Friday, July 19, 2019

50 Years of Progress?

Last year I wrote the blog post below on the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. I wrote it then because I knew there would be a lot written about the lunar landing on the 50th anniversary and I wanted to be ahead of the curve.

I have not been disappointed. There have been a lot of great stories about the moon landing. Among the best have been profiles of some of the 400,000 people who worked behind the scenes to accomplish this magnificent feat.

I particularly enjoyed this article in The Wall Street Journal that recounts the great work done by the software engineers in MIT's Instrumentation Lab who did the programming of the computer used in the lunar landing.

Of course, in this day and age, it seems there is nothing that has been done in our history that the mainstream media does not try to politicize or denigrate.

Consider this tweet by the New York Times.

Apparently The New York Times is not aware of the contributions of Margaret Hamilton who was in charge of capsule and lunar landing software for the Apollo missions. Her role is written abut extensively in the Wall Street Journal article.

The New York Times must have also missed seeing the movie Hidden Figures which highlighted the significant contributions of African American women in the early days of the space program.

Here is Hamilton receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2016.

Credit; DailyMail

This is Hamilton with print outs of the source code she used in the programming for the Apollo missions in the late 1960's.

It makes me wonder how many women of any color were in the newsroom and in any editorial positions at The New York Times in the 1960's?  Considering the gender bias that undoubtedly was also in effect at the paper at that time it makes it very difficult for me to move past anything The Times writes these days.

It actually gets worse than that Times tweet. Consider this tweet that highlights a story by WTOP radio in Washington, DC about Wehrner von Braun who was the German American rocket scientist that was largely responsible for developing the rocket boosters that made space flight and the trip to the moon possible.

After getting complaints that they had not make it explicitly clear that von Braun had previously worked on rocket science for Nazi Germany during World War II, WTOP issued this correction 6 hours later.

That apparently wasn't good enough. 20 minutes later WTOP decided that the story about the man who was behind the rocket science which took men to the moon "did not meet WTOP's standards and should not have appeared on any of our platforms."

In many ways we have progressed so far in the 50 years since the moon landing. There are so many things we have today that were unimaginable a half century ago.

For example, consider the limitations that Margaret Hamilton and the other Apollo software engineers were dealing with at that time regarding computing power.

How far have we progressed in computing power?

Your iPhone has the computing power to handle 120 million moon missions at once!

That is why one of the major surprises of my life is the fact that it has been 50 years (actually 47 years since the last lunar mission in 1972 by Apollo 17) since we went to the moon.. If you would have asked almost anyone in the early 1970's if they thought it would be over 50 years before we were back on the moon you would have found no one who would have believed it. Most would have thought we would be to Mars by now.

It would also be nearly impossible for someone of that era to understand the way news is (and is not) reported today.

Some might say that the mainstream media has become more "progressive" in how they report the news. I do not see any evidence of much progress in the news reporting business. Look no further than the examples from The New York Times and WTOP.  How can you make something so political about something so phenomenal?

For a more positive perspective on the Apollo 11 landing read my blog post of one year ago.

Also ask yourself whether Neil Armstrong's words would have sounded any better or meant more (as the New York Times seems to believe) if he had instead said this upon stepping on the moon in order to show no gender bias.

"That is one small step for a person, one giant leap for humankind."

How long will it be before Armstrong's actual words will be removed from news stories and history books as not meeting journalistic and content standards?

Small Step, Giant Leap
(originally published July 20, 2018)

One year from today you will not be able to watch tv, listen to the radio or check out social media without it being a big part of the news.

49 years ago today, man first landed on the moon. The 50th anniversary next year is sure to make it a major news story.

I could write about it then but I prefer to be a year ahead of the crowd.

I remember exactly where I was on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed on the moon. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was working for the United States Post Office in Clarendon Hills, Illinois for the summer and had been put on duty that day to do all the mailbox pickups in town, postmark and sort the outgoing mail and have the mail bagged to be picked up to go to the regional sorting center.

I was working alone in the post office late that afternoon with the radio on as Armstrong and Aldrin made the final approach to the moon in the Lunar Module. It was nothing less than amazing to hear those final minutes leading up to those famous words that were calmly uttered by Neil Armstrong "The Eagle has landed."

Armstrong had taken control of the Lunar Module when the onboard computer seemed to be guiding the module into a large crater and rock covered area on the moon's surface. Armstrong overrode the auto pilot and landed the lunar module in a safer, flat area. He had less than 20 seconds of fuel left when the Eagle finally touched down on the lunar surface.

