Rogers: 'I don't know of another event in history that has so captured the world' 

STEVE CORNELIUS I CJ

Congressman Hal Rogers discusses the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the past and future of American space travel, during an interview on Friday. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Congressman Hal Rogers was always intrigued with space travel and rocketry.

And in 1957, an event occurred that was so astounding, Rogers, 19 at the time, felt the need to do something most radio newsmen in rural North Carolina would never think to do -- he called the Kremlin.

Sputnik I was launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, of that year. The beachball-sized artificial satellite was the first to successfully orbit the earth -- and it changed the course of history.

"I was working at a small radio station in Franklin, N.C., when Sputnik was launched and it just shocked the world," Rogers recalled. "What it said to us is that Russians had missiles that can drop an A-bomb on top of my house."

And as a result, the great space race, the great arms race and some added Cold War tensions began.

But Rogers was intrigued.

"Me and a buddy of mine, who was about the same age as me, had a great time working at that radio station ... when Sputnik went up in '57, we decided that we were going to get us a story," Rogers said with a smile.

The two young radio journalists set on a course to interview Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet's Chairman of the Communist Party.

"So we started calling the Kremlin, person to person, for Nikita Khruschev," Rogers said. "And no one answered. And after about three or four weeks of that, we said, you know they must be in a different time zone than us."

The duo persisted. And guess what -- someone finally answered.

"We finally got through to the Kremlin and a nice lady talked to us in English," Rogers said. "We told her what we wanted and she told us (Khruschev) wasn't available at the moment. So we asked her who we could talk to."

Rogers and his pal were able to speak with a Soviet scientist who worked in the International Geophysical Year program -- a worldwide group that led a systematic study of the Earth and its planetary environment.

"We interviewed the guy for an hour or an hour and a half on the intricacies of space ... and it was really good," Rogers said. "But when we played it back in this rural, mountainous area of North Carolina, they had no clue what we were talking about."

While a great interview might've been wasted on his audience, Rogers soon decided he wanted to make his interest in rockets a career. And he made his way back to Kentucky, and entered the physics program at UK.

"I wanted to be a rocket man," Rogers said. "But while I wanted to shoot rockets, they wanted me to study math."

So Rogers moved on to journalism. Then to law.

But the fascination with space has never subsided.

"I watched all the launches -- Mercury, Gemini and then Apollo," Rogers said. "I watched with fascination as Apollo 8 orbited the moon and paved the way for Apollo 11."

This weekend marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Rogers -- like many of us -- remembers exactly where he was when Neil Armstrong made that incredible step onto the surface of the moon.

"I couldn't make it to the launch, but I watched it minute by minute on TV," Rogers recalled. "It was one of the most incredible achievements in American history. I don't know of another event in history that has so captured the world.

"When Armstrong and (Buzz) Aldrin got in that lunar lander and began that descent -- which no one had ever done before in the history of mankind -- their heart rates stayed normal," Rogers added, shaking his head.

Rogers did get to see a launch in April, 1970, when Apollo 13 headed toward the moon.

"To see that huge Saturn rocket with that tiny capsule on top, with about 500 feet of flame behind it ... it was astounding," Rogers said. "The noise was incredible ... it bounced off your chest. Television didn't do it justice.

"The courage of those men was just remarkable," Rogers added. "Those big rockets they were riding on were bombs."

Rogers got to meet Armstrong and Aldrin at the Smithsonian on the 25th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Then, a few years later at a charity golf outing in Idaho, Rogers actually got to sit down and talk to Aldrin.

"We talked for about two hours, and then we talked for two more hours at breakfast the next day," Rogers said. "I got to hear about his experiences. He is a character."

Rogers, of course, was in Congress as the Kentucky 5th District Representative during the space shuttle launches, and was a supporter of the project.

"I met most of those astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first woman in space," Rogers said.

The Congressman added that he hopes the work of NASA from the '60s through the shuttle program will see a renaissance in the next few years.

President Donald Trump announced that he wanted to revive the space program and see U.S. astronauts land on Mars by 2024.

"When President Kennedy announced we were going to land on the moon, it was out of the blue," Rogers said. "The push now is to land on Mars and President Trump says we're going to do it by 2024 -- that's a real push. That's just four years."

Rogers said the challenge will be to re-ignite the momentum the NASA space program had 50 years ago, when Armstrong and Aldrin made history.

"I've always regretted that since we stopped the moon landings and now the shuttle landings, that we're having to rely on Russian rockets to launch American satellites. That's not a good situation," Rogers said. "I regretted that we built up all this knowledge and experience -- all the engineering talent at NASA -- and we just sort of chucked it in the waste basket without following up on it."

Why did America fall out of love with space?

"I guess it got boring. We got to thinking that walking on the moon was no big deal," Rogers said. "And we weren't seeing anything coming out of that. The public lost interest, as did Congress.

"To go to Mars, we're going to have to recreate something like the moon landings from scratch," Rogers added.

But can the urgency of the space race be recreated? Rogers believes that will be a challenge.

"First of all, (the moon landing) was a Cold War stunt. There was a big effort to beat the Russians there and win the PR war," Rogers said. "I don't see that race to Mars like we had back then with trying to land on the moon. We have to find some motivation to get to Mars.

"The moon shot program was exceedingly expensive. It cost billions of dollars when we had other crunches for money," Rogers added. "To go to Mars is going to cost even more and you have to have some motivation, outside the scientific realm, to motivate Congress to appropriate the money."

One of Rogers' colleagues, former Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, is now the administrator of NASA.

"He's pushing for it big time," Rogers said.

And another advocate for America continuing its adventures into space? Aldrin, now 89.

In a June 2013 opinion piece in The New York Times, Aldrin supported a human mission to Mars and which viewed the moon "not as a destination but more a point of departure, one that places humankind on a trajectory to homestead Mars and become a two-planet species."

"We've accomplished some remarkable things in space," Rogers said. "I hope it's only the beginning."

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