EDIT: When I wrote this this morning, I hadn’t heard about the Aurora shooting, so the first paragraph seems a bit callous and the rest seems oddly appropriate in places. That being said, I cannot express my sorrow for those affected by this terrible tragedy and I hope the dreams that I talk about in this post lead to a better, brighter future characterized by wonder and learning and not by grief and violence.
“This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” – Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin
Today I have no rage, nor am I depressed about the state of the world or affairs I have very little control over. I am not sick, nor upset, nor righteously livid. And that’s because today is special.
43 years ago today, we first landed on the moon.
Arguably the greatest achievement of the human race, the moon landing is more than just a milestone in history. It’s the place where science, faith, politics, and nationalism joined together and left the quiet peace of an untouched surface, “magnificent desolation,” in their place.
Everything about and leading up to the Apollo 11 mission was tense. This was an undertaking unlike any we had ever tried before, the culmination of a tradition of exploration and discovery that reached back to our earliest records. Not content to stay put — human beings could and can never be anything but restless sitting alone on one tiny rock in a universe so very vast — we set goals in 1961 to stretch beyond anything we’d accomplished thus far, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
The vehicle itself was launched from Launching Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on July 16th, 1969 on a Saturn V rocket and spent three days traveling toward our nearest celestial neighbor. They were going to try and win the Space Race, but also to collect scientific data, bring back samples, set up recording equipment, and generally accomplish whatever they could to increase our knowledge of what it’s like there. I wonder if Armstrong or Aldrin thought they might, within their lifetime, be returning, maybe for good. If I were there, I couldn’t stop myself from scoping out real estate, wondering where I would build my lunar home.
Some interesting factoids about the mission:
1. The mission insignia was designed by pilot Michael Collins. He wanted a symbol for “peaceful lunar landing by the United States.” In fact, so dedicated to making this a mission of peace and discovery were the people at NASA, the original design was altered because Collins had the eagle with talons bared and carrying an olive brand in its beak. The branch was moved to the talons so they would be closed. Also, none of the names of the crew were on the patch so it would signify the work of everyone who made this happen.
2. The backup crew was headed by Jim Lovell and would have been seconded by Fred Haise, both of Apollo XIII fame. It was Lovell who suggested naming the Lunar Module “Eagle” based on the insignia, a name we all know from the famous “the Eagle has landed” quote.
3. The Command Module, the part that returned to Earth, was named “Columbia,” after the “Columbiad” in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.
When Neil Armstrong announced that the Eagle had landed, Capsule Commander Charles Dukes replied, “Roger, Twank…Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!” And who can blame them? There were several complications during landing and for a while mission control was worried that Armstrong and Aldrin were lost. I cannot stress enough that this was something unlike anything we had ever even attempted before. The distance between the last point we had sent a manned mission and this was, literally, astronomical, like starting a cross-country drive minutes after first learning to back the car out of a parking space.
They actually landed at 20:18 UTC on July 20th, but didn’t exit the LM until 2:58 UTC the next day. The intervening hours were spent setting up equipment and preparing to open the door. There are times when I wonder what they were thinking, how it felt to know they were about to be the first human beings to set foot on the dominant object in our night sky. They were the first people to look up and see our planet, not the other way around.
In all they spent 21.5 hours on the moon, 2.5 of them outside. I love watching video of Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around. It’s so childlike, so joyful, so full of life. They’re two of only twelve men who have ever gotten to do that, to say that of all the days of their lives, almost one entire one was spent on another world.
Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We quote that and repeat it, we listen to the audio recording, but have you ever really thought about what it means? He was one man, a brilliant but simple man, humble and unpretentious, but he was also just the first to do this. He saw his landing not as an isolated incident, but part of a cycle of discovery that began with our ancestors in pre-historical Africa and stretching out infinitely beyond. Some day we’ll speak of the first lunar settlers and their bravery, and they’ll tell stories of the first human beings on Mars.
The men of Apollo 11, and all of the men and women of our space program, are heroes. They are willing, for the sake of learning and expanding, to dedicate and risk their lives toward striking out into the vast emptiness that surrounds us. Some are still unqualified badasses in more conventional ways.
They are the best humanity has to offer, so today I don’t feel pain or loss, I don’t feel despair nor can I summon my ire to direct at those who greatly deserve it. All I can do is dream of other worlds and be overcome with wonder at our marvelous universe and the glory of the first faltering steps away from our minuscule planet.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own…There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.” – President John F. Kennedy