(The audio version of this essay can be found here.)
There is a lot going lately that further illustrates the ongoing decline and fall of our nation. However, I would like to put that aside briefly and instead discuss a moment in time when our nation reached the summit of all human experience, a moment that will forever define the history of our country and of our civilization.
Fifty years ago, a Saturn V rocket lifted off from the coast of Florida with three brave men strapped inside a tiny capsule. Destination: The Sea of Tranquility, on the surface of the moon. Four days later, two of these men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would become the first humans to set foot on another world. The third, Michael Collins, would become the loneliest man in history as he orbited the moon in the command module, more isolated than any human had ever been before. In an interview for the fiftieth anniversary of the launch, Collins was asked yet again what it was like being so alone. He answered, “I had coffee, I had music… I enjoyed the time.”
This feat was neither impossible, like conspiracy theorists like to claim, nor easy, as it must sometimes seem in retrospect. The first moon landing was the result of more than a decade of hard work and preparation by astronauts and engineers. Yet it was more than just the end of the space race. The moon landing was, in many ways, the culmination of every achievement in human history. For thousands of years, mankind had looked up at the moon in the sky and wondered. For all human history, the moon has been there, a constant presence, its regular phases guiding us as we marked time through untold eons. Its influence was felt even in the tides that defined life next to the ocean, and whose predictability were necessary for sea travel.
By the late 19th century, technology spurred by the industrial revolution had reached a point that people were seriously talking about someday reaching the moon. Authors such as HG Wells and Jules Verne wrote fantastic stories about daring voyages to the moon. The advent of rocketry by such pioneers as the American Robert Goddard, the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the German Werner von Braun brought the idea of a moon landing a little closer to reality. World War II put that thought on hold for a while, as technology was diverted from adventure and scientific research to weapons of war. Von Braun, notably, was made to build rockets that could carry warheads to London rather than the moon, but after the war he was recruited by the United States. Early American rocketry was ostensibly for weaponry as well, but von Braun and others saw the potential in these rockets for interplanetary spaceflight.
On October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. It orbited the earth while emitting a radio signal that even hobbyists in their brand-new suburban garages could pick up. For humanity, this was a watershed moment, as we had for the first time crafted a machine that left the atmosphere and circled the planet. For the United States, this was terrifying. The evil Soviet empire had proven they could launch a machine that could travel to any point over the entire world, out of range of American defenses. If they could launch a satellite, why not a nuclear bomb? President Eisenhower’s administration acted quickly to close the perceived “missile gap”, expanding the budget of military and government rocket arms and pushing young men and women to go into scientific research after high school. NASA was created at this time, and Project Mercury was formed with seven test pilots chosen to prepare to be the first men to fly into space aboard the Mercury-Redstone rockets. The Space Race was on!
The United States was embarrassed again, however, as it was a Russian and not an American who was the first to leave the surly bonds of earth. While Project Mercury suffered setbacks, Russia again made history by sending cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the earth on April 12, 1961. Russia had previously sent the first animal to space when Laika the dog went up in Sputnik 2. To the layman, it appeared that the United States was falling hopelessly behind. President Kennedy, recently elected to succeed Eisenhower, pledged to do whatever it took to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in outer space aboard Freedom 7. Early in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth aboard Friendship 7.
In all, six of the Mercury 7 astronauts flew in space. Deke Slayton ended up grounded by an irregular heartbeat but would eventually make it to orbit in 1975 on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint mission with the Soviet Union during a period of detente. The United States would be beaten to one more milestone when Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space on March 18, 1965. The next four years, however, were all American victories. Russia’s space program stalled after the death of lead engineer Sergei Korolev in 1966. Meanwhile, NASA was working on perfecting the tools and skills needed to attempt a moon landing. Buzz Aldrin, one of the astronauts who had been recruited by NASA for the Gemini missions, had written his doctoral thesis on orbital rendezvous, a skill which would prove important en route to the moon. The first successful rendezvous occurred when astronaut Wally Schirra maneuvered his Gemini 6 capsule to within one foot of Gemini 7 in December of 1965. A few months later, Neil Armstrong docked Gemini 8 with an unmanned NASA capsule, but a thruster malfunction forced him to abort the mission. His quick thinking and courage during the emergency likely saved his life along with the other astronaut on board, David Scott.
While Alexei Leonov had been the first man to walk in space, and American astronaut Ed White had also done so, it was not until November of 1966 that a spacewalk was successfully concluded without issue. Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell flew the final mission of Project Gemini, Gemini 12. Lovell made a perfect docking maneuver with an unmanned vehicle while Aldrin spent three hours outside the capsule. After the issues faced by Ed White in the first American spacewalk, it had been Aldrin himself who came up with the idea of practicing underwater. Project Gemini had given NASA the experience needed to take the next step on the road to the moon: Project Apollo. The Apollo capsule would feature three astronauts, with one staying behind in the command module while two went down in the Lunar Excursion Module to land on the moon and then return, dock with the command module, and come back to earth. The first planned flight, however, ended in tragedy.
On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 were practicing for their launch, scheduled for the following month. The mission was commanded by Gus Grissom, a veteran of both Project Mercury and Project Gemini, who would probably have been the first man on the moon if not for what happened. With him were Ed White, the first American to walk in space, and Roger Chafee, a rookie astronaut. During this practice run, however, something went horribly wrong. A wire somewhere sparked, and in the pressurized pure oxygen atmosphere of the capsule it turned into an inferno in mere seconds. The doors could not open against the high pressure and the three astronauts were asphyxiated in the hellish flames in moments.
