Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Look Back at Neil Armstrong's 'One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind'

It's Been 40 Years Since a Half-Billion People Worldwide Watched the Ghostly Black-and-White TV Images of Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Walk on the Moon -- But Would This Remarkable Milestone in Human History Have Happened Had There Been No Cold War With the Soviet Union?

The ghostly black-and-white TV images were downright poor, even by 1969 standards, but for half a billion people watching live worldwide -- at that time the largest TV audience in history -- it didn't matter. It was a moment that gave Earthlings goosebumps. In these now-iconic still photos (left to right), Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin climbs down from the lunar excursion module Eagle toward the lunar surface; Aldrin poses for fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong's camera as Armstrong is reflected on Aldrin's face shield; the first human footprint on the Moon left by Armstrong as he stepped off the Eagle. But would the mission had taken place had there been no space race with the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War? (Photo montage courtesy National Air and Space Museum)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, July 16, 2009)

This is the second of a three-part monthly series commemorating the 40th anniversary of the most momentous events of the summer of 1969. With this issue, The 'Skeeter Bites Report is going on its annual two-week summer hiatus while I go on vacation. It will resume on Monday, August 3.


Here's a question that, if you're an American over 50 years of age, you no doubt will be asked in the next few days -- that is, if you haven't been asked it already:

"Where were you on July 20, 1969?"

It is one of several "Where were you?" dates that is permanently etched into the memories of millions of Americans: The day 40 years ago when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed out of the lunar excursion module Eagle, stepped one foot onto the surface of the Moon and uttered those now-immortal words: "It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Never mind the fact that there was an additional word -- "a" -- that Armstrong's microphone failed to pick up. Half an hour later, fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin joined him, describing the view of the moonscape as "Magnificent desolation."

Part II of a Three-Part Monthly Series

There were at least a half-billion people worldwide glued to their television sets -- the largest TV audience in history at the time -- who waited for six solid hours after Armstrong told mission control in Houston the news that President John F. Kennedy had set in motion in 1961 but tragically did not live to see: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

For the first time, human beings from the planet Earth had set foot on extraterrestrial soil.

Who among the millions, especially children, who watched the ghostly, black-and-white TV images of Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag on the Sea of Tranquility -- a misnomer, as the Moon's surface is completely devoid of water -- and scooping up samples of lunar rocks not feel a sense of awe and wonder at the sight?

Then there was the sight of Armstrong and Aldrin taking a congratulatory telephone call from President Richard Nixon -- to this day the longest long-distance phone call in history -- and later of Aldrin, while testing methods for moving about in the much-lighter lunar gravity, taking several two-footed "kangaroo hops," as he called them.

Looking back 40 years, the technology employed to pull off the Apollo 11 mission looks downright primitive when compared to today's soon-to-be-retired space shuttle fleet -- akin to the Wright Brothers' aircraft they flew in 1903 when compared to today's jumbo jets.

The television images were of terrible quality, even by 1969 standards. That's because the lunar lander was equipped with a slow-scan television camera incompatible with commercial TV. Consequently, the images were displayed on a special monitor aboard the LEM and a conventional TV camera was trained on the monitor, significantly losing video quality in the transmission process and producing the ghostly black-and-white images that held millions of viewers spellbound for hours.

And while the Apollo 11 mission appeared to most of the world who followed it as it unfolded to be a flawless success, it wasn't until decades later that the world learned just how dangerous it really was.


For starters, the lunar module Eagle had landed miles from the target landing spot, due to incorrect readings by the module's on-board navigation and guidance computer. And the descent from the orbiting command module Columbia -- where astronaut Michael Collins remained aboard -- took longer than expected, making controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston extremely nervous. By the time Eagle finally landed, it had only 25 seconds of fuel remaining.

Responding to Armstrong's announcement of the Eagle's landing, a flustered but clearly relieved Charles Duke, the acting capsule communicator at mission control in Houston, relayed to Armstrong: "Roger, Twank...Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"

Another anxious moment came in the hours before the astronauts were to lift off from the Moon and return to the orbiting Columbia command module. While moving in the cabin of the Eagle, Aldrin accidentally broke a circuit breaker that controlled a switch that activated the Eagle's main engine for lift-off. There was concern at mission control that this would prevent firing the engine, which would have left the astronauts stranded on the Moon.

Fortunately, the use of -- of all things -- a felt-tip pen was sufficient to activate the switch. Had this not worked, the Eagle's circuitry could have been reconfigured to allow firing the Eagle's main engine.


Yet as momentous as the Apollo 11 mission was from the standpoint of human endeavor, it is impossible, on its 40th anniversary, to look back on it without recognizing the fact that Apollo 11 -- indeed, the entire American manned space program up to that point -- had more to do with the Cold War with the Soviet Union than it did with science and exploration.

