Forty-five years after we landed on the moon and we're still waiting for the next giant leap
Forty-five years ago, on July 20, 1969, I sat on my father’s lap in the middle of the night and watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. I was four years old and remember thinking that it just couldn’t be true.
My father worked for NASA and its contractors. I will never forget how excited he was without being able to jump out of his recliner (I was on his lap). He couldn’t say anything about it other than “we finally made it” and “we beat the Russians.”
This was, after all, during the Cold War. Space exploration emerged as a major area of contest and became known as the space race. My father was actually in the same graduating class as Neil Armstrong at Purdue University in Indiana. Class of 1955.
The extraordinary achievement of NASA during its early years involved the human exploration of the Moon, Project Apollo. It became a NASA priority on May 25 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
A direct response to Soviet successes in space, Kennedy used Apollo as a high-profile effort for the U.S. to demonstrate to the world its scientific and technological superiority over Russia, its cold war adversary.
In response to the Kennedy decision, NASA was consumed with carrying out Project Apollo and spent the next 11 years doing so. This effort required significant expenditures, costing $25.4 billion over the life of the program, to make it a reality.
Although there were major challenges and some failures – notably a January 27, 1967 fire in an Apollo capsule on the ground that took the lives of astronauts Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Edward H. White Jr. – the program moved forward inexorably.
Less than two years later, in October 1968, NASA bounced back with the successful Apollo 7 mission, which orbited the Earth and tested the redesigned Apollo command module. The Apollo 8 mission, which orbited the Moon on December 24-25, 1968, was another crucial accomplishment on the way to the Moon.
Neil A. Armstrong uttered these famous words on July 20, 1969, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” when the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge, by successfully landing Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. on the Moon.
Armstrong piloted the lunar module dramatically to the lunar surface with less than 30 seconds worth of fuel remaining. After taking soil samples, photographs, and doing other tasks on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin rendezvoused with their colleague Michael Collins in lunar orbit for a safe voyage back to Earth.
At the time I was watching this on a 19 inch black and white television, I never thought it would be seared on to my brain and one of the proudest moments of my own life.
Today NASA’s ongoing missions include in-depth surveys of Mars and Saturn. Studies of the Earth and the Sun. Active spacecraft missions include Messenger for planet Mercury, New Horizons (for Jupiter, Pluto and beyond), and Dawn for the asteroid belt.
NASA continues to explore beyond the asteroid belt with Pioneer and Voyager traversing into the unexplored trans-Pluto region, and Gas Giant orbiters, Cassini (1997–), and Juno (2011–).
On the horizon of NASA’s plans is the MAVEN spacecraft as part of the Mars Scout Program to study the atmosphere of Mars.
In September 2011, NASA announced the start of the Space Launch program to develop a human-rated heavy lift vehicle. The Space Launch System is intended to launch the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and other elements towards the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, and one day Mars. The Orion MPCV is planned for an unmanned test launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket in December 2014.
On August 27, 2012, Curiosity transmitted the first pre-recorded message from the surface of Mars back to Earth, made by Administrator Charlie Bolden:
“Hello. This is Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, speaking to you via the broadcast capabilities of the Curiosity Rover, which is now on the surface of Mars. Since the beginning of time, humankind’s curiosity has led us to constantly seek new life…new possibilities just beyond the horizon.
I want to congratulate the men and women of our NASA family as well as our commercial and government partners around the world, for taking us a step beyond to Mars. This is an extraordinary achievement. Landing a rover on Mars is not easy – others have tried – only America has fully succeeded.
The investment we are making…the knowledge we hope to gain from our observation and analysis of Gale Crater, will tell us much about the possibility of life on Mars as well as the past and future possibilities for our own planet. Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future. Thank you.”
Space exploration is important, not necessarily because exploration is important, but because of the many technologies that have come from NASA’s missions and projects. Inventions such as invisible braces, scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam, long-distance telecommunications, adjustable smoke detectors, cordless tools, and water filters. Who knows how humanity will benefit from other NASA projects or missions down the road that require new technologies.
A mission to Mars might seem like a waste of money to some. Their parents probably said the same thing back in the 1960s. But I don’t think any American, or human being for that matter, regrets the day Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon forty-five years ago.
“The leader of an Earth organization who makes a commitment to history – of humans living on Earth, to begin permanent settlement/occupation of not the moon, but of another planet – this leader will have a legacy for history that will supersede Columbus, Genghis Khan or almost any recognized leader” – Buzz Aldrin