As the anniversary of the moon landing approaches, I promise not to bore you with stories of watching it on a black-and-white TV and dreaming about cool space stuff yet to come.

Instead, I promise to excite you with a special Science Cafe in which you – yes, you! – can ask questions about the past, present and future of lunar space flight. Although I’ll probably find an excuse to bore you just a little with memories.

Normally, Science Cafe N.H. in Concord takes the summer off, but the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 was too much fun to ignore. So we’re holding a special version next week at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, which is having a host of Apollo 11-related events of its own next week.

Our session will feature a panel of space scientists and other knowledgeable folks and will be Tuesday, July 16 – the 50th anniversary of the launch. It starts at 7 p.m., later than usual for Science Cafe because there won’t be food or drink, so we’re giving you time to have dinner first. No reservation is needed and it’s free.

Although it’s not in our usual venue, the gathering will follow Science Cafe rules: no politics, no PowerPoint. It’s not a lecture; it’s a discussion, which means it will fueled by questions from whoever shows up in the audience. So make sure to show up!

I won’t be the only one there who can wander down Apollo 11 memory lane if prompted. Mark McConnell, a physics professor and professor in the Space Science Center at UNH who has taught a course on the history of the space program, could accompany me.

“People of my generation – I was 11 or 12 at the time – were really motivated by the space program in the sixties. Talking to colleagues and peers, a lot of us became excited about doing science because of Apollo,” said McConnell, who will be one of four panelists taking our questions.

Like me, he remembers watching Neil and Buzz hop around on the lunar surface. Unlike me, he was able to shape his career in their direction.

“I remember a time I’d be talking to people and tell them I’m doing research for NASA and their eyes would light up and they’d be – ‘Wow! you must be smart!’ ” McConnell said. “We were talking about going to Mars by the 1980s, and that was exciting. Apollo was exciting!”

It’s been half a lifetime since then but we’re still talking about maybe going to Mars in a decade or two. What happened?

Partly, I think, the problem is that going to Mars is orders of magnitude harder than going to the moon. But mostly the obstacle is that we haven’t wanted to do it badly enough.

Will the rise of private space flight – in particular SpaceX, but also Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic – make a difference?

McConnell, like me, was dubious about their long-term effect but so far has been surprised and impressed. “I’m still amazed that they can bring the booster back and reuse it. That is just a phenomenal achievement,” he said.

How about the space-facing ambitions of China, which is talking about putting people on the moon within a decade. Cold War competition with the Soviets that created the Gemini and Apollo programs; will that happen again?

“I always ask my students, how would you feel if the Chinese were on the moon and we weren’t. They’re used to living in the world, as we all are, where the U.S. is technologically out in front. To have a country like China coming along and going to the moon and doing all those things we did 50 years ago, I wonder what effect that will have,” McConnell said.

These are interesting questions. I bet you can think of a few more, and I look forward to hearing them.


Special Science Cafe N.H. event for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. A question-and-answer session about the technology and philosophy of space travel in 1969 and since. How did we get to the moon, why haven’t we gone back, what should we do next? Featuring three UNH space scientists and a member of the Discovery Center staff. Free, no reservation required.

Where: McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, 2 Institute Drive, Concord.

When: Tuesday, July 16, 7 p.m.

For more information:

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