This article was originally published in Newsday on April 2, 1999
IN THE FALL of 1969, Alan L. Bean spent 31 1/2 hours on the surface of the moon, taking photographs, collecting rocks and joining one of mankind's most exclusive clubs.
It was a heady time for the American space program, and Bean was the fourth person from Earth to set foot on the cold and barren lunar landscape. He remembers the optimism over space exploration, and about the chances of building a permanent colony of humans on the moon.
"We showed people what it was like, that it may have been harsh and difficult, but that it was possible . . . but the fact that humans can do something doesn't mean that they will do it," says Bean, nearly 30 years after he stepped off the Grumman-made lunar module Intrepid as part of the three-man crew of Apollo 12.
The moon remains barren, Bean has begun a second career as an artist, chronicling his space exploration on canvas, and no one is talking much about building a new lunar world.
Left with his own memories, Bean has attempted to capture the drama of the Apollo flights - but also realizes how much enthusiasm for the moon simply evaporated.
The first successful manned lunar landing, in 1969, answered the challenge issued eight years earlier by President John F. Kennedy. "This is a new ocean," he said. ". . . I believe the United States must sail upon it."
Hard as it is to believe, NASA had a vision of a lunar colony beginning with six people and growing to 24 by the mid-1980s. The Hilton chain even began taking reservations for a hotel it planned to build if the colony expanded.
There were dreams and predictions, and anyone who had attended the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows couldn't help but be swept into the Space Age as depicted by the two-acre Space Park sponsored by NASA. The display included a full-scale section of the Saturn V moon rocket along with Kodak's artificial lunar landscape, a backdrop for its photographs. At General Motors Futurama pavilion, visitors passed by a mock lunar colony featuring realistic moon vehicles.
Two years after the fair, the German scientist Wernher Von Braun, who had helped build the rockets that terrorized London during World War II but was subsequently recruited to work on America's rocket research, predicted that "by the year 2000, we will undoubtedly have a sizable operation on the moon."
But the vision of geodesic-domed colonies, with shuttle rockets moving back and forth from Earth to the moon, was eventually shelved.
What survives is the planned International Space Station, with an estimated pricetag of $30 billion, to be completed by 2004. The first permanent crew members are set to move in to the completed portions of the station by next January.
"The Space Age fizzled because the grand dreams turned out to be too expensive," physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in Scientific American in 1995. "From now on, space technology will thrive on when it is applied to practical purposes, not when it's pursued as an end in itself."
For Tom Kelly, the Grumman Aerospace engineer who led the team that designed and built the Lunar Excursion Module, which brought astronauts to the moon's surface, the failure to pursue construction of a moon colony has myriad explanations.
"There was so much enthusiasm then, it just seemed inevitable," says Kelly, who retired from Grumman and now lives in Cutchogue. "It just got overwhelmed by the Vietnam War, and by the early 1970s, that really seemed to kill all further aspirations.
"It really was a loss of confidence . . . I think back to Kennedy and we were almost Elizabethan in our confidence." Kelly suggests other changes and notes that the fear triggered by the near disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979 weakened our faith in both technology and the safety of atomic energy, believed then to be necessary for not only construction of a lunar colony, but also further space exploration.
Other failures, particularly the Challenger explosion and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, both in 1986, continued the downward spiral of unfailing confidence in technology.
But at the core, Kelly and Bean agree, was American disinterest in pursuing a lunar colony.
The space race "was fueled by politics, the desire to beat the Russians, and once that was achieved, the impetus to move forward almost all but evaporated," said Kelly.
"We discovered that Americans have a short attention span, and once we accomplished our goal, they wanted to go on to something else," said Bean.
Now 66, the man who once held the record for longest time in space - 59 days as commander of one of NASA's three SkyLab missions in the early 1970s - isn't very confident that we will get back to the moon anytime soon. Yet a recent NASA mission that sent a survey satellite to the moon has relayed data suggesting that there may be ice below the surface, which could provide new interest in a lunar colony.
"Maybe when we begin to seriously begin running out of room on Earth for our population that there will be another serious space effort," said Bean, who recently published a book of his paintings.Kelly is somewhat optimistic but conceded that beyond minerals on the moon, its biggest virtue would be to serve as a "vantage point" for future explorations.
And though Kennedy may have seen space as an ocean that once lured adventurers like Columbus to explore the unknown, he made one miscalculation, according to Kelly.
"The problem beyond the fact it's a harsh climate for humans is that there was no Aztec gold."