Pax River has helped propel space program
For almost five decades now, people have sometimes approached technological problems with the question, “If we could send a man to the moon, why can’t we … ?”
And of course, we’ve accomplished a lot on this planet since then. But even in this age of instant information, and the notion that most everything useful must already have been invented, America’s beating the Soviets in the space race by successfully landing Apollo 11 on the moon on July 20, 1969, remains a really big deal. It was equal parts militarism, science and sport, all played out under the icy cover of the Cold War.
For millennia, human beings have gazed into the night sky at our satellite, our nearest celestial neighbor, our moon. For ages it has been the subject of myth and legend, of music and poetry. It governs our tides and, when full, lights our nights.
It’s nearly a quarter of a million miles away. And humans have set foot on it. Walked on it, hopped on it, planted a flag on it, hit a golf ball on it. Amazing.
As chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” Patuxent River Naval Air Station in neighboring St. Mary’s County has had a major hand in the space program. In fact, four of the seven original Mercury astronauts were graduates of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Pax River. Many other of NASA’s finest, from eventual Gemini and Apollo crews to space shuttle astronauts, have come through Southern Maryland and lived among us as they aimed for the stars.
Sure, there have been some conspiracy theorists for the past 47 years since Neil Armstrong first climbed down from the “Eagle,” the lunar module, and put his bootprints in that gray, powdery soil. Some say it was a hoax — that it all took place in the Arizona desert or a Hollywood back lot, and have accused NASA of doctoring photographs and fabricating the entire thing. Come on. Don’t be surprised if these folks also think the moon is made of green cheese.
Oh, it happened, all right. America took President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to heart and did, in fact, make the trip successfully. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he said, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Of course now, interest in space is a lot less overtly political and militaristic, and a lot more economic. Space station crews from around the world regularly fly up into orbit and relieve shifts of other astronauts.
And we’re learning more about the effects of space travel on the human body as we go. Scott Kelly recently returned after having spent a year on the International Space Station with a Russian cosmonaut. He has been undergoing tests to compare his health to that of his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. Both attended the TPS at Pax River.
America’s not likely to send anyone else to the moon, and while probes have inspected Mars, Venus and Jupiter in great detail, manned flight to those planets is doubtful in the foreseeable future as well. But we’ve learned a lot about ourselves since first landing on the moon, and those who have made the trip are to be lauded.
And none of it could have happened without Pax River. Don’t forget that.