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David Mayeux says urgency of space race led to triumph

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FARMINGTON — As the world prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to the moon this weekend, San Juan College Planetarium director David Mayeux says there's a good reason no entity but the U.S. government has ever been able to send an astronaut to the lunar surface.

"You've got to be really serious about it," he said. "It's called rocket science for a reason."

Mayeux — who will present the video "The Eagle Has Landed: The Flight of Apollo 11" this weekend as part of the Planetarium's monthly AstroFriday series — is as excited as anyone about the boom in private investment in space travel and the resulting possibilities for increased exploration.

But he said the idea that paid excursions to the moon and back are close to becoming a reality are nonsense.

"In my opinion, we're not anywhere near having a private company being able to mount a manned mission to the moon," he said earlier this week while reflecting on the success of the Apollo 11 mission a half century ago.

While various companies have demonstrated the ability to launch satellites into space, and space programs in other countries have even managed to reach the moon with unmanned missions, Mayeux said NASA's manned excursions to the moon from 1969 through 1972 stand alone.

Mayeux said the task of putting a human safely on the moon is so complicated, in fact, that he marvels about how NASA was able to pull it off, even 50 years after the fact. In truth, he said, the Apollo 11 mission took place well before it probably should have, given the technological constraints of that era.

By way of example, he said the computers NASA used took up a whole room. Today, he said, that same degree of processing power can be found in a device some of us wear on our wrist.

Mayeux was only 3 years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to visit the moon, so he has no memory of it. But he is fascinated with their journey, and he said the Apollo 11 video he'll be screening this weekend demonstrates how risky their mission was.

"The astronauts were really pioneers, and they were so brave to do this," he said, explaining that so little was known about the surface of the moon before the mission, Armstrong and Aldrin had little idea of what it actually would be like. There were even some fears the moon's surface might collapse under their weight in certain places.

But that possibility paled in comparison to the very real dangers posed by a technological malfunction of their spacecraft, Mayeux said. Official NASA footage from the astronauts' descent to the moon's surface in the lunar module shows that Armstrong and Aldrin were confronted with a series of computer error messages and a rapidly dwindling fuel supply.

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"One thing I like to do with the video is let it run, then stop it and point out certain things they're talking about with Mission Control," Mayeux said. "They're so calm and so collected. And yet they've got alarm lights going off, and their computer is so overwhelmed, it's in danger of going into an infinite loop. They were in real danger of not making it back to earth. But you would never have known that (from their reactions)."

Their mission was so fraught with danger, in fact, that, by some accounts, Armstrong and Aldrin rated their chances of success at only 50 percent. It seems inconceivable that NASA would mount such a dangerous mission today. But Mayeux said the mindset in 1969 during the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union made those odds acceptable.

"The general mindset was, 'More risk, more reward,'" he said. "We're much more cautious today, I think."

Mayeux said the sense of urgency behind the Apollo missions and the space race in general had a very positive side effect on American society.

"Our education system nationally ramped up many times," he said, describing the boom in STEM programs in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Mayeux is pleased to see the renewed sense of enthusiasm surrounding space exploration these days. But he said it's unlikely we'll ever see anything as intense as the Apollo program again.

"I don't think we'll ever have the kind of urgency and unity for spending government funds on a long-term basis for space exploration," he said.

The AstroFriday presentations will take place at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. July 19 at the San Juan College Planetarium on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Admission is free, but seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, and no one will be admitted after the programs have begun.

A free, public stargaze with telescopes will follow in the courtyard. Call 505-566-3361.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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