The Apollo program was conceived early in 1960, during the final year of the Eisenhower administration, as a follow-up to America's Mercury program. While the Mercury capsule could support only one astronaut on a limited Earth orbital mission, the Apollo spacecraft was to be able to carry three astronauts on a circumlunar flight and perhaps even on a lunar landing.

Project Apollo was named after the Greek god of light and music by NASA manager Abe Silverstein, who later said that "I was naming the spacecraft like I'd name my baby." While NASA went ahead with planning for Apollo, funding for the program was far from certain, particularly given Eisenhower's equivocal attitude to manned spaceflight.

But in November 1960, Kennedy was elected president after a campaign that promised American superiority over the Soviet Union in the fields of space exploration and missile defense. Having been shocked by the Soviets' successful launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957 and frustrated by several spectacular mechanical failures until the launch of the Explorer I satellite in 1958, America was in no mood to accept second-best.

Using space exploration as a symbol of national prestige, Kennedy warned of a "missile gap" between the two nations, pledging to make the U.S. not "first but, first and, first if, but first period!"

Despite Kennedy's rhetoric, however, he did not immediately come to a decision on the status of the Apollo program once he was elected. He knew little about the technical details of the space program, and was put off by the massive financial commitment required by a manned lunar landing. When NASA Administrator James Webb requested a thirty percent budget increase for his agency, Kennedy supported an acceleration of NASA's large booster program but deferred a decision on the broader issue.


On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviets. At a meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics held only a day after Gagarin's flight, many members of Congress pledged their support for a crash program aimed at ensuring that America would catch up.

Kennedy, however, was circumspect in his response to the news, refusing to make a commitment on America's response to the Soviets. On April 20, Kennedy sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, asking Johnson to look into the status of America's space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up to the Soviets.

Johnson responded the following day, concluding that "we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership." His memo concluded that a manned moon landing was far enough in the future to make it possible that the United States could achieve it first.

And so on May 25, 1961, in an address to a joint session of Congress, Kennedy forcefully declared "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."


Most historians agree that had there not been the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the "space race" between the two countries to the moon might never have happened.

In author Craig Nelson's newly-published book on the space race, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, while Kennedy was credited as the driving force behind the U.S. effort to put a man on the Moon, the president had originally envisioned the exploration of space as a multinational effort. It was only after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned down Kennedy's invitation to make the lunar landing program a joint effort that Kennedy decided that the United States had to go it alone, Nelson writes.

Long before Kennedy took office as president, Johnson was already pushing hard for the U.S. to beat the Soviets to the Moon, according to Nelson. While he was still a U.S. senator, Johnson told his colleagues in 1959, "I'll be damned if I sleep by the light of a Red Moon ... soon they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks on the cars from freeway overpasses!"

After Kennedy made him the administration's point man on the space program, Johnson pushed Congress hard for NASA funding, Nelson writes. When pressed by members of Congress to justify the multi-billion-dollar expense, Johnson shot back, "Would you rather have us be a second-rate nation, or should we spend a little money?"


Yet ironically, among the many mementos of the Apollo 11 mission that the astronauts left behind on the Moon -- including a commemorative plaque mounted on the base of the Eagle -- is a memorial to the three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts who had lost their lives while on duty up to that time.

Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Eugene White and Roger Chafee were killed on January 27, 1967 when a fire broke out aboard the spacecraft's command module during a training exercise on the launching pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. All three astronauts were trapped inside the burning capsule.

Three months later, on April 24, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his spacecraft, Soyuz 1, lost power during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, causing a catastrophic systems failure, including the deployment of the spacecraft's parachutes and it crashed.

But the greatest blow to the Soviet space program was the death of Gagarin, whose history-making flight as the first man to travel into space made him not only a national hero in the Soviet Union, but also a huge international celebrity. A fighter pilot by training before he became a cosmonaut, Gagarin was killed on March 27, 1968 when a MiG-15 he was flying during a routine training flight suddenly hit severe turbulence, went out of control and crashed.

That Gagarin and Komarov would be honored by American astronauts -- a memorial plaque to Gagarin on behalf of "The Astronauts of the Untied States of America" was presented to the Soviet Space Agency in 1971 -- is a testament to the common humanity of us all.


Although it's been 40 years after he became the first man to set foot on the Moon, don't expect Armstrong to do much celebrating of his milestone achievement in public. Armstrong, now 78, has always been a very shy man who zealously guards his privacy and has repeatedly turned down requests for interviews.

Armstrong is scheduled to appear on Sunday night at an event at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where he is expected to give a 15-minute lecture, but is unlikely to answer questions from reporters. His last public appearance was in 2004, on the 35th anniversary of the moon landing, when he and his Apollo 11 crewmates received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush at the White House.

