“Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars.” ~ Les Brown
On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the Moon. For the first time in the history of the Earth(4.55 billion years… or 6000 years if you don’t believe in science) one of its own creatures voyaged to another celestial body. It’s one of, if not the greatest scientific achievements of all time. From that day on, little boys and little girls around the world have dreamt about becoming an Astronaut when they grow up… and for some of us, that dream never fully subsided.
While putting a man on the moon was a massive scientific accomplishment, the underlying reason we went in the first place was for one simple purpose: To beat the Russians. Yup, when you break it down, the purpose of the space race wasn’t about scientific progress or technical innovation; it was simply a Democracy v. Communism cockfight with the winner taking bragging rights. You see, the last thing the White House wanted to see was a “Red Moon.” The Russians had beaten us to space with the launch of Sputnik and they were also first to put a human into orbit when Yuri Gagarin circled the Earth on April 12th 1961. We were behind. Something drastic needed to happen… and quickly.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
On September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave that fateful speech that set the space program in overdrive. His words gave NASA a mandate: Put a man on the moon before the end of the decade… and do it before the Russians. That gave NASA just over 7 years to do the impossible. It would take billions upon billions of dollars, thousands of brilliant employees as well as technology and materials that have yet to be invented. It would be a huge understatement to say that putting a man on the moon was a massive undertaking. Yet we were willing to put our best foot forward in hopes that that same foot would be the first one imprinted onto the surface of the moon.
By this point, the Mercury program had put Alan Shepard into space as well as “Gus” Grissom, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. However, these Astronauts were taking mere baby steps towards the ultimate goal; The Moon. From 1964 to 1965, the men of the Gemini program would help to develop advanced space travel techniques that would propel us from the Earth to the Moon.
Despite the massive achievements of the Mercury and Gemini programs, neither are as celebrated as the Apollo program. The reason is obvious: It put a man on the moon.
However, the entire space program came to a shuttering halt when the crew of Apollo 1, “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, were killed during a training mission when a fire erupted inside the oxygen-rich Apollo 1 command module. The disaster hit NASA hard. They had pushed the envelope farther and farther, testing their boundaries with each flight. Each and every mission brought with it an array of dangers and it is almost unbelievable that there hadn’t been more lives lost during the space program. Thankfully, after an inquiry into the accident, it was decided to continue on. Each astronaut knew and accepted the risks they faced on a daily basis. And as hard as I looked to find evidence to the contrary, each and every one of them believed that the goal of the moon was worth the price, steep as it may seem.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
After the disaster, the Apollo program continued forward with renewed dedication and purpose. Finally, on July 20, 1969, NASA realized their mandate, by landing two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the Sea of Tranquility. At 10:56 PM, with the eyes of the world watching, Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Lander and first stepped foot onto the surface of the moon. It was one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind. It should be noted that Armstrong actually flubbed the line. He left the “a” in front of man out. Woops.
Over the next three years, we returned to the moon several times and finally left the moon behind in December of 1972. It’s been a very long 37 years since mankind last set foot on the big hunk of cheese in the sky.
In 1981, after nine years of being earth-bound, NASA launched the Space Transportation System, also known as the Space Shuttle program. It was given a lifespan of just 10 years. Yet, after 28 years of operation, the shuttles, at least what remains of the fleet, are still launching into space. 1986 marked the loss of the Challenger and its crew during launch. Again, in 2003, another disaster struck when the Columbia and all hands were lost upon re-entry. Both disasters were monstrous losses that often brought the importance of space flight and exploration into question. Thankfully, despite the losses, in both cases NASA continued on, doing what was required; learning, modifying and moving forward. To let the losses of the shuttle and their crews stop the program from moving on would have been an even bigger loss.
The space shuttle program is scheduled for retirement next year. Thankfully, Lockheed Martin is building the next generation space vehicle, the Orion spacecraft. It is with this next gen spacecraft that we will once again travel back to the moon in 2020… and after that onto the Red Planet.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings. 40 years since we first achieved what was once believed to be impossible. Unfortunately, once the Apollo program ended, much of our ambitions went with it. The possibilities that once seemed within reach; civilian space travel, manned moon bases and more, slowly faded. The realities and issues that consumed us during the 70’s and 80’s overshadowed much of what was worked for during the space race. The future we envisioned (and saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey) wouldn’t come to pass… at least now as soon as we had hoped. However, now that the Orion spacecraft is under development and we’re once again reaching for the moon, perhaps those dreams will one day become a reality.
As we once again set our sights on the moon and beyond, it’s my hope that the people of our nation, young and old alike, will again be captivated by it. After all, it is a wondrous feat to not only put mankind into space, but to also land on the moon. I can only hope that my children will grow up in an era where spaceflight is once again front-page news and not a back-page blurb.