previous : index : next Space Gazette - Index HobbySpace Home
The Spacefaring Web 2.9: An Apollo National Monument
John Carter McKnight
June 19, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

This December, thirty years will have passed since the last human walked on the Moon. As things stand now, that anniversary, with its strange mix of pride and shame, will go unnoticed outside a small circle of space advocates. That silence will be as great a loss as our return from the Moon was, if we cannot even raise ourselves to remember the dream of space we once shared, and set aside. We - space advocates and Americans at large - need to do better than that. And we can. Let us call on the President to declare the Apollo launch site at the Kennedy Space Center, Pad 34, the Apollo memorial, if at all possible restoring one of the remaining Saturn V relics to the pad, in honor of every one who dedicated years of their life to the dream of landing on the Moon, to remind us all of what we had, what we chose to abandon in place, and what we might have once again. Let us begin an initiative to establish an Apollo National Monument.

Today, Pad 34 is rusting away, marked only by those infamous signs reading "Abandon In Place." Today, the three remaining Saturn V's serve as immense lawn jockeys on NASA land. Today, many Americans believe we never went to the Moon at all - where are the spacecraft, the memorials, the legacies of something that could only have been so grand? We have no compelling answer for them. In popular culture, we are celebrating the "Greatest Generation" in its heroic sacrifices against tyranny in World War II. Yet the Generation of Apollo is beginning to pass without the tribute we owe them. From welders and machinists to engineers and astronauts, many thousands of people dedicated the best years of their lives to the Apollo effort, working through a dark time in our history to enable a project that brought forth the best in us, leaving Earth behind to go to a new world "in peace for all mankind." We owe them tribute.

And certainly now is the time to celebrate them. While they are still here to appreciate our thanks, while we as a nation can use a monument to an extraordinay expression of our national will, one undertaken in the service of peace, of reason, of hope for a better future. We need an Apollo memorial, and a thirty-six story alabaster icon visible from land and sea, in one of the largest tourist centers in the world, can serve as an emblem of justifiable American pride unlike anything else this country has.

The process for the declaration of a national monument is a straightforward one. Section 2 of the Antiquities Act, 16 U.S.C. 431, authorizes the President to establish as national monuments "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States...." Pad 34 is located on Federal land on the Kennedy Space Center. All three Saturn V's are owned by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum (NASM). The Saturn V on the grounds of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama has been designated a National Historic Landmark, the only one of the three to hold that status, and the Center is currently seeking donations for its restoration (for information, see ) The one outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston was refurbished in 2000 upon NASM's receipt of a $1.25 million grant from the federal "Save America's Treasures" program. Kennedy Space Center's Saturn V was restored and placed in a new building in 1996. Thus, official recognition of the historical status of Apollo artifacts already exists. While I could find no information as to whether the restoration of a Saturn V to launch position on Pad 34 is technically possible - and I hope that a reader might know - there is no evident legal or political obstacle. A national monument designation would pull together a coherent memorial out of scattered decaying relics, at a negligible financial cost with great moral and patriotic return.

I first floated a version of this idea several years ago, in response to a article about the restoration of the Houston Saturn V ( ). The response from the space community was underwhelming: There wasn't much interest in looking backward, and a bit of a reflexive cringe at treating spacecraft as a historical curiosity like the USS Constitution or neolithic pueblo sites. But I believe that sound reasons exist for our community to work actively for a Presidential declaration of an Apollo national monument.

First, we owe it to the people who devoted their lives to the dream of space. They were denied that spacefaring future they'd been led to expect as America changed irrevocably around them. We - well, the American voters and politicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s, of which I was not one - took that future from them. The least we can do by way of compensation is to publicly honor their achievements. We should do it now, while most of that generation is still alive to receive our acclaim.

