In the summer of 1968 I received my PhD from the University of California, San Diego, and departed on a cross-country trek with my wife Peg and our two children, Van and Meg, en route to my new job as Assistant Professor of Planetary Sciences and of Chemistry at MIT.
The race to the Moon was in full swing. The Soviet Zond 5 spacecraft, an unmanned precursor of a manned lunar-flyby mission, was sent around the Moon in September. Zond 6 followed in November. Following the Soviet plan of requiring at least two successful unmanned missions before committing a crew to the same mission profile, Zond 6 was a sobering experience: the spacecraft cabin reentered Earth’s atmosphere at so steep an angle that it would have exposed real cosmonauts to extremely dangerous, and possibly lethal, g-loads during atmospheric entry. Success with Zond 6 would have permitted a manned Zond mission as early as January 1969.
At this time, the Apollo program was just getting off the ground; in December 1968 Apollo 8 flew the first manned mission to visit and orbit the Moon, returning the classic pictures of Earth-rise above the lunar horizon. Thus Apollo 8 achieved a three-man lunar orbit mission at a time when the Soviet Zond program was on the verge of sending two men on a ballistic flyby of the Moon, without orbiting. The delay of the Soviet lunar program caused by the dangerous reentry of the Zond spacecraft (which was essentially a Soyuz man-rated capsule), combined with the two-month turn-around time for the launch pad at Tyuratam, meant that the first Soviet lunar flyby would be set back for several months.
In March 1969, with the Soviet lunar program in disarray, Apollo 9 carried the first Lunar Module into a low Earth orbit for a test of lunar landing hardware and procedures. Aboard that flight, the first to actually occupy and test the Lunar lander in space, was a young red-headed astronaut named Russell L. Schweickart; everyone knew him as “Rusty”.
In May, Apollo 10 carried the landing module into lunar orbit for thorough testing of the procedures for a manned lunar landing. All went well, and the next Apollo mission was given a go-ahead for the first actual manned lunar landing.
On 13 July 1969, just three days before the well-publicized launch of Apollo 11, the Soviet Union launched a smaller, unmanned probe called Luna 15, an attempt to carry out an automated landing and return a sample of the Moon to Earth. But Luna 15 impacted the Moon without landing, and the Soviet program was again disappointed.
Three days later, on 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral, and the rest is history.
Some months later the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, holding a conference in Washington DC, invited a large number of high-school students to a special event at their conference site. They invited two representatives of the space community with very different expertise and perspectives to address these students. Those two representatives were Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart and MIT planetary scientist John S. Lewis, a notorious asteroid-lover. We had a great time, and the audience was rewardingly responsive.
Just today, in a feature article on Space.com*, Rusty looked “Back at Apollo 9, and(Forward) to the Next Asteroid Impact”. He puts a lot of emphasis on the threat posed by impacts of near-Earth asteroids and on their resource potential as a source of water, propellants, energy, metals, etc. for future spacefarers. It seems that our perspectives are still remarkably parallel after the passage of nearly a half century. But there have been changes: my brown hair is now gray, and his carrot-top is also strikingly more mature.
The story of the hazards of asteroid impacts is spelled out in my book Rain of Iron and Ice: The Very Real Threatof Comet and Asteroid Bombardment, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA. 236 pp. (1996), and my account of their resource potential is told in Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets,Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA. 274 pp. (1996).
It’s clear; there are asteroids in our future. Whether the news will be good or bad depends on our decisions and choices. I, for one, prefer good news.