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The Lasting Legacy of NASA's Apollo Missions

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon 50 years ago, it sparked the imagination of millions

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon

Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP take on today.

The Apollo 11 mission celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. It was the space flight that first landed humans on the moon.

Mike Pence: It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.

Bob Edwards: We just heard Vice President Mike Pence direct NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine to land astronauts back on the moon, an ambitious challenge that Bridenstine accepted. The program plans to launch various rockets to and around the moon, including an uncrewed flight test in 2020, a manned trip around the moon in 2022, and finally in 2024 a mixed-gender crew will land on the lunar surface for the first time in history. The project is called Artemis, named after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, whose name was used for the program that landed American astronauts on the moon in 1969. While Apollo was the mission to first land man on the moon, Artemis will be the mission to first land a woman on the moon.

As we excitedly await for updates on the Artemis program and look forward to the future of space exploration, we realize it's important to also look at the efforts that helped launch the imagination of so many Americans, leading to technological achievement as yet unsurpassed. Today we'll be exploring the ways the Apollo mission inspires all of us, old and young, and why we should be excited to land on the moon again. But first, Mike Ellison and I take a trip to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

We are here at the Air and Space Museum awaiting the unveiling of Neil Armstrong's spacesuit from Apollo 11. It took at least 376,000 people to get two men on the moon. It will take a global effort to explore even farther. Air and Space Museum Director Ellen Stofan tells us why it's important to make the effort.

Ellen Stofan: As the director of the Air and Space Museum, we've really tried to put together a really special celebration this entire week of what did Apollo mean to the country. To me, it's an exciting thing because it gives us a moment to say how do we take these iconic artifacts and inspire the next generation with them, new ways of telling the stories, talking about the humans behind the artifacts, and the fact that those humans look like all of our population.

That's one of the amazing things to me about Armstrong's suit, the fact that it's dirty from the knees down because it's got bits of the moon embedded in the suit. I think trying to get kids of all ages to get their head around the fact that these are pieces of another world, and humans accomplished this. When we put our minds to solving a big problem, look what we can do. In fact, the technologies that have come back from Apollo affect our lives in ways we don't even realize. From the shingles on our roof to materials in our clothes to the nutritional supplements in baby formula, the space program touches people's lives. It drives our economy forward.

Mike Ellison: Well I've got to tell you Bob, I'm standing there looking at the suit and I just felt myself enthralled, as if I was drawn into this universe, just studying every detail, thinking about what was the thought behind the stitching being here, what are these valves for, is that actual moon dust on his knees. But every detail, it just kind of captivates you.

Bob Edwards: They didn't bother to clean it up. They left the dirty. I wonder if I could fit in there. I don't have the astronaut bod, and never did back when I was Armstrong's age at the time, but I don't think you get a lot of mobility in that thing.

Mike Ellison: No, I mean obviously it's a ...

Bob Edwards: But that's been to the moon.

With the ceremony there was all the pomp and circumstance and Secret Service presence of a Vice President in attendance as well. I think it was a good reminder that John F. Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon in 1961, but in the end the spirit of the endeavor was nonpartisan. It carried through to the Nixon administration, which held office during Apollo 11 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made contact with the lunar surface.

NASA Operator: T minus 15 seconds. Guidance is internal. Twelve, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence starts, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. All engines running. Liftoff. We have a liftoff. 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.

Jim Bridenstine: On this day 50 years ago Apollo 11 launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center to begin its historic quarter million-mile journey to the moon. Just three days later mission commander Neil Armstrong would wear the space suit that we will unveil in just a few moments, when he took that one giant leap for mankind.

Mike Ellison: I have to say, getting a behind the scenes perspective was a true privilege. I mean, here's Jim Bridenstein, the lead administrator of NASA, NASA, giving great context about Neil Armstrong, the man, the memorabilia, the special items that he took with him on this historic flight.

Jim Bridenstine: Among Armstrong's personal effects aboard Apollo 11 were pieces of the Wright Brothers Flyer, the wooden and fabric aircraft that succeeded in making humanity's first powered flight some 66 years earlier. In paying homage to this other set of pioneers, Armstrong demonstrated a profound truth that we must continue to remember even today. He understood the humanity's meteoric rise from the ground to the sky, to space and onto the moon, was not by chance. It was in fact by choice.

