This statistic came as something of a shock. There are more people alive today who were born after humankind landed on the moon than before. It’s been just that long. In something that would have seemed unbelievable when I was a little boy, we live in a society where humanity’s first visit to an extraterrestrial body has long since been part of the history books.
However, that wasn’t always the case. In July 1969 Apollo’s mission, sending a man to the moon and returning him safely, seemed like it would be the ultimate human achievement. That is, if we could actually do it. Nothing about this great undertaking was certain. It was daring, it was bold, and it was dangerous. Would the most complicated machine ever designed by humans work as planned? I still remember, age 11, sitting with my grandfather, grandmother, both born before 1900 and my dad, watching the coverage of the Apollo landing. It was Sunday afternoon July 20, 1969. No one in our normally chatty little group said a word as we listened to the transmission from the Lunar Excursion Module. That’s the spidery looking craft that took the first humans on the last leg of their voyage to the moon. It was a tense and expectant few minutes. Neil Armstrong, the mission commander is heard making course corrections, trying to find a good landing spot while Buzz Aldrin is giving him the information on how close they are to the moon’s surface.
Then, there was a pause. The transmissions ceased for a moment or two. At which point, Neil Armstrong, with his typical unflappable manner, made that historic transmission, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” We had arrived on the moon.
For the next few hours the world, and I mean, the whole world, waited, literally, for the next step. Because that’s what it was all about. Man’s first foot step on the moon. It was one of history’s most watched events. Billions from Moscow to Tokyo, Sydney, Mexico City and Paris, watched the adventure unfold on their TV screens. We waited to see the first human set foot on the moon. The landing had occurred at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. The moonwalk, the show everyone was waiting for, wasn’t scheduled until after midnight. Apparently, NASA had expected that its astronauts would benefit by some sleep, but Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were having none of it. They wanted to walk on the moon. It’s also likely that NASA’s well-known publicity apparatus got into the picture too. They wanted the biggest show ever to be in prime time in the U.S. and not in the time slot reserved for the late-late show. So, the walk was pushed forward.
It really was just a walk down a small ladder, wearing bulky moon suits and then one small step on the lunar surface. It seems rather inconsequential put like that, but the experience of watching the event, thanks to a camera NASA had attached to the leg of the lunar module, had no equal. For many of us, of a certain age, little else compares. At 10:56 in the evening, Neil Armstrong, the shy and retiring spaceman from Ohio, became the first human on the moon. We had done it.
Think of what it proved. We weren’t earthbound anymore. Humans could survive and work in space. Not just orbital journeys, but on a trip as far away as the moon. What’s more, consider the timeline. President John Kennedy had only made it official U.S. policy that we would launch a manned moon mission before the end of the 1960’s. He made this proclamation in 1962. Seven years later, in an incredibly short period of time, the American scientific and engineering community had conquered every technical problem, learned the business of spaceflight, dealt with every setback and landed humans on the moon.
It’s a staggering feat. It deserves to be remembered. But there is one thing. For reasons that still don’t make sense, at least to me, we never went back. Since 1972 no human has ventured into deep space. We have done wonders with our interplanetary probes, our rovers have explored the surface of Mars, we have tested new propulsion systems, we have vastly expanded our skills in materials development and computing, we built the International Space Station, and have discovered thousands of planets orbiting around other stars. But, still, we haven’t ventured more than a few hundred miles into space.
So, on this 50th anniversary, as the new technologies have started to converge, along with a growing passion to “see what’s out there”, let’s recommit ourselves to putting humans back in space. The Moon still has it secrets and Mars, beckoning us since ancient times, awaits. The men and women who first put humans on the moon a half century ago thought that life in space was our eventual destiny. It still is.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.