It was 43 years ago today that the world held its collective breath as Neil Armstrong guided the Eagle landing craft down to the moon’s surface. Although most of us didn’t know it at the time, landing on the moon that day was actually a very near thing, as Armstrong discovered that the planned landing site was strewn with dangerous boulders and he had precious little time to find an alternate site.
With less than 30 seconds of fuel left, the footpads of the Lunar Module touched the surface of the moon and man had achieved what seems even today, the most stunning technological triumph in human history. A thousand years from now, the 20th century may be remembered for only a couple of things; one of them is certainly going to be the voyage of Apollo 11.
Veteran space journalist Jay Barbree gives an account of the day:
Forty-three years ago, Neil Armstrong moved slowly down the ladder. He was in no hurry. He would be stepping onto a small world that had never been touched by life. A landscape where no leaf had ever drifted, no insect had ever scurried, where no blade of green had ever waved, where even the raging fury of a thermonuclear blast would sound no louder than a falling snowflake.
Across a vacuum-wide 240,000 miles, billions of eyes were transfixed on black-and-white televisions. They were watching this ghostly figure moving phantomlike, closer and closer, and then, three and a half feet above the moon’s surface, jump off the ladder. Neil Armstrong’s boots hit the moon at 10:56 p.m. ET, July 20, 1969.
All motion stopped. He spoke: “That’s one small step for a man — one giant leap for mankind.”
Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin stayed aboard Eagle to keep watch on all the lander’s systems. The LM was Aldrin’s responsibility, and as soon as it was safe for him to leave their lander, he came down the ladder and joined Armstrong.
“Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation,” Aldrin said with feeling. He stared at a sky that was the darkest of blacks. No blue. No green. No birds flying across an airless landscape. There were many shades of gray and areas of utter black where rocks cast their shadows from an unfiltered sun, but no real color. And there was the lack of gravity. They seemed to weigh a little more than nothing. In spite of their cumbersome spacesuits, both astronauts found moving about in the one-sixth gravity exhilarating and described the experience as floating.
Armstrong had strong doubts that he’d make it back alive, while behind the scenes, NASA gave the mission only a 66% chance for success. Some of the individual engineers and scientists were even less charitable in their assessment of the mission’s chances. President Nixon had a speech all ready to deliver if the worst happened:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon in explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.Those two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, hut our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
Thankfully, Nixon’s heartfelt address is just an historical curiosity.
NASA wouldn’t dare take those kinds of chances today. This is one reason why we won’t be watching any manned space flights in America until at least 2014 and more likely, 2015. Plans to return to the moon are on the back burner and forget about going to Mars for the next couple of decades.
Space news for the foreseeable future will be dominated by private companies and their efforts to get the commercial use of space off the ground. But even they would admit that they are only standing on the shoulders of giants who paved the way for our current efforts to live, work, and explore the cosmos.