Walking on the moon was one of the great adventures of all time, CBS News' Richard Schlesinger reports.
It was President Kennedy who launched the U.S. on a national mission. "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," said President Kennedy, inspiring a nation.
The goal wasn't just to get to the moon. It was to get there before the Soviets. The high frontier was the new frontier in the cold war.
"Americans are competitive people. Here was the most visible, possible and most exciting competition - and we wanted to win it," remembers John Logsdon of George Washington University.
NASA was given top priority along with a blank check. And it paid off.
When Neil Armstrong took that one small step all earthlings knew, even before he told us, what a giant leap it was.
"I think it was probably the single greatest human endeavor certainly in modern times, maybe in the history of all mankind," says former astronaut Gene Cernan.
|Astronaut Joan Higgenbotham.|
"Once you've been to the moon, it's hard to sustain excitement," observes Logsdon.
It's not that the space agency hasn't kept up with the times. The Apollo-era NASA was like ancient history compared to today's NASA. And more has changed than just the hardware.
Joan Higgenbotham is the first black female astronaut.
"NASA before was a traditionally white male dominated field. So historically, I don't think I would have fit in," she said.
Higgenbotham fits in now. "I've been with NASA 12 years now, and the shade and shape of NASA has changed - dramatically," she said.
But the new astronauts face the same old problems--capturing the nation's imagination. Now the focus is on the space station, which is exciting for scientists, at least.
"With a space station we are going to have years and years of a constant micro gravity environment," said Higgenbotham.
Micro gravity is tougher for most Americans to rally behind than walking on the moon. The space station will probably be a much more productive project than Apollo was. But even Higgenbotham can't resist the lure of the lunar surface.
"Given the choice, I think I'd probably try to walk on the moon," she admits.
Times change. In 30 years, NASA has moved on to other things - and so has much of the nation's interest.