A half-century ago an American became the first earthling to step foot on the moon. In the fifty years since that Sunday, July 20, 1969, only a dozen humans, all Americans have walked on another surface in space.
The first moon landing is one of those historic moments seared into our memory with a vivid recall where we were and what we were doing when we heard the words “the Eagle has landed.”
For those of us old enough to remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbing down the ladder of the lunar module, there have been few, if any, events in our lives that evoked more patriotic pride.
The challenge to have an American walk on the moon was first made in May of 1961. In a famous speech before Congress, President John F. Kennedy challenged American scientists and engineers with the words; “before this decade is out, land[ing] a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
1969 was full of tumult in America when NASA was preparing for their lunar mission. The US was in a hot, shooting war in Vietnam, and a Cold War with Russia. There were race riots in urban cities, Charles Manson was leading a murderous gang in Los Angeles and college campuses nationwide were the sites of frequent war protests.
But, on the third Sunday in July of 1969, America was united in hopes and prayers for two men in a tiny space capsule, far from home. We now know the least expensive Fitbit watch of today has hundreds of times more computing power than the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Yet, they made it and the world’s citizens collectively breathed a sigh.
Here’s a little known fact about that Sunday in July of 1969; simultaneously as our astronauts were walking on the moon’s surface, a Russian spacecraft was hurtling toward them. The Soviet craft, Luna 15, crash-landed on the moon within 500 miles of the US astronauts. Because Luna 15 was unmanned, the news of its landing never overshadowed our country’s achievement. But still, landing within 500 miles on a place 240,000 miles distant is cutting it pretty close.
The last human to leave a footprint on the moon’s surface was the late Gene Cernan who climbed into the lunar module on December 14, 1972, after having spent 22 hours exploring the moon with his fellow astronaut “Jack” Schmitt. The duo of Cernan and Schmitt traveled more than 20 miles using the four-wheeled lunar rover vehicle. Because Gene Cernan was the driver of the lunar rover, for the rest of his life he joked he held the land speed record of 11 miles per hour – on the moon.
Do many people join me in disappointment the United States never continued the momentum of our space exploration after 1972? I know enormous strides were made in space with the now defunct space shuttle program. And the International Space Station is an engineering triumph, but neither the shuttle nor the I.S.S. travels were further than earth’s orbit.
The lack of space exploration regret is even greater when you consider that Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop cross-Atlantic flight in 1927 and it was just 34 years later the US was making plans to land humans on the moon. But, in the 50 years since the first moon landing, we have never traveled further with a manned spacecraft. It seems we could have done more, traveled further and landed astronauts in other places.
The moon landing challenge laid out by President Kennedy survived not only his death but two other presidential administrations, Johnson and Nixon; neither of whom made any effort to end the space exploration program. Earlier this year President Trump gave NASA the directive of returning astronauts to the moon by 2024 and supposedly Mars soon after. The only problem is the current administration’s budget proposal cut NASA’s space programs by 17%.
Perhaps Russia will announce intentions to put cosmonauts on Mars which might get the space race started again. If it does, it will most likely be a private entity pushing the launch button and the astronauts probably won’t be wearing US flags, but a company logo.