Saturday, July 23, 2016

204: To the Moon

This week marked the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to ever set foot on the moon. Armstrong's famous words will forever etched in history: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

If you think about it, the moon landing was a tremendous feat of science and engineering. The distance between the earth and the moon is 384,400 kilometers. To travel that equivalent distance, you'd have to circle the earth ten times. As I've learned recently, another way of looking at it is that you could fit all the planets of the solar system side by side in that gap.

Apollo 11 wasn't the first manned mission to reach the moon. Three other circumlunar missions preceded it -- Apollo 8, 9, and 10 -- as rehearsals for various aspects of the actual landing. We have to hand it to these pioneers for whom the word "courage" truly applies. The trip from the earth to the moon takes roughly three days, and another three days coming back. There are no rest stops along the way, no place to park should something go wrong. The round trip was powered by chemistry and gravity, guided by physics and math.

Some other details of note from this mission:

  • The landing site for the mission was the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong and Aldrin stayed a total of 21 hours on the lunar surface.

  • Officially the landing module was named Eagle (hence, another famous catchphrase: "The Eagle has landed.") The command module orbiting the moon, piloted by Michael Collins, was named Columbia. Originally, the crew wanted to name them Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

  • "The most historic phone call ever made from the White House" was how then President Richard Nixon described his conversation with Neil Armstrong.

  • The astronauts unveiled a plaque on the ladder of the Eagle. It read: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

  • Two and a half hours after landing, before their moon walk, Buzz Aldrin privately took communion. He had a specially prepared communion wafer and communion wine. Recalling this event, Aldrin later said: "It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements."

Apollo 11 effectively ended the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, space became another proxy for competition, one meant to showcase not only scientific advancements but also military capabilities. The dream was started by John F. Kennedy, who promised in 1961: "Before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Kennedy never saw this dream come true as he was felled by an assassin's bullet in 1963.