Bob Edwards: After the unveiling ceremony, I met Lisa Young, a Smithsonian conservator who led the space suit restoration effort. I think that like many listeners, I was curious about the cost and funding of the effort. After all, it's a pretty old and very complex one of a kind suit.

Lisa Young: We did a Kickstarter four years ago, which was the first crowdsourcing platform by the Smithsonian. We raised $500,000 in five days. People were very excited. Some people gave a dollar. Really, the point of Kickstarter was to engage people that really couldn't contribute in other ways, and we've been following along with them this entire time and feeding our story out to them.

Mike Ellison: And then, I got to have some real fun. Just walking around the museum after the unveiling, talking to the next generation of dreamers that Dr. Stofan and everyone we've heard from yesterday lives to inspire. Now, my explorations weren't so grand scale scientific, but down the line there was a common thread of curiosity and discovery in all the answers to the questions I posed.

What made you want to come see this?

Museum Attendee: In my household, they always celebrate the moon landing on my birthday, since July 20th was the day it landed, so it's always been a tradition in my family.

Mike Ellison: What are you going to tell your friends about today?

Museum Attendee: That I got to see the suit, and I would like to go up into space one day.

Museum Attendee: Oh my goodness. Well in my lifetime, I've never seen anybody go to the moon. Despite all of the cool new things that we have that they didn't grow up with, I think it's remarkable. I just always love hearing their stories, and I think it's important for the kids to hear the stories too.

Mike Ellison: So Benj, where you found buddy?

Museum Attendee: America.

Mike Ellison: America. What state in America?

Museum Attendee: Virginia.

Mike Ellison: Did you get a chance to see the spacesuit?

Museum Attendee: Yeah.

Mike Ellison: And what are your thoughts about it?

Museum Attendee: It was cool.

Mike Ellison: It was cool. What did you like about it?

Museum Attendee: I liked everything about it. I liked the eagle. I saw this badge on the suit and it said Apollo 11, and it had an eagle landing on the moon because the spacecraft that landed on the moon was called the Eagle.

Mike Ellison: Why do you think space exploration is important? Or if you've, obviously you think it's important, why do you think it's important?

Museum Attendee: Well, because first of all, we're going to have to, if global warming keeps going on like this and climate change, and if somehow mass extinction, we're going to need to have humans on another planet in order to survive say asteroid, like the one that happened to the dinosaurs. If that happens, most of the human race is going to get wiped out. If we have on Mars or another planet, there's more likely of a chance that humans are going to survive for longer.

Mike Ellison: Now how old did you say you are again?

Museum Attendee: 11.

Mike Ellison: Wow. Okay, I promise, that kid is actually 11 years old, and no, he was not a plant. You have to wonder if the Apollo astronauts imagined that they would inspire people like Benj and other kids for generations to come. When you look at how much our world has changed so much since Apollo 11, it's an incredible thing to consider. Fifty years later the legacy is as honest as those kids reacting to Neil Armstrong's dusty moon suit.

AARP had the chance to talk to astronaut and 11th person to walk on the moon, the late Gene Cernan in 2016. His words of wisdom echo the generation we just heard from in many ways.

Gene Cernan: Well, you know, you go to the moon, you can't come home not changed a little bit. Curiosity is the essence of human existence. Who are we? Where did we come from? What's over the top of the mountain? What's beyond the moon? That's what it's all about.

Mike Ellison: Thinking about yesterday, the anniversary of Apollo 11, astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and the impact of their trip on generations, from technological advancements to NASA's evolution, the space shuttle, International Space Station, and what lies ahead for the Artemis project and beyond. These achievements have a history of bringing people together and touching our better selves in so many ways. During Take On Today's stories we've talked a lot about standing up for beliefs, issues, and principles, and that has to include anyone who dreams big, who has a vision. Like NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein said, "None of this is by chance. It's by choice."

