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A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

On my personal thrill scale, none of America's many achievements match the can-do Apollo space program. Between 1969 and 1975, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, with a lean staff of the world's best engineers, sent seven missions to the Moon. Six pairs of astronauts landed and returned, and even the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew made it back safely. In the '60s, a decade full of novelty, America's space program symbolized a genuinely new idea: that humanity could someday play out its dramas on a much larger stage. The possibility impressed everyone, especially the Topps trading card company.

Topps's 1969 Man on the Moon set offers a 99-card gallery of Apollo's glories: astronauts, rockets, space suit details, equipment from Lunar Excursion Modules to space food, and breathtaking lunar landscapes. At the time, these sights impressed me greatly, but they absolutely brain-blasted Topps's copywriters. In their passion, they festooned every caption with exclamation points: "First Manned Mission!" "Moon Commander!" "Rehearsal!" "Space Food!"

I particularly like card #39, "The Saturn V!" Rated at 175 million horsepower, America's most powerful rocket richly deserved that exclamation point. Today's finicky, excruciatingly delicate Space Shuttle will not lift off in a light rain; Apollo once launched the Saturn V during a hurricane.

Topps issued Man on the Moon twice, the first 55 cards before Apollo 11 in July 1969, then all of them (renumbered as "...of 99 cards") after the landing. The cards all go for $1-1.75 apiece today. Card backs #1A-35A form one puzzle, #36B-55B another, but Puzzle C (cards #56-99) is virtually impossible to complete, owing to bizarre transpositions of card backs, doublings of card numbers, miscutting, etc. We can be glad the Moon landing itself went more smoothly. I wonder how the landing would go today?

Trick question! We cannot go back to the Moon now. Today's rockets are too puny, much like America's aimless 1990s space program. Bloated into a geriatric bureaucracy, NASA spent most of this decade making headlines with spectacular calamities and bungles: the Hubble Space Telescope, with a flawed main scope that lost a priceless year of life waiting for emergency Shuttle repairs; the Galileo space probe, delayed almost a decade on its trip to Jupiter and never more than barely functional; and, of course, the grotesquely overblown International Space Station. Originally funded in 1987 for a projected cost of $8 billion, the Station has already cost America more than $17 billion and, as I write, has not yet launched one piece of metal. The entire Apollo program, all 17 missions, cost (in today's dollars) far less than the Station has spent on preliminary studies.

Yet lately we have seen new "Man on the Moon"-style glories. In 1997, like tens of millions of other Web surfers, I logged onto NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory site daily to see the Pathfinder mission's photos of the Martian surface. The sight of another planet on my computer screen gave me the same chills I knew in July 1969, watching the first moon landing live on TV. Pathfinder was the first of NASA's "smaller, faster, cheaper" space missions. Its brilliant success gives hope for many more missions -- and, I only wish, a trading card set for each one.

In its emphasis on immediate grandeur rather than long-term expansion into space -- on exclamation points, so to speak -- Man on the Moon unwittingly foretells the public apathy that would soon kill Apollo. Space historians often observe that America did the right thing (exploring the Moon) for the wrong reason (beating the Soviets in the space race). They might instead commemorate Apollo for marking a watershed of human history in service to shortsighted politics. Most of all, they should fondly remember an era when America undertook visionary projects and got them done, an era I hope has not yet passed.

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, September 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc.]

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