Ironically, the issue with the doors was due to a previous accident that involved Gus Grissom. On the second flight of Project Mercury, Liberty Bell 7, the door had been explosively opened early after splashdown, causing the craft to sink to the ocean floor. Grissom was initially accused of accidentally hitting the button too early, a charge that he always denied. Engineers for the Apollo capsule had tried to fix the issue by removing the explosive bolts. Without them, though, the mechanically operated door was impossible to open against the high pressure of the inferno.
The Apollo 1 accident shocked NASA and the nation. Project Apollo was grounded for a year while engineers went over every part of the capsule to make sure the accident could never happen again. Hearings were held in Congress. NASA had essentially admitted that they rushed parts of the program to meet the late President Kennedy’s deadline. Now that they had taken a year to fix the problems caused by this rush, would they still make it to the moon before 1970? It was not until October of 1968 that a manned Apollo mission finally took place. Apollo 7, as it was known, was a test flight of the new Apollo command module. Its crew was commanded by Wally Schirra along with Don Eisele and Walter Cunningham. Their successful mission restored America’s faith in Project Apollo.
In December of 1968, Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell became the first men to leave low earth orbit. For the first time, men experienced firsthand the power of Werner von Braun’s mighty Saturn V rocket, whose size and power were necessary to apply the thrust needed to reach the moon. Apollo 8 orbited the moon at Christmastime, and the three men made a live broadcast back to earth that is remembered as one of the most emotional moments in human history. They each took turns reading from the book of Genesis, describing God’s creation of the earth, and closed with “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.” In a year that had seen riots, political assassinations, and seemingly endless war and death, the flight of Apollo 8 had brought hope to humanity. The astronauts became the first humans to look upon the entire globe of earth at once, and the pictures they took reminded people down here that we were all together on this planet.
The next two Apollo missions continued testing the things that would be needed for a moon landing. Apollo 9 stayed in low earth orbit and Rusty Schweickart piloted the lunar module a hundred miles away from the command module before returning and docking once more. A few weeks later, Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan took Apollo 10 to low moon orbit, just a few dozen kilometers above the surface. It was a dress rehearsal for what would come next. On July 16, 1969, veteran astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins lifted off in Apollo 11, bound for the surface of the moon.
Once in lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed aboard the lunar module, named Eagle, leaving Collins behind in the command module, Columbia. Armstrong piloted the LEM down to the surface of the moon, taking manual control from the computer when it appeared the autopilot was going to put them down in a crater full of boulders. There were only mere seconds left of fuel when he touched down, any more time and they would have had to abort. But Armstrong, the veteran test pilot and astronaut who calmly saved Gemini 8, was cool and collected. Mission Control, on the other hand, was full of breathless people. Yet from the moon came the voice of Armstrong: “Tranquility Base here: The Eagle has landed.”
No matter what achievements mankind has yet to accomplish, we may never again reach the heights we did on July 20, 1969, fifty years ago. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, backed by countless men and women involved in the project, accomplished the dream of mankind since the first days of consciousness. We conquered space and put our flag, the American flag, on the surface of the moon. Since then we have accomplished many things – mobile phones, the internet, robots vacuuming our floors, and more. Yet what can compare to a human being setting foot on another world for the first time? Today we have robots on the surface of Mars, as well as on comets and asteroids. We sent a satellite that flew by Pluto, and the Voyager probes have left the solar system. Yet the moon landing stands alone as the peak of all human accomplishment. A human stepping foot on Mars someday will be historical and amazing, for sure, but it will merely be an echo of Armstrong’s famous steps from the LEM to the surface of the moon.
In the space of two generations, mankind had created the first airplane, crossed the oceans in it, created the first rocket, and then set foot upon the moon. Someone born in 1870 would have grown up in a world without cars, electricity, phones, radio, or television, only to see all those things and more, culminating in the moon landing, before turning 100. Since then, however, our airplanes have not grown any faster and humans have not gone further than Armstrong did – in fact, no human has set foot on the moon since Project Apollo ended in 1972. A thousand years from now humanity will look back on the events of July 1969 as the peak of human history. While our gadgets might be better today, our civilization has surely declined. We won the Space Race but lost much of our culture. For now, however, we need not dwell on what we have lost. Let us instead remember the achievements of that great generation of Americans who won the world war and conquered outer space. Remember the difficulties they faced and the tragedy they endured. Honor their bold and daring spirits.
I could talk for hours about the heroes of America’s Space Age… of Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, whose inner ear problem grounded him until he commanded Apollo 14 ten years later, and he became the only one of the Mercury 7 to walk on the moon. He even brought his golf club, hitting a ball for miles and miles. Or of David Scott, Armstrong’s copilot on Gemini 8, who finally put to rest a theory that had vexed physicists since the time of Galileo when he dropped a hammer and a feather at the same time in the vacuum of the moon. Or of John Young, who smuggled a corned beef sandwich onboard Gemini 3, later drove the moon rover, and finally piloted Space Shuttle Columbia on her maiden flight. That is not to mention the countless men and women of mission control and the Manned Space Center who worked tirelessly to fulfill President Kennedy’s charge to send men to the moon and bring them back again safely.
It is in our nature to explore our world. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola, the first European since the Vikings to visit the New World. In the sand of that island he planted the flag of Spain, who had financed his adventure. But of course, there were already native people, other human beings, living in the New World. When Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon in 1969, he had truly gone where no man had ever gone before.
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