Beyond that, America owes it to itself. Andrew Chaikin put it best at the end of A Man On the Moon (p. 583):

"Project Apollo remains the last great act this country has undertaken out of a sense of optimism, of looking forward to the future. That it came to fruition amid the upheaval of the sixties, alongside the carnage of the Vietnam War, only heightens the sense of irony and nostalgia, looking back twenty-five years later.. It is the sense of purpose we felt then that seems as distant now as the moon itself "

I have long argued against attempts to resurrect that sense of purpose, and against grandiose schemes built on the premise of it magically reappearing, and regard Apollo as a significant misstep in the path towards a spacefaring civilization. Yet the fact remains that Apollo was a uniquely positive accomplishment born of American national will. We have a Statue of Liberty; we could use an Icon of Hope and Reason. Certainly as a means of asserting our values and our identity in the face of terrorist threats, there is very little in our history which we could put forward as a proud example which is as positive as Apollo. We have done well as a people since September 11 to avoid excessive militarism and jingoism; declaring an Apollo national monument would be a major statement that our values as a nation are positive, progressive ones rather than the hostile, domineering picture painted of us in so much of the world.

The effort to establish an Apollo national monument is an appropriate one for the space community to undertake. It will bring the values we espouse back before the public eye. As Chaikin implies, the spirit of exploration and adventure embodied in Apollo has become so anomalous in American culture that the belief that it was all a hoax is easier to hold. If we confront the public with thirty-six stories of evidence that we once explored - really explored - the heavens, we can raise the thought that we just might find that spirit in ourselves again. The icon will speak more loudly than all our Rotary luncheon talks and angel-investor pitches, working subversively to change the popular mindset towards one in which our plans for space commerce and exploration will find a favorable reception. It is an investment in all our projects, a marketing initiative of unparalleled thrust.

The rotting industrial patio furniture of Apollo ruins is impressive, in an Ozymandias sort of way, but hardly inspirational. What young person could see a restored Saturn V gleaming on the very pad that launched us to the moon and fail to feel pride and inspiration, rather than a stunned bewilderment at the sight of so much rust, the Apollo legacy of today? As an investment in space education alone, the work to establish an Apollo national monument is worthwhile.

Space activists have argued that our turn away from space after Apollo was a national shame, and an Apollo monument would just rub America's nose in that shame. The glib answer to that criticism is, "well, good!" But there is a much deeper truth. Every national monument, short of the self-glorifying iconography of dictatorships, is bittersweet, sometimes heartbreakingly so. When the design for the Vietnam War Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC was released, veterans' groups condemned it as a "black gash of shame." Yet it has been among the most popular and moving of American monuments, precisely for the power of the emotions it invokes. Holocaust memorials are similar, evoking memory of evil, of sacrifice and courageous resistance, and inspiring us to ensure that never again will we suffer such failures. Certainly the function of Pearl Harbor's USS Arizona memorial is similar, and more thoroughly negative than an Apollo national monument would be. Such a monument would serve a bittersweet function of celebrating our labor and triumph, and the values that made them possible, along with shaming us with the loss that we chose for ourselves and challenging us to make good on the potential we once manifested. This complex of emotions is what makes for a strong memorial, and a Saturn V on the pad would certainly be one of the most powerful, and popular, icons in our country.

Finally, as a political dry run, the space community's activists stand to benefit. Usually we go to Washington asking for the Moon (or Mars), with everyone knowing the will and the power are no longer there for the granting of our dreams. A national monument proposal is a dirt-cheap, feel-good, constituent-honoring slam-dunk. Finally the space folks will be selling something the government might actually benefit in the short term from buying. The practice in lobbying will be of direct benefit to the volunteers and organizations invloved: what an inspiration for the troops, to work on something that actually succeeds! We will earn governmental good will for ourselves, and begin the process of conditioning public officials to say "yes" when they see us - which can only help the next time we come around with something to sell.

For those of us in the post-Apollo generations, at least once in our lives we'll be able to see a human-rated deep space spacecraft on its launch pad. I desperately hope that it won't be the only time. But to visit a monument to all the people who took us to the Moon, to stand before a Saturn V on the pad - come what may, that is our dream given form. It's something we can give ourselves and the generations to come. If it's physically feasible, let's make it so.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at

previous : index : next Space Gazette - Index HobbySpace Home