That evening I watched the live tv coverage with my family as Armstrong descended the steps of the Eagle and jumped down from the last step onto the moon's surface with one of the most famous quotes of all time.

TV image of Neil Armstrong taking first step onto the Moon
July 20, 1969

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".

At least, that is what I heard. And what almost everyone else heard as well.

For years, Armstrong claimed that he planned to say, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" and that is what he claims he said on the moon the night of July 20, 1969. However, that was not what people heard. Was it a simple mistake or bad audio?

The scientific conclusion of the tape is mixed. This is what WikiQuotes says about the quote.

 In the actual sound recordings he apparently fails to say "a" before "man" and says: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." This was generally considered by many to simply be an error of omission on his part. Armstrong long insisted he did say "a man" but that it was inaudible. Prior to new evidence supporting his claim, he stated a preference for the "a" to appear in parentheses when the quote is written. In September 2006 evidence based on new analysis of the recordings conducted by Peter Shann Ford, a computer programmer based in Sydney, Australia, whose company Control Bionics helps physically handicapped people to use their own nerve impulses to communicate through computers, indicated that Armstrong had said the missing "a". This information was presented to Armstrong and NASA on 28 September 2006 and reported in the Houston Chronicle (30 September 2006). The debate continues on the matter, as "Armstrong's 'poetic' slip on Moon" at BBC News (3 June 2009) reports that more recent analysis by linguist John Olsson and author Chris Riley with higher quality recordings indicates that he did not say "a".

The Los Angeles Times did a story on the quote in 2013 and cites additional research that suggests that the "a" might be there but was not heard because of the way people who grow up in Central Ohio blend their words. Armstrong was reared in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

The article also suggests, as did Armstrong himself, that the quote really needs the "a man" to mean something. However, most people are going to leave it out when they recall or cite it.

As Armstrong himself pointed out many times, the sentence is meaningful only if he says, "That's one small step for a man." He insisted that's what he said on July 20, 1969 – otherwise, there's no distinction between a single individual and all of humanity.
"I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn't intentionally make an inane statement and that certainly the 'a' was intended, because that's the only way the statement makes any sense," Armstrong told biographer James Hansen, according to "Moonshot," a terrific book about Apollo 11 by Brian Floca.

Putting all of this aside, what I think is most remarkable about Armstrong's words is the fact that he (with the help of his wife) came up with them by himself.

He didn't have a speech writer. There was no public relations firm. No focus groups were used to test out messaging.

It also wasn't as if Armstrong had been specifically selected to be "the first man on the moon" years in advance. Many at NASA believed that Apollo 11 would not be the mission that landed a man on the moon. They thought it more likely that something would prevent 11 from landing. They believed it was more likely that Apollo 12 or 13 would be the missions that would get the moon landing. If that had been the case we might be talking about Pete Conrad (Apollo 12 Commander) or Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) instead of Armstrong.

This is what Neil Armstrong remembered about the prospects of the mission, as he recalled it in 2012, shortly before his death.

"A month before the launch of Apollo 11, we decided we were confident enough we could try and attempt on a descent to the surface," said Armstrong. "I thought we had a 90% chance of getting back safely to Earth on that flight but only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt. There are so many unknowns on that descent from lunar orbit down to the surface that had not been demonstrated yet by testing and there was a big chance that there was something in there we didn't understand properly and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing."

Despite those doubts and with no counsel other than his wife, Armstrong put together 11 (or 12) words that were absolutely perfect for that moment in history. It was simply stated but it carried such a profound message at the same time.

As soon as I heard it 49 years ago tonight I thought it was a perfect choice of words. My opinion has not changed over the last half-century.

I sometimes ask myself whether, if faced with something so momentous, I could utter anything half as moving and memorable as Armstrong did. I doubt I could. What about you?

Keep in mind that Armstrong was an aeronautical engineer, fighter pilot and test pilot before becoming an astronaut. He was not known as a man of words. In fact, he was a man of few words according to most who knew him. He was about as far removed from being a poet or artist as you could be.

Truly remarkable.

Today is a day to remember a magnificent moment in history.

On this day a man from earth first set foot on something other than earth.

Neil Armstrong may now be gone but the words he spoke on taking that first step will live forever.

You are sure to hear a lot more about it on the 50th anniversary next year.

Reading BeeLine gets you there one year earlier.

Credit; NASA

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