“The Eagle has landed!”
Those words spoken by astronaut Neil Armstrong from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, marked a historic event that sent American pride soaring and fascinated the entire world via live television. It was an unforgettable moment for a generation that now looks for our country to achieve new milestones in space.
Millions around the world shared that moment and the following hours spent on the moon by Armstrong, the Apollo 11 flight commander, and Buzz Aldrin, pilot of the Eagle, the lunar module. On live television, Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface with these few words that caught the history of it all: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
While Armstrong and Aldrin set up Old Glory and collected samples of materials from the moon’s powdery surface, the command module Columbia piloted by the third astronaut, Michael Collins, orbited the moon before linking up with the lunar lander for the return to Earth. Incredibly, the entire mission was a spectacular success from liftoff of the awesome Saturn V rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to splashdown of the Columbia in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.
It was a stunning achievement for America’s space program that was made possible by game-changing technology developed by NASA scientists – especially the integrated circuit, forerunner of the microchip that has revolutionized electronics. Even freeze-dried foods for military field rations and liquid-cooled garments for firefighters are benefits from the space program.
The challenge that led to all this was set forth by President John F. Kennedy in a 1961 speech after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter outer space by orbiting the Earth one time in his Vostok capsule in April, 1961, capping numerous unmanned satellite launches by the Soviet Union in the space race between the Soviets and our country. All these successes alarmed many Americans and prompted Kennedy to famously declare: “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 Earth.”
NASA accepted the challenge and the result was the lunar landing by Apollo 11 that gave America undisputed leadership in space. Since then, there have been no less than six more manned landings on the moon by this country, the last in 1972, and numerous unmanned landings from 1976 to 2013. China became the third country to make an unmanned landing in December 2013.
Where do we go from here in space?
The Trump administration has said it plans to return men to the moon by 2024 as the first step toward sending astronauts to Mars by 2033. The president, however, seemed to dash cold water on the idea later when he tweeted, “NASA should not be talking about going to the moon. We did that 50 years ago.” He said instead the focus should be on “much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!” NASA followed up by saying it will indeed use the moon as a first stage to send humans to Mars. Trump has requested an additional $1.6 billion in the fiscal 2020 budget to accelerate the moon mission.
Meanwhile, private companies under contract with NASA are supposed to send astronauts to the International Space Station, replacing the U.S. space shuttle program after it was ended in 2011. Since then, NASA has depended on Russian rockets to carry the astronauts to the space station, a situation that does nothing to bolster America’s standing in today’s space race. On that score, there is a school of thought that unmanned exploration is more efficient and far less expensive as demonstrated by deep space missions already accomplished by the United States.
Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 established America as the leader in space exploration. This is no time to allow other nations to displace us. There is far more at stake than footprints on the moon, ranging from new commercial enterprises to military defense. America must maintain leadership in space for all the right reasons.
On to the moon, to Mars — and other frontiers unknown!