Neil Armstrong: For those who haven't read the plaque, we'll read the plaque that's on the front landing girl of this lamb. There's two hemispheres, one showing each of the two hemispheres of Earth. Underneath it says, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

Mike Ellison: That was Neil Armstrong describing the first of several plaques, one for each Apollo mission. These plaques still rest on the lunar surface. This one in particular shows the earth and the underlying ethos of why its inhabitants chose to make the journey to the glowing crated satellite far away. It was, simply put, in peace for all mankind.

Choices like this have proven to unite us and make us better in the end, and for that we can all be thankful. I'm curious about your thoughts as we come to a close Bob. You lived this as a senior in college. Yesterday you told me that it felt like this one big wonderful thing was happening when it seemed like the world was falling apart with Vietnam and everything else that was going down in the late 60s.

Bob Edwards: Well, for me, and thinking back, it's the feeling of, hey, we can do this. We can solve those problems back then. We'll roll up our sleeves and yes, stand up and do truly great things once in a while, and you know, on a smaller scale every day, right. But yes, on an unimaginably massive scale for us, for people, for humans, this was astounding. To repeat, it took at least 376,000 people to get two men to set foot on the moon for that first trip, and will take a global effort to explore even farther. I think the museum director, Dr. Ellen Stofan, captured just how vast the potential is as we continue to make the choice to explore from Artemis and the moon once again and beyond.

Ellen Stofan: We've discovered over 3,000 planets around other stars in the last five years. We are on the verge of knowing so much and doing so much, and I hope this celebration of Apollo brings back a little bit of that optimistic look. I think people do have this idea that the future is something kind of crazy that happens to them rather than the fact that they actually have agency.

Neil Armstrong: Beautiful. Beautiful. Isn't that something? Magnificent sight out here.

Bob Edwards: Here's what else do you need to know this week.

The Supreme Court once called states laboratories of democracy. Living up to the nickname, 29 states are taking different approaches to addressing high prescription drug prices this legislative season. According to a new report from the National Academy for State Health Policy, in just the past six months states have passed a total of 46 new drug-pricing laws. Maine, Florida and Colorado each have passed legislation that would allow their states to safely import drugs from Canada. According to Elaine Ryan, who leads state advocacy for AARP ...

Elaine Ryan: Importation is popular because it helps address the fact that Americans pay the highest drug prices in the world. We're seeing both Republican and Democratic governors get on board with this idea, and President Trump has committed the Federal government's help to bring the state's plans to life.

Bob Edwards: Several states have passed new laws against gag clauses, where pharmacists, usually because of contract obligations, cannot tell patients about more affordable options for their drugs. Oftentimes, even just stating the lowest price was off-limits. State's newly lifting gag clauses include Alabama, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and Wyoming.

Insulin is a vital drug for about seven and a half million Americans, but Coloradans with diabetes will get some relief from the skyrocketing costs of the drug thanks to a new law, which has been hailed as a first in the nation. Colorado's law caps co-payments for the medicine at $100 a month for insured patients, regardless of how much insulin they need. Insurers will have to eat the difference. Maryland trail blazed its own first. Lawmakers there created the nation's first Drug Affordability Review Board. It's an independent body that cannot cap drug prices, but it can use its power to call attention to affordability issues and recommend actions to the legislature.

Elaine Ryan: The review board is a watchdog and it'll have the authority to review high-cost drugs and identify fair appropriate rates for Marylander's to pay. This could be an important stepping stone to further action in the state.

Bob Edwards: Ryan noted that many state legislatures continue to meet, so more state-level innovation could be coming on how to curb drug prices.

In related news, last week the Trump administration suffered a setback in Federal court. A judge put a stop to the administration's proposal to require drugmakers to reveal list prices in the TV ads that hawked their drugs. AARP said it was disappointed in the courts ruling and said drug list prices had been shrouded in secrecy for too long. High drug prices disproportionately hurt older Americans, particularly Medicare Part D enrollees who take an average of four and a half prescription medications each month. It called on Congress to act.

For more, visit AARP.org/podcast. Become a subscriber and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

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The Apollo 11 mission did more than land two Americans on the moon. It launched the imaginations of millions and opened a new frontier. Now Americans are poised for another lunar mission, perhaps breaking an out-of-this-world glass ceiling. 

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