MADELEINE BRAND, host:
NPR's Wade Goodwyn traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to bring us the story of NASA then and NASA now.
WADE GOODWYN: Drive 30 miles south of Houston in the dead of summer, and it's easy to imagine what it must have been like back in 1963, cruising along with your young wife, hearts pounding with anticipation as you close in on your incredibly bright future as one of America's chosen astronauts. It was - it was hot.
Mr. EDWIN "BUZZ" ALDRIN (Astronaut): We arrived in Houston under the sweltering heat, staying at the Rice Hotel.
GOODWYN: Buzz Aldrin, the second human being to step on the moon, doesn't have to imagine, he remembers everything about his seven years at the Manned Spacecraft Center, as it was called back then.
Mr. ALDRIN: It was just a very exciting time. We would fly in our T-38s down to Florida for the launches of the Gemini programs, big construction that was taking place down there.
GOODWYN: Aldrin says they worked hard and knew how to enjoy themselves, occasionally popping down to Cape Canaveral in sleek fighter jets to see how their future launch pad was coming along.
Unidentified Man: Two, one, zero, and lift-off of Space Shuttle Endeavor.
GOODWYN: Forty years later, the Space Shuttle Endeavor blasted off last week to rendezvous with the space station orbiting above. The nation barely looked up from its preoccupation with growing unemployment, the Sotomayor hearings, and the latest on what killed Michael Jackson. Perhaps no person has borne longer witness to the arc of NASA as an institution than spacesuit engineer Joe Kosmo. For the last 48 years, Kosmo has been at the heart of the organization, designing spacesuits for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle astronauts.
Mr. JOE KOSMO (Spacesuit Engineer, NASA): Well, there were a lot of fun days. We were a lot younger and then times were different, and maybe the level of bureaucracy wasn't as high, and willing to go and do things.
GOODWYN: Kosmo says it is instructive to remember that almost all of the first astronauts were test pilots. They infused the NASA culture with a confidence about taking chances. The prospect that their next flight could be their last was already familiar. Even when Apollo 1 caught fire in 1967 and astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in the capsule, Kosmo says the predominant culture did not change.
Mr. KOSMO: They would have been the first to tell you, keep going. Don't stop. We understand what the risk is.
GOODWYN: Kosmo says both inside NASA and without, it was felt that America was competing with the Soviet Union, that the outcome of both the space race and the arms race was very much in doubt, and that there was no time to waste.
Mr. KOSMO: Some of our reports may have been two pages long with maybe a couple of recommendations, and that's how we marched.
GOODWYN: But Kosmo says NASA began to change as soon as America landed on the moon.
Mr. KOSMO: Actually, at the landing, the Apollo 11 landing, and there was a lot of senior people that were leaving. And I was wondering, well, why is that?
GOODWYN: The reason, it turned out, was simple: America had won the race, the Russians beaten so decisively they abandoned the attempt. For many at NASA, with the contest over, it was time to move on. Choice jobs in academia, with military contractors, and Wall Street awaited.
Kosmo says NASA grew more cautious. Leaders were replaced by executives more inclined to manage. NASA grew more bureaucratic. The shuttle program, the Hubble telescope, and the International Space Station have all been successful, but none captured the imagination like the quest for the moon.
(Soundbite of machinery)
Here in NASA's EMU lab, engineers are working on the Constellation program, preparing to go back to the moon and perhaps Mars. Extravehicular Mobility Unit is NASA-speak for spacesuit. With band saws, drills, big garage doors and blueprints spread everywhere, it looks like they could make spacesuits or perhaps pimp your ride in here. Of course, the big mural on one wall kind of gives it away. It shows an astronaut on the moon over the phrase, time to go for another walk.
Ms. KATE MITCHELL (Spacesuit Engineer, NASA): I couldn't think of anything else I would rather be doing, any work that was more exciting.
GOODWYN: Twenty-four-year-old Kate Mitchell is one of the spacesuit engineers.
Ms. MITCHELL: You know, I wake up every morning and I can't wait to get to work to do this test or that test.
GOODWYN: Kate Mitchell and her 26-year-old colleague Dick Watson's eyes glow when they talk about walking on distant planets. These two young engineers have no doubt this is part of what America should be doing with its money and talent.
Mr. DICK WATSON (Spacesuit Engineer, NASA): It's kind of one of those basic human questions of why did Christopher Columbus decide to sail across the ocean? There's always a desire to explore, to expand out, realize that we are not the center of the universe.
GOODWYN: Watson's instinct to explore new worlds is part of the debate about where NASA should go next. Building new spacesuits is the least of the daunting challenges a voyage to another planet would face. A mission to Mars would be 180 days each way and the astronauts would have to live on Mars 500 days before the planets are aligned for the return trip, that's nearly three years in space. NASA is not close to that capability yet.
Joe Kosmo recalls that during that incredible race to the moon, they had a plan to get to Mars by 1987. Given how far they'd come, how fast, it seemed completely within their grasp.
Mr. KOSMO: Well, You look back on the 40 years, and it's hard to even believe we went to the moon. I mean, even I sometimes - I was out the other night smoking a cigar in the backyard looking at the moon and just thinking, gee whiz, we were there about 40 years ago. I hope we make it fairly soon again so I can see it once more.
GOODWYN: For Kosmo, Americans walking on the moon was among our finest hours. He hopes it's nothing compared to what the future holds.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.