Most of us - at least those who are old enough - remember with great clarity where we were and what we were doing 40 years ago today.

I was a 40-year-old family man and a reporter on a Central California daily newspaper. Space wasn't my beat, I was an investigative reporter covering medicine and medical politics. It was very rewarding and I uncovered where a number of (hypothetical) bodies were buried.

Space, however, had fascinated me at least since I was about 7. I remember reading in my World Book encyclopedias about the magnificent 200-inch mirror cast of molten glass somewhere on the East Coast.

It took a year to cool to prevent it from cracking and then it was trucked 3,000 miles to Mount Palomar in San Diego County. It reigned for years as the world's largest reflecting telescope. It was 16.6 feet in diameter.

I was an avid reader and my interest in space led me to science-fiction. I loved those pulp magazines with slick brightly colored covers depicting space monsters often with a space maiden in their grip a la King Kong on the Empire State Building.

All of those fond memories led me to seek out a couple of sci-fi experts, professors at UC Riverside, to help explain the legacy of Apollo 11, which landed on Earth's lone natural satellite on Aug. 20, 1969, just four decades ago.

Both men agree it was a transcending experience, one of the great events in human history.


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Professor Gary Westfahl and Professor Emeritus George Slusser appeared equally well versed on history before, during and after the event that made astronaut Neil Armstrong the first man to set foot on another celestial object: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

Westfahl is a self-described pessimist. He foresees it taking a hundred years, maybe two hundred before we develop the technical ability to move much beyond what we have already accomplished.

But his colleague Slusser looks on the bright side saying, "Let's have the sense of wonder we once had."

Westfahl says, "I don't want to diminish (Apollo 11's) importance." With a grin he asked, "In a thousand years, who do you think will get the credit?"

JFK was my guess.

"One of the ironies," Westfahl said, is "they will think of it as Nixon's triumph," because when they landed the astronauts had to take a call from Nixon, who was the president at that time. The networks went to split screen with the astronauts on one side and Nixon on the other, pretty much cementing the event in the minds of future generations.

"It was an amazing premature leap," said Westfahl. "It took an incredible amount of money and they pushed technology to the limit. They reduced the tasks to the minimum, built the lightest possible vehicle, made it airtight and gave it just enough fuel."

And he doesn't see much different in the immediate future. "Even the new Orion program has been called Apollo on steroids.

"Every step we take," Westfahl said, "will be full of immense difficulties" that will require a "blank check."

"It's not as easy as you think," he said. "Space is totally unlike Earth. No gravity, no air.

"Science fiction was naive."

Another point of agreement between the two professors was that the Apollo 11 era ended America's all out effort to conquer space.

"We proved our point," Slusser said.

In the time since, Slusser said, "We exposed a lot of social problems here on Earth: Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, racial justice.

"All of a sudden we are back in the '50s," when things again look possible.

"With a new administration, we might actually do something," Slusser said.

There was a caveat: "The pioneering spirit is elsewhere. The Chinese want to go to the stars, the Europeans, Brazil too."

With such broad interest, Slusser said, "I'm seeing there's hope the world will get behind it."

His lament: "We are in a cultural trap."

A little later he said, "We are in a world of mediocrity and stupidity. 

"Let's have the sense of wonder we once had," Slusser urged.

"This was a great moment."


UCR Professor Emeritus George Slusser is curator of the university's Eaton Collection, a library of science fiction that he nurtured from 6,000 volumes when he found it to 120,000 today. Much of it was acquired at garage sale prices and today it is worth millions.

Professor Gary Westfahl is coordinator of English programs at the university's Learning Center. He has written or edited 14 books of scholarship on science fiction.

Although both teach science fiction, neither has written it. Westfahl says his wife Lynne, a professor in the theater department at Cal State Fullerton, has urged him to try it. He thinks that in about two years after he retires, he will tackle it.

Westfahl also teaches at Heman G. Stark Correctional Facility for young adults.