By Bernie Schmitt
It seems like ancient history, but 50 years ago this July most of the world celebrated one of the most amazing triumphs of mankind: walking on the surface of the moon.
The story of the Apollo 11 mission, one of the greatest achievements in the 20th Century, fulfilled the late President John F. Kennedy’s admonition that we send Americans to the moon before the decade of the 1960s was over. NASA met that deadline, and it is unfortunate that JFK did not live to see it.
Millions watched on July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong, a Purdue University graduate, became the first human being to set foot upon the moon. It is a story for the ages.
It is one that conspiracy theorists in today’s cynical society claim is false.
It is not.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969
Satellite images that have since orbited the moon clearly show that man has been there. The myths have been debunked. So it is more important than ever to recount the hard work, dedication and immense courage required to send human beings to the moon, and bring them home safely.
What is perhaps more remarkable is how it was done. Who would have ever thought of sending men to the moon in an oversized tin can, fueled with explosive materials, and operated with rudimentary computer systems? These guys travelled 240,000 miles through the deadly vacuum of space to land on, and then explored a desolated celestial body.
Just getting to the moon, and flying around it, was a tremendous feat. Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were the first to get there, and to marvel at its “magnificent desolation.” In setting the stage for a man to walk on the moon, Apollo 8 gave humanity a look at itself, too: a photo of Earth none had ever seen.
The Apollo 8 mission accelerated NASA’s effort to put man on the moon. We hardly hear of mention of Apollo 9 and Apollo 10, missions that tested and re-tested the vehicles and equipment that would successfully allow Apollo 11 to be the near-perfect mission it was.
Race to space
The United States had wrestled with the Soviet Union for years after World War II for technological superiority. When Americans were shaken by the satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s, the rush was on to surpass the Soviets in space. But it was a long hard road to success.
Early rockets failed miserably. But in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, his Freedom 7 capsule atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket provided a 15-minute ride. Soon after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. More orbital flights followed, along with the testing of a new, more powerful rocket, the Saturn V.
The Saturn V was the rocket which propelled Americans to the moon, and the brainchild of Wernher von Braun, a controversial figure who initially built rockets for Nazi Germany. To date, the Saturn V is the only launch vehicle to take humans beyond the low Earth orbit. The rocket stood 363 feet tall and weighed 6.5 million pounds when fully fueled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. It was an unparalleled engineering feat.
Sadly, the U.S. space program suffered the tragic deaths of three astronauts in early 1967, when a fire took the lives of Gus Grissom (an Indiana native), Roger Chafee, and Ed White. The astronauts were in the Apollo 1 command module for a launch test, when a spark from an uncovered wire caused a flash fire in an oxygen-filled cabin. They couldn’t get out in time.
The space race with the Soviets continued. But NASA and all of its scientists, engineers, and affiliated companies that manufactured each part of the spacecraft that carried men to the moon worked night and day to perfect the systems needed to ensure the safety of astronauts.
On the other side of the world, the Soviets experienced tremendous losses with failed rockets, including a rocket explosion that killed dozens. After beating the U.S. into space with satellites and Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around the Earth, the Soviets stumbled when attempting to get a man to the moon. The U.S. soared onward toward its goal.
On the morning of July 16, 1969, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were strapped into the command module named Columbia, for the voyage of their lifetimes. The Saturn V rocket blasted off at 9:32 a.m., for a four-day journey to the moon. After escaping Earth’s gravity, the spaceship was traveling a little more than 24,000 miles per hour.
Here is the first paragraph of the news from United Press International:
“CAPE KENNEDY, Fla., July 16, 1969 (UPI) — Apollo 11, carrying three astronauts and the dreams of humanity, blasted away for the moon today on a historic voyage to place the footprints of man in the dust of an alien world.”
After a flight without incident, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed into the lunar module named Eagle, and released it from the mother ship Columbia, leaving Collins alone to orbit the moon.
There were a few tense moments when trying to land on the moon. For some unknown reason, the lunar module’s radar system, which let the men to know how far off the surface they were, did not work at first. Worried about landing awkwardly in a pile of rocks and craters, Armstrong had to fly the thing manually just before touchdown, with only 30 seconds of fuel left.
But they made it.
“Houston,” Armstrong radioed to Mission Control, “the Eagle has landed.”
Reports were that nearly half a billion people tuned in to see the first human set foot upon the moon, at the Sea of Tranquility. The stark, black and white images beamed back to Earth were as dramatic as the event itself.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
– President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961
As Armstrong climbed down the ladder, he jumped the last 3 feet to land in the fine lunar dust.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said.
It was 10:56 p.m. E.S.T.
Armstrong walked a few feet from the spacecraft to photograph Aldrin as he climbed down the ladder onto the moon. They spent well over two hours setting up experiments and making photographs. They gathered 50 pounds of lunar rocks and soil samples.
“The surface is fine and powdery,” Armstrong said, to everyone listening on Earth. “It adheres in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the soles and sides of my boots. I go in only a fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.
“It has a very stark beauty all its own,” he said. “It’s like much of the high desert areas of the United States. It’s different, but it’s pretty out here.”
Aldrin was somewhat giddy. “Beautiful, beautiful!” he said. “Magnificent desolation.”
Author Craig Nelson says in “Rocket Men,” that there is a “joy and wonder in everything about those films and photographs” made by the Apollo 11 astronauts. “Everything about them looks so unbelievable that it’s not difficult to understand why so many Americans believe that the entire episode was a sham, and that we never made it to the moon at all. At the same time, it was the most extraordinary thing anyone had ever seen in human memory … ”
The Apollo 11 mission, when man first landed and walked on the moon, was the most celebrated, heroic event of the era. It was a dramatic display of daring, and an achievement yet to be surpassed. A plaque left on the moon has this inscription:
“Here Men from the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, JULY 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace for All Mankind.”
Ten other men walked on the moon after Armstrong and Aldrin, but none since 1972. American ingenuity and luck brought the Apollo 13 astronauts home after an explosion crippled their ship. The space race ended when we met the Soviets in space in 1975.
We have since sent robotic spacecraft to Mars, and we’ve sent other non-manned spacecraft beyond Pluto and into the void of space. We have discovered that there are exoplanets with Earth-like qualities out there, and our knowledge of the universe has become profoundly more detailed.
We have cell phones that are 32,000 times more powerful than the computing systems aboard Apollo 11. Perhaps we’ve learned enough to explore space once again.