On July 20 we marked the 25th anniversary of an historic event: my 10th birthday. As it happens, on the same day we marked the 25th anniversary of the landing of men on the moon–the best birthday present any 10-year-old ever had.
President John F. Kennedy told Congress on May 25, 1961, that the United States should commit itself to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. When he made that speech, the technology to achieve his goal didn’t exist; but just eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon with the now-famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Apollo 11 was boosted into space by a 30-story-tall Saturn V rocket at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969. The Apollo spacecraft consisted of a cylindrical service module, containing a rocket motor and fuel, a cone-shaped command module containing life-support, controls, communications equipment and three astronauts, and the bug-like lunar excursion module (LEM). Besides Armstrong, a civilian, Apollo 11’s crew consisted of Air Force officers Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins.
After launch, the astronauts briefly orbited the Earth, until the last stage of the Saturn V ignited and boosted them toward the moon at just under 40,000 kilometres an hour. Three days later, the service module’s engine fired, braking the spacecraft and putting it into orbit around the moon. After several hours of preparation, the LEM (nicknamed Eagle), separated from the command module (Columbia), and Armstrong and Aldrin made their descent to the surface, leaving Collins in the command module.
Computers piloted the Eagle down to within a few kilometres of the surface; then, seeing rocks and craters covering the landing site, Armstrong took over the controls himself, burning the engines an extra 70 seconds to carry the LEM past the danger zone.
At 4:17:41 p.m. EDT on July 20, the LEM touched down. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” said Armstrong.
Hundreds of millions of people watched on live television six hours later as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. (In fact, one of the few people who couldn’t watch was poor old Michael Collins–he had to make do with radio.)
The astronauts spent 2 1/2 hours on the surface, inspecting the spacecraft, placing scientific equipment, gathering rock samples, and planting a U.S. flag, stiffened with wire to look like it was waving in the breeze. After a rest period (although neither astronaut slept much) they returned to lunar orbit (leaving the lower half of the LEM behind), rendezvoused with Collins and then returned to Earth in Columbia, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. They were placed in quarantine for 18 days, in case they’d brought back some unexpected form of disease. Then came the most strenuous part of the mission: an endless round of personal appearances, speeches and press conferences.
Five more Apollo missions landed on the moon. And then the missions stopped. No human has set foot on another world since 1972. In fact, the technology no longer exists. The public became jaded, and politicians started slashing the budget. In 1969, it seemed likely we would have a permanent lunar base by now and be well on our way to Mars. It hasn’t happened.
If you must put a dollar value on everything, and some people must, the moon program paid huge technological dividends. But spin-offs aren’t enough reason to go into space. For me, only one reason suffices: the human need to explore the unknown.
Someday the ability to leave this planet may mean the survival of the human race: the next comet to strike a planet could as easily hit us as Jupiter. Someday we may need the resources to be found on the moon and other planets. We don’t know, we can’t know, what “use” space exploration is until we do it. Reaching for something beyond our current grasp expands our abilities and our understanding.
Twenty-five years ago, landing a man on the moon seemed proof anything was possible. Today, too many people believe that nothing is possible. I prefer to believe the former.
I hope that when the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 rolls around, we’ll have returned to the moon–and moved beyond it.
That would be my idea of a great 60th birthday present.