Aldrin, now 79, has promoted space exploration for decades after he retired from NASA in 1972, including producing a computer strategy game called "Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space" in 1992. As part of the 40th anniversary festivities, Aldrin teamed up with music producer Quincy Jones and rappers Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, and Soulja Boy to create a rap single and video, "Rocket Experience." Proceeds from video and song sales will benefit Aldrin's non-profit foundation, ShareSpace.

Collins, now 78, retired from NASA in 1970 and took a job in the State Department as assistant secretary for public affairs. A year later, he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum. He held this position until 1978, when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1980, Collins took the job as vice president of LTV Aerospace. He resigned in 1985 to start his own business.

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COMING AUGUST 13 -- Part III: A trip "back to the garden" -- the Woodstock Music Festival.

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Volume IV, Number 56
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, July 13, 2009

As Obama Marks Six Months in Office, His Job Approval Is Still Strong, But Slipping

President's Rating Falls to 58 Percent, According to Latest Gallup Poll; Decline Is Almost Exclusively Among Independents Increasingly Worried About the Economy, While Democrats Remain Fiercely Loyal and Republicans -- Down to 28 Percent of the Electorate and More Right-Wing Than Ever -- Are Equally Fierce in Their Opposition to Him

President Obama

Is the honeymoon ending? As President Obama nears the six-month mark of his tenure next week, there are signs that the public may be beginning to lose patience with his economic recovery policies as unemployment continues to soar and millions of Americans who are still working are forced to take unprecedented pay cuts as the recession continues to deepen. With the economy unlikely to fully recover until the summer of next year, concerns about the cost of the Obama administration's economic recovery plan is rising -- particularly among independent voters, a new round of opinion polls show. (Photo courtesy

COMING THURSDAY -- Remembering the Summer of '69, Part II: The Apollo 11 Moon Landing.

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, July 13, 2009)


As Barack Obama completes the first six months of his presidency next week, confidence among the public in his ability to bring the American economy out of its worst downturn in a generation is beginning to show signs of slippage, according to the latest round of opinion surveys.

The president's job-approval ratings averaged 58 percent for the first week of July, according to the latest Gallup Poll, a decline of three precentage points from a month ago.

The latest Gallup results are consistent with other polls taken since late June showing a similar slippage in the president's job approval ratings, ranging from a low of 52 percent in the Rassmussen Poll to as high as 61 percent in the CNN-Opinion Research Corporation survey. Taken together, the new polls show Obama with an average job-approval rating of 57 percent, according to, while nearly 38 percent disapprove.


Not surprisingly, Republicans are the most disapproving of Obama's performance as president, with an overwhelming 77 percent of Republicans voicing negative views of him. But with the GOP's ranks having fallen to the lowest percentage of the electorate in over a generation -- and the party moving farther and farther to the right -- the president's negative ratings among his GOP critics have been largely dismissed by Democrats and independents alike as little more than hyperpartisan sniping.

Indeed, Republicans on Capitol Hill -- who, almost unanimously, refused to support the president's economic stimulus package in the first place -- already have branded the $787 billion measure a failure less than five months after its passage.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were the only Republicans to vote in favor of of the stimulus package. Specter has since defected to the Democrats, accusing his former party of having moved too far to the right.

More problematic for the president is his declining support among independent voters. Nearly all of the decline in Obama's overall job-approval ratings is among a growing number of independents increasingly worried about the cost of the president's economic recovery policies.

While Obama's approval rating among independents remains a healthy 53 percent in the Gallup Poll, it's down a full nine percentage points since he took office in January -- six points just since late June.

Obama literally owes his election last November to the support of independents, who voted for him by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. Independents tend to be ideologically moderate -- a fact not lost on the Democratic president, who, while reversing many of the conservative policies of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, has nonetheless hewn to a centrist path.

Obama thus can ill-afford to lose this vital voting bloc, which, at 37 percent of the electorate, according to a separate Gallup poll, now outnumbers both Democrats (34 percent) and Republicans (28 percent) and holds the balance of power in elections.


Support for the president among his fellow Democrats remains rock solid. In fact, it actually solidified in the six months since Obama took office, according to Gallup, from 88 percent to 90 percent -- despite increasingly loud grumbling from the party's liberal wing, upset with his administration's centrist approach on government surveillance, its handling of the remaining detainees on Guantanmo Bay and especially its go-slow approach on the hot-button issue of gay civil rights, particularly same-gender marriage and gays serving in the military.

But as unemployment hit 9.5 percent in June, the highest jobless rate since the 1980-82 recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- and some economists fearing the jobless rate will soar into double digits before it starts to fall -- the optimism that Americans expressed in the spring of a recovery is starting to give way to a new round of pessimism.

At its worst, the 1980-82 recession saw the jobless rate peak at 10.2 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. The current downturn is likely to see the jobless rate exceed that peak -- with some economists fearing that it could soar to as high as 11 percent, in spite of the stimulus, before finally starting to fall, perhaps not until the summer of next year.

