WINCHESTER — For the Shenandoah University students Jeff Coker teaches, the Apollo 11 moon landing is learned history rather than lived history, but a half-century later they still appreciate its stupendousness when they watch video of it.
"Even if they've never seen it before, they are moved by it. And I think it has something to do with the fact that it's such a monumental first," said Coker, the university's dean of arts and sciences. "It was a moving moment then and it still moves 50 years later, and I think it always will."
The 50-year-old Coker, who came to SU in 2015, teaches one course per year. One of the most popular is America in the Age of Rock and Roll. The semester-long course covers the post World War II period up to the the early 1980s and is more about the culture and history of the time than a detailed look at the music.
Coker discusses the fact that the mission was as much about the Cold War politics of the space race with Russia — then known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union — as it was about science. Coker sometimes plays portions of President Kennedy's 1962 speech in Houston, Texas, in which Kennedy promises to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The speech's most famous quote is when Kennedy says that the U.S. commits to the moon landing and other challenges, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." However, Coker focuses on Kennedy's reference to the Russians, who he doesn't name, when he vows that the moon and planets beyond it will not be governed by a "hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace."
Coker said the line generated applause because of fears of losing the space race to the Russians. In 1961, the Soviet Union became the first nation to send a man into space when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth.
"It's understood that what's at stake here is more than just science. That achieving some kind of victory in the space race would send a statement around the world that the American system could generate the same kind of technological advancement that the Soviet Union could," Coker said. "A lot of it really was aimed at making sure that domestically and internationally there was confidence in American institutions and the American way of life."
In a secretly recorded White House conversation in 1962 with James E. Webb, NASA administrator, Kennedy says he's "not that interested in space." He said the money being spent on the moon mission could "wreck" the federal budget and could just as well be spent on cancer research or research on converting salt water into drinking water. Kennedy says the mission is for "political and international reasons" rather than scientific advancement.
"The Soviet Union has made it a test of the system. So that's why we're doing it," Kennedy told Webb in the conversation released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. "Everything that we do ought to be really tied into getting on the moon ahead of the Russians."
The cost of the Apollo 11 mission and the five successive trips to the moon that ended in 1972 was about $25 billion, according to a 1973 NASA estimate. That's about $175 billion in today's dollars.
The staggering cost of the mission divided Americans during the 1960s as the nation experienced civil unrest partially due to entrenched poverty. There were also concerns about whether the dangers of manned space flights were worth the risks after three astronauts were killed in a fire in the Apollo 1 capsule in 1967.
On the 10th anniversary of the moon landing in 1979, a Gallup poll found just 47% of Americans thought the financial cost of the mission was justified, but support for the cost has increased every 10 years. In a poll this year, 64% of respondents said the cost was justified.
Coker said his students discuss whether the cost was justified and also why the mission was male dominated. He said they are often surprised to learn that the first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who orbited the earth in 1963, 20 years before American Sally Ride flew in the Challenger space shuttle becoming the first American woman in space.
The landing came as the Vietnam War — which killed 58,000 Americans and up to 3.8 million Vietnamese — raged on and a year after the assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Coker noted that unlike the heavy television coverage of those events, the moon landing, televised live on CBS, was a unifying event.
Thunderstorms marred television reception in some parts of Virginia — cable television and satellite dish T.V. were years away — but many watched in Winchester.
"I think it was out of this world!" Winchester resident G.C. Baker told The Winchester Evening Star in an article on July 21, 1969, headlined "Man-on-the-Street is Button-Bustin' Proud." "What was so amazing was that we could actually see them on the moon and their voices were so clear."
However, some quoted in the article criticized the cost of the moon mission. "It's remarkable, but the money should be used for the poor," said Della Combs, of Bunker Hill, W. Va.
The banner headline on the Star's front page said, "Their Footprints Left In Lunar Dust and History." On The Star's editorial page, a cartoon shows Uncle Sam staring up proudly at astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the Apollo 11 capsule. The Star's lead editorial praised the achievement, but questioned how a nation that could land men on the moon could not live in peace.
"In these hours of elation, it is well to keep in mind that this challenge remains with us, a challenge that cannot be solved by computers," the editorial said. "And until it is solved, man's shortcomings remain with us to shroud even such technological advances as putting a man on the moon."
Although many Americans were ambivalent about the landing when it occurred, Coker said that give the historical context, it's natural that those who watched the event live look back on it fondly.
"That is this one real piece of patriotic and national pride at a time when so many of the punctuated historical memories we have of that period are pretty negative," he said. "In some ways, the moon landing was needed at a time when American institutions and American values were being questioned in all sorts of areas, we could at least point and say, 'Here is a historic first achievement of mankind that the United States accomplished.'"