, kept repeating on CBS through his tears, "Man has landed on the moon!"

That night across America school kids stayed up late. They watched on grainy black-and-white TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalked like ungainly bears in their bulky suits.

Yes, America, once we dreamed great dreams. And at least once, 25 years ago on a moon 240,000 miles away, one of them came true.

What does the first moon landing mean to us now?

Was it a waste, a $24 billion grandstand stunt? After all, moon shots eventually seemed so routine (they never were) that we got bored. Then Challenger blew up in our faces. We live in a mean time. Even the space station -- a stripped-down Chevy after an era of Cadillacs -- is money-pinched.

Have we lost the gift of dreaming big dreams?

One place to ask is the National Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum in the world, 8 million visitors a year. On a steamy July day, all 8 million seemed to swarm there at once, wearing Bermuda shorts and Nikons.

But you can't miss the remnant of our lost dreams, the Apollo 11 command module Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Aldrin and Mike Collins rode to the moon. Tucked beneath the wings of America's two most famous planes, the Wrights' 1903 relic and Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the moon module's nose still tilts toward heaven. But it seems ridiculously small.

Tourists gawk dreamily through the Apollo exhibit upstairs. They hear astronauts' voices and play Walter Mitty through moon landings. They stare at the golf club (Wilson Staff 6-iron) used to hit a ball on the moon. They line up to rub a moon rock for luck. ("They think it'll help them hit the lottery," said a guard. "It won't.")

But memory plays tricks. Despite the exactitude of the Apollo exhibit, it builds on a national myth -- that Jack Kennedy, itching for a race with the Soviets, vowed we'd go to the moon and all Americans rooted whole-heartedly for the effort.

That's not entirely true.

Americans of the '60s were ambivalent about a moon shot. Many were skeptical or outraged at the billions of dollars spent. Remember, 1969 was a year after the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy murders. Cities still smoldered from race riots. Only once did a majority of Americans approve the program -- the day after the 1969 moon walk.

Now we look back in triumph. Look at those huge Saturn engines and the Apollo module and know, with a quarter-century's hindsight, the moon landing was a fantastic roll of the dice, American technology at its zenith.

On a computer screen at the space museum ("Where Next, Columbus?") on which 105,133 visitors have registered opinions, about half were upbeat about going to Mars or checking "life on other planets." But they are wary about spending money on such voyages.

"Take care of problems on Earth first -- AIDS, health care, the homeless," said Brandie Blake, 22, Syracuse, N.Y. "We don't have the money for a luxury like the moon landing."

The moon shot seems a century past. Buzz Aldrin sells Snapple drinks on TV, Neil Armstrong is a recluse and the space program wimps along on a Yugo budget.

Sure, for a few hours on July 20, 1969, we cried and cheered.

But no one is sure we'll ever have the Right Stuff again.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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