Pax River NAS helped get us to the moon
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 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. 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. Even after nearly 50 years, that’s still amazing. And to inject a little national pride into it as well, all 12 of those humans have been Americans. Of course, the accomplishment represented all of mankind, and the Chinese and Russians have each had an unmanned spacecraft land on the moon since, but NASA would be among the first to remind us that those dozen men were Americans. The United States won the international prize fight for the moon by a knockout.
As chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” Patuxent River Naval Air Station 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 St. Mary’s County as they aimed for the stars.
Sure, there have been some conspiracy theorists for the past 48 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.
Oh, it happened, all right. We did land on the moon.
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 rockets are being shot into orbit to support satellite communications and other ventures from right across the Chesapeake Bay at Wallops Island.
America’s not likely to send anyone else to the moon, and while probes have inspected Mars, Venus and Jupiter and other heavenly bodies in our solar system in increasingly 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 the work at Pax River. Don’t forget that.