Today is the 40th anniversary of what remains the greatest single technological feat that mankind has ever achieved. It was forty years ago today that American astronaut Neil Armstrong took that first step on to the surface of the moon, and uttered the iconic words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Armstrong had become the first human being to ever set foot on another world outside of the earth.
On July 20th, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 orbited the moon, after having left behind their home planet Earth just four days earlier. They were on the verge of the most spectacular achievement in man’s history. Since our creation, man has looked up at the glowing disc in the night sky and dreamed.
At first those dreams involved the nature and the meaning of the object. Then the moon became an object of study, particularly as to it’s relationship to Earth. Finally, it had become a destination.
Now, here were three Americans: Neil Armstrong, Ed ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, and Michael Collins, actually flying above that moon and preparing to land on it. Collins would draw the role of staying behind in order to pilot the command module ‘Columbia’, while Armstrong and Aldrin would actually descend in the ‘Eagle’ landing module to the moon’s surface. They had the full resources of NASA, the National Aeronauticas and Space Administration, behind them, but they were very much on their own in so many ways.
The process to reach that point had been ongoing for decades. It began with the creation of rockets, and moved onward as those rockets were made larger and more powerful, capable of traveling further and further. Finally, man developed the technologies and the courage to enter outer space, that vast area outside of the protective atmosphere of the only planet we had ever known intimately.
President John F. Kennedy, slain by an assassin’s bullet almost six years earlier, had set the ball in motion when on May 25th, 1961 he uttered the great challenge: “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.” Six months later, I was born.
Two and a half years later, Kennedy would lie dead. But his vision and goal of landing on the moon would become the passion of thousands.
I remember well the excitement leading up to the moon landing. I was just 7 years old in that summer of 1969, and far too young to understand most of the incredible changes that were happening to our country in those days. The inner city race riots as the Civil Rights movement marched forward, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam War. These things meant nothing to me at that age. But the moon landing, this was huge to the imagination of a young boy.
My parents allowed my brother Mike, who had just turned 6, and myself to stay awake past our usual bed times on that Sunday night to watch this historic event. I recall sitting mesmerized at the entire proceeding as it unfolded on the black and white television picture in our living room on American Street in South Philadelphia. There was a lot of language that was over my head, but I was getting the idea.
At a few minutes before 11:00pm our time, Armstrong took that final step down the ladder from the Eagle and spoke those words. And I joined over 600 million people around the world in viewing grainy black and white pictures of the exact moment that a man stepped on to another world, out on to that glowing night disc that we still look up at each night. We had fulfilled President Kennedy’s great goal with a little more than five months to spare.
I remember following as much of the mission as I possibly could in the following weeks on both television and in the newspapers, culminating in the dramatic return home of the astronauts that was capped by their capsule splashing down into the Pacific Ocean on July 24th.
Over the next few years, following subsequent Apollo moon missions was something that I always anticipated with excitement and thoroughly enjoyed. There were five more after Apollo 11, all of which took groups of men to the moon and back, over the next three years. On December 14th, 1972, the Commander of Apollo 17, Eugene Cernan, lifted his foot off the surface of the moon. No human being has stepped foot on any celestial object in the ensuing 37 years.
I still to this day remember the excitement, the thrill, the wonder of those days in the summer of 1969, as I stood outside and looked up at the moon as billions of men, women and children had for mellenia before me done, and was able for the first time to know that other men were up there walking around, working, talking, living.
I hope that sometime before my time on the Earth is up, that I again get to see men travel to another world. There are already missions being planned for man to return to the moon in the next decade, and then in the early planning stages for a possible trip to the planet Mars within 2-3 decades. Those would be missions of wonder for my children and grandchildren to share.
May God bless mankind with the courage, the wisdom, the vision, the ability, the resources, the technology, and the determination to continue to reach out beyond our world, and to explore the vast greatness and the majestic wonders that He has created. As a wonderful, old television show of those Apollo days said: “To boldly go where no man has gone before!”