Lest we forget: 43 years ago today Apollo 11 touched down on the moon
A thousand years from now, no one will care about the debate over Obamacare, or gun control, or Mitt Romney, or any other event or person from the last 50 years.
Except the moon landing, of course.
It was 43 years ago today that Apollo 11 touched down on the moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on its surface. Because it was the first time in human history we had accomplished the feat of traveling to another world and leaving our footprints on its face, as long as humans are writing history, Apollo 11 and Armstrong will be mentioned.
There was so much we didn't know about the mission at the time; Armstrong gave himself a 50-50 chance of returning home (NASA thought the odds two out of three). The landing itself was a very near thing with the spacecraft having less than 30 seconds of fuel left before an abort would have been performed.
Veteran space journalist Jay Barbree recounts the moment of Armstrong's descent to the surface of the moon:
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.
And the former astronaut has some pointed words about America's space program today:
Today, Neil Armstrong - first to walk on the moon, first to fly an emergency landing from space, a man with experience as a test pilot as well as an engineering professor - is concerned about America's space program.
He simply thinks that NASA is going nowhere fast. He's worried that the space agency is outsourcing thousands of high-tech jobs to Russia, leaving no direct way for astronauts to go from the United States to the International Space Station. He fears that the space station could experience a catastrophic failure with little support from the country that assembled it in orbit.
Neil thinks we should not only fly our own rockets and spacecraft, but use those vehicles to return to the moon in affordable, incremental, cumulative steps. Here's his congressional testimony on the subject, updated in an email he sent me last week:
"Americans have visited and examined six locations on Luna, varying in size from a suburban lot to a small township. That leaves more than 14 million square miles yet to explore.
"The lunar vicinity is an exceptional location to learn about traveling to more distant places. Largely removed from Earth gravity, and Earth's magnetosphere, it provides many of the challenges of flying far from Earth. But communication delays with Earth are less than two seconds, permitting Mission Control on Earth to play an important and timely role in flight operations.
What Armstrong isn't saying is that NASA is a broken agency that has lost the capacity to dream big dreams and perform at the highest technological and human levels. Whether NASA can ever get the spirit of exploration and adventure back, is a question our children will have to answer.