By that time, the economy would be an even more red-hot issue in the midterm congressional elections than in last year's presidential campaign. And that already has some Democrats nervous, fearing a repeat of the 1994 debacle that cost their party control of Congress and put Bill Clinton on the defensive for the rest of his presidency.


Obama on Saturday rejected calls from fellow Democrats for a second massive economic-stimulus package, reminding them -- and the public -- that the existing $787 billion stimulus program passed by Congress in February is not yet fully in place and must be given time to work.

In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president acknowledged growing public concerns about increasing unemployment, but he appealed to Americans for patience, reminding his audience that only a small portion of the stimulus was in place and that it would take several months for for it to be fully implemented.

Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have argued that the bulk of the money from the stimulus program is still being disbursed and that it already has saved many jobs.

Fueling the new concern is an unprecedented wave of forced pay cuts, pay freezes and unpaid furloughs imposed on an increasing number of Americans who are still working.

Even unionized workers have been forced to renegotiate their collective bargaining agreements with their employers to stave off massive layoffs. Nowhere is that latter trend being seen more dramatically than in the automotive and newspaper industries, where unions have reluctantly agreed to painful wage and benefit cuts to save their members' jobs.

Part of the problem is that the recession is hitting at the same time that the American economy is undergoing a permanent restructuring, with millions of manufacturing jobs disappearing forever, leaving millions of displaced workers not only jobless but lacking the skills necessary for the jobs of the future.

At the same time, the nation's mostly private health-care system is rapidly breaking down, as more and more employers are facing skyrocketing employee health-care costs that threaten to put them out of business. Particularly for displaced workers over 55 years of age, the prospects of landing new jobs have been all but foreclosed by health-care cost concerns.


Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, noted that from a historical perspective, Obama's current ratings are not exceptional. "It is roughly the same as the rating of George W. Bush in early July of his first year, although well above that of Bill Clinton in July 1993," he said.

Of all the presidents elected since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, "Clinton had by far the worst job-approval ratings [45 percent] at the halfway mark of their first year in office," Newport said. "Other presidents from 1952 on enjoyed higher ratings in July of their initial years in office than has been the case for the last three presidents, the one exception being Richard Nixon, whose 58 percent reading in mid-July 1969 is identical to where Obama is now."

Thus, Obama's current approval rating "is essentially on par with where Bush and Nixon were, but at least slightly worse than all other presidents, with the exception of Clinton," Newport continued. "In particular, Presidents Eisenhower [69 percent], Kennedy and George H.W. Bush [66 percent] all had significantly higher ratings in the summer of their first year than does Obama at this point."

Kennedy's record-high 72 percent rating at the six-month mark of his presidency is particularly remarkable considering that he won the 1960 election by the closest popular-vote margin in modern American history: Less than 115,000 votes over Nixon. And although Kennedy captured 303 Electoral College votes to Nixon's 219, Nixon carried more states than Kennedy, 26-22.


Interestingly, Obama's 58 percent rating in the Gallup Poll is only two points lower than that of Ronald Reagan at this point in 1981, amid the severe 1980-82 recession that he inherited from Jimmy Carter.

Newport notes that both the Republican Reagan and the Democrat Clinton saw their job approval ratings take a tumble as the recessions they had to deal with deepened during the first year of their presidencies and their parties lost seats in the subsequent midterm congressional elections in 1982 and 1994 respectively -- the Democrats disastrously so, losing control of Congress.

And neither Reagan nor Clinton were able to bounce back until well into their third year in office, when the economy boomed. Both were able, however, to ride the recovery into re-election victories in 1984 and 1996, respectively.

Obama knows that getting the economy back on track will either make or break his presidency -- indeed, he staked his run for the White House on it. But even he underestimated just how bad the situation really is -- a fact he admitted in his radio address on Saturday.

And in an op-ed column published Sunday in The Washington Post, Obama made it clear that the stimulus plan was designed first and foremost to stop the bleeding.

"The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was not expected to restore the economy to full health on its own but to provide the boost necessary to stop the free fall," the president wrote. "So far, it has done that. It was, from the start, a two-year program, and it will steadily save and create jobs as it ramps up over this summer and fall.

"We must let it work the way it's supposed to, with the understanding that in any recession, unemployment tends to recover more slowly than other measures of economic activity," he continued.

Republicans have proclaimed Obama's economic policies a failure -- ignoring the fact it was the laissez-faire economic policies of the previous Republican administration that led to the downturn in the first place. And so far, Republicans have come up with no viable alternatives -- sticking instead to their more than 30-year-old mantra of more tax cuts for the well-to-do and further deregulation of the private sector.

To quote the late Clara Peller, the octogenarian star of the classic Burger King TV commercials of the 1980s, "Where's the beef?"

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Volume IV, Number 55
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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