Significance fading among youth

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Forty years ago, eyes around the world focused on grainy black-and-white television sets to watch the first moon walk, but interest in the historic event and in the moon itself might be waning.

Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins (from left), "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wave to the crowd of New Yorkers celebrating them as heroes during a Broadway parade Aug. 13, 1969.  AP / File
AP / File
Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins (from left), "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wave to the crowd of New Yorkers celebrating them as heroes during a Broadway parade Aug. 13, 1969.

Ollie Washington had just graduated from high school in DeRidder, La., when he and family members gathered in the living room to watch man's first steps on the moon.

Those first steps by Neil Armstrong and all of the work leading up to it had such an impact on Mr. Washington, 57, that it steered him toward a career in electronic engineering.

That fervor and glamour has dwindled, said Mr. Washington, the director of the National Science Center's Army staff at Fort Discovery.

He recalled one time at Fort Discovery when he tried to direct a group of schoolchildren to a large screen showing the liftoff of a space shuttle, but they didn't express any interest.

Andy Hauger, the chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Augusta State University, said astronauts were rock stars at the time of the lunar landing.

"The personality of these guys is unbelievable," he said. They weren't nerdy, but instead cocky, competitive and comical, with a fighter pilot mentality. Rocket scientists held the same mystique.

"That was the coolest thing you could be," he said.

But the fascination with the space program, its scientists and the accomplishments of 1969 is fizzling, especially among younger generations, Dr. Hauger said. For most younger people, the date July 20, 1969, holds little significance and the Cold War isn't even a memory.

"People tend to get interested in the shuttle only when something bad happens," he said.

Dr. Hauger said people ask how putting a man on the moon will pay a mortgage or make life on Earth better, but back then it was quite an achievement for a nation to set such a lofty goal and accomplish it. Landing on the moon also led to tremendous scientific advancements used outside of the space program, he said.

Tedda Howard, a member of the Astronomy Club of Augusta, said she'd like to see the public become interested in space travel again.

"Although the moon hasn't seemed to be as 'popular' in discussion recently as when we launched to the moon in the '60s, there is certainly ever increasing focus, motivation and knowledge among space scientists toward travel to, permanent landing sites, and longer term habitats on the moon for further discovery," she stated in an e-mail.

"There's a lot for adults and children to be learning and a lot of fun ways for them to learn it. It just seems that our schools have not included much on astronomy," she wrote.

One place where the moon continues to be popular is at USC Aiken's Dupont Planetarium and Observatory.

Director Gary Senn says the crater-marked landscape still elicits high interest. Two other extraterrestrial bodies are close competitors.

"I would say actually that Saturn, Mars and the moon have about the same level of interest from people," he said.

Dr. Senn said today's climate is much different from that of the 1960s.

"Back then, we were in the heat of the Cold War and there was this space race that was going on," he said.

He said many countries are working together on space exploration now, including collaboration on the international space station.

"I think there's still interest, but some of what spawned the extra exuberance is not there," he said.

Reach Greg Gelpi and Preston Sparks at (706) 724-0851.

A CLOSER LOOK

USC Aiken's Dupont Planetarium, 471 University Parkway, is offering a presentation it produced called To the Moon and Beyond. The program, which will be offered at 8 and 9 p.m. Saturday, features the past, present and future of lunar exploration. Tickets cost $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and $2.50 for students K-12.

For more information, call the planetarium at (803) 641-3769.

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