By Jeff Olson
I can still remember, as a youngster in the late 1960s, a voice from the television saying, “Space, the final frontier…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before….” Of course that voice was William Shatner who played Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek television series. This quest of the Starship Enterprise captured the imagination of children and adults alike. It also reflected the spirit of American ingenuity and innovation during a decade of research and advancement in space science and technology through NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space program projects.
A culmination of these projects and an enormous milestone in space exploration occurred fifty years ago this week on the Apollo 11 mission, in which Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin made history on the Moon. I can still remember where I was that day and many of you probably can as well – perhaps in front of the television set.
What we may not know or remember is that the Lunar Module’s “powered descent” (the most critical and dangerous part of the mission) did not go precisely as planned. The computer became overloaded, which forced a decision by Mission Control of whether or not to abort the mission. As we now know, the decision was “Eagle, you are go for landing.” However, the problems were not over. As astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin continued their descent, it was discovered that they were about four miles off course from their planned landing area and were also running critically low on fuel. So Armstrong took control from the computer and manually searched for a suitable landing site, and when finding one brought the Lunar Module down to the Moon’s surface on a rocky plain called the Sea of Tranquility. “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” he radioed. The date: July 20, 1969. The time: 4:18 pm (EDT). Man had just landed on the Moon for the first time. Several hours later, at 10:56 pm, Armstrong descended from Eagle’s ladder and, touching one foot to the Moon’s surface, announced: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin joined him twenty minutes later and described the view of the Moon as “magnificent desolation.” While exploring the lunar surface for more than two-and-a-half hours, the astronauts planted a U.S. Flag and left some commemorative items there.
At their departure, they left behind a plaque with the following message: HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH – FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON – JULY 1969 A.D. – WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. Only the construction of the Panama Canal in modern peacetime and the Manhattan Project in war were comparable in scope to this magnificent achievement – one which was years in the making.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress four ambitious goals related to building America’s space program. As he expressed the first one: “First, 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 the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” The motivation for achieving this goal was due in great part to the pressure Kennedy felt to have the United States “catch up to and overtake” the Soviet Union in the “space race.”
If or when man will walk on the moon again is a question for which we have no answer at this time. What we do know is that the Apollo 11 mission was a success that, combined with other missions prior and since, have provided the U.S. and the world with many answers and even more questions. And, these missions have also opened new doors to advancements in various areas of science and technology, some of which have produced societal benefits improving the quality of life on Earth.
Based on the achievements of the past sixty years, there is no reason to believe that a future with a equally strong commitment to the Final Frontier wouldn’t yield many other benefits for humanity, some perhaps even beyond the limits of twenty-first century imaginations.