Monday, July 20, 2009

40th Anniversary of First Moon Landing

Today is the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the first time in history that such a landing, with a human crew, was achieved. I wasn't yet born at the time, and I expect that the same can be said for most of my readers. I've grown up knowing that the landing had taken place through textbooks, and from accounts of family members who had watched the news coverage of the event at the time, but I have no direct understanding of the technical quantum leaps that must have taken place to make such an event possible.

When President John F. Kennedy famously committed to have an American on the moon "before this decade is out" in 1961, it was in the middle of the "Cold War," and the Soviet Union, having successfully put Yuri Gagarin in orbit about a month-and-a-half previously, was "beating" the United States in the "Space Race." The U.S. had put Alan Shepard into orbit just earlier that same month, but Kennedy was pushing for America to go from just having one of its citizens in space at all to a full-fledged human moonwalk in less than nine years! I find this concept mind-boggling. Surely this was asking for more than could be accomplished. These days, we rather expect politicians to promise things that cannot be delivered upon, and although we are often disappointed, we are hardly surprised by these failed promises anymore. Yet, in the case of the moon landing, we actually did it!

Amazingly, the Apollo program (and thus, every one of the manned moon landings to date) was completed just over three years later. The most recent moonwalk was Apollo 17 in December 1972. I wasn't born until 1974, and so I've lived my whole life with the idea of walking on the moon as something that has been accomplished, yet with the entirety of that accomplishment firmly in the past. It's not like the space program hasn't done anything in the years since. Indeed, we owe so much of the technology that we take for granted today, from cell phones to Velcro, to the continuing success of the space program. Still, I feel that our generation may have lost a bit of the sense of wonder that my parents' generation had at being able to witness the exploration of another world. NASA's working on that, with another moon mission tentatively scheduled, but even that's not until 2019. And, of course, the intention is indeed to move to Mars and beyond from there.

Of course, there's still some time for the "older generation" to share some of what it was like to live in those days. I find it remarkable that, 40 years later, all three of the astronauts that took part in the Apollo 11 mission (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins) are still alive. Since all three are now in their late 70s, I rather doubt that all three will make it to the 50th anniversary, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Either way, I'm glad that they, and others who remember the "Space Race," are still around to share their memories of that time with us.

All images used in this blog entry are from the Apollo 11 mission, and were taken by NASA. NASA images are not copyrighted.

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