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By Jim Ignasher
“I believe 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.” President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”
Those words were spoken by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969 just after the lunar module successfully touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. Six hours later he and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin would become founding members of an exclusive club that would eventually grow to include twelve men, all of whom had walked on the moon.
This July 20th marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, which to again quote Neil Armstrong, was, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those of us old enough to have watched the event on live television will recall that the word “a” was lost in transmission, and it wasn’t until the astronauts returned home that the issue came to light.
The unsung hero of the Apollo 11 mission is Astronaut Michael Collins, who flew the command ship around the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin got to stretch their legs. As Collins passed behind the dark side of the moon he was literally separated from all humanity.
The 1969 landing fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge to reach the moon before the 60s decade was over, but more importantly it ended the so called “space race” between the United States and Russia, both vying to get to the moon first. At the time it was more than just about national pride, for in the 1960s the two countries were adversaries immersed in the “Cold War”, and despite the 1967 United Nations Space Treaty which in part stated that no nation could claim the moon as sovereign territory, some still felt it was in our country’s best interest to get there first.
The Apollo 11 astronauts returned to a hero’s welcome yet one may be surprised to learn that not every American shared in the celebration. Some openly criticized the space program claiming the money could have been better spent on social programs for the poor. Yet their comments were largely ignored as future moon missions were planned.
Going to the moon had been a dream of mankind since the beginning of time, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientific knowledge had progressed to the point where it was beginning to be understood what obstacles would have to be overcome before such a trip could be theoretically feasible. For instance, there was the gravitational pull of the earth.
In 1835 science fiction writer Jules Verne, (1828-1905), published his novel, “From The Earth To The Moon”, which involved a group of men who overcame the forces of gravity by constructing a giant cannon capable of shooting a manned projectile to the moon using 400,000 pounds of nitroglycerine as the launching agent.
It was also in 1835 that “The Great Moon Hoax” was perpetrated by a New York newspaper. The paper ran a story about a well-known scientist who’d allegedly discovered life on the moon via a powerful telescope. The fact that such a telescope and scientist actually existed gave the story credibility, however the newspaper was forced to admit it wasn’t true. However, the question of life on the moon was debated for another 134 years, and even after the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to earth they were required to spend time in an isolation chamber to be sure that hadn’t brought back any deadly “moon germs”.
As artillery technology advanced, the idea of shooting an object at the moon remained a serious consideration to some. By the early 20th century man was capable of building massive recoiling guns that could lob shells hundreds of miles. Some figured, with just a little more effort, hitting the moon should be no problem. Yet theoretically shooting a capsule to the moon wasn’t the issue, it was getting it back.
Aside from using huge guns, one amusing article from 1913 told of a man who’d calculated that one could theoretically fly to the moon in an airplane, provided it had a 414,000 horse power engine! He estimated the trip would take 48.5 hours each way. How one was to survive in space while en-route was another matter.
Scientists eventually discovered that rocket power was the way to go when it came to leaving earth’s gravitational field, and the Saturn V rocket was developed for use in the Apollo program. Although no longer in operational use today, the Saturn V reportedly remains the most powerful rocket ever used by NASA.
It’s mind boggling to consider the logistics and mathematics involved with getting the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon and back. After all, NASA shot a moving space craft, from a spinning planet, that was also orbiting the sun, at a moon that is itself orbiting the planet. Yet the lunar module landed right where it was supposed to! Furthermore, the computer guidance system utilized by Apollo 11 is laughingly primitive by today’s standards.
And consider this, the air-tight space suits worn by astronauts wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the invention of an everyday device we take for granted – the zipper – which was patented in 1917.
There was a time when air travel and going to the moon was believed impossible, but today we can reasonably assume that one day humans will walk on Mars and travel beyond. To that end it seems fitting to close with a quote by Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins:
“When the history of our galaxy is written, and for all any of us know it already has been, If Earth gets mentioned at all it won’t be because its inhabitants visited their own moon. That first step, like a newborn’s cry, will be automatically assumed. What would be worth recording is what kind of civilization we earthlings created, and whether or not we ventured out to other parts of the galaxy.”