Forty years ago, just after 11:00 P.M. Eastern Time, the hatch of the lunar module Eagle swung open and a 38-year-old man from Ohio named Neil Armstrong backed on his hands and knees out onto a narrow metal shelf which he and his fellow astronauts referred to as “the porch.” With his crewmate Buzz Aldrin, a 39-year-old native of New Jersey, looking on from the cockpit to guide him, Armstrong eased himself off the porch onto a ladder that extended down one of the legs of his arachnoid spacecraft. He climbed to the bottom and stood on the landing pad. He practiced jumping back up to the bottom step of the ladder, to make sure he could return to the relative safety of the Eagle when he had to, then radioed to Mission Control, located a quarter of a million miles away in Houston, Texas, that he was about to step off the LM.
“That’s one small step for a man,” he said after that first step off the landing pad and into the lunar soil had been taken, “one giant leap for mankind.”
Not long after, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface. “Magnificent desolation,” he said as he looked around him.
“Isn’t that something?” said Armstrong.
These were the first two human beings to walk on the Moon. They, along with their crewmate Michael Collins, a 38-year-old American army brat born in Rome, Italy, who had remained in lunar orbit aboard the command module Columbia, had accomplished something humans from all parts of the Earth had dreamt about for untold generations, something toward which hundreds of thousands of men and women had worked tirelessly for the last decade, something even they (as the crew candidly admitted years later) occasionally feared might be impossible.
When President John Kennedy told the United States Congress “I believe 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 the Earth,” the U.S. had not yet placed a man in Earth orbit. It had only been six weeks since Yuri Gagarin’s historic first manned spaceflight. Of the celebrated Original Seven astronauts of Project Mercury, only one, Alan Shepard, had flown, and only for a 15-minute sub-orbital flight. But it was the height of the Cold War, and since it was widely believed that the Soviets had the Moon as the ultimate goal of their space program, the Americans were determined to get there first. Even Kennedy, a man people like me love to romanticize as the visionary who inspired the glorious achievements of Apollo, saw the space program in purely political terms, admitting privately to NASA officials that he would have considered a Moon landing a waste of time and money were it not for the imperative imposed by the Cold War.
NASA in the early 1960s lagged behind the Soviet program in nearly every conceivable category. But thanks to advantages in funding and manpower, and the enthusiastic support of most of the western world, they soon caught and surpassed their Russian rivals. Decades later, following the fall of the Soviet government, we learned that the race had been far more lopsided than previously thought. Despite an active rocket program, the Soviets never got anywhere close to the Moon. (Their equivalent to NASA’s Saturn V, the N-1, never flew successfully, and one N-1 exploded on the launch pad in the days leading up to Apollo 11.) Luckily no one in the west knew that back then, and the Americans sprinted to the finish five months ahead of Kennedy’s deadline.
When I was in tenth grade a teacher asked my class an intriguing question: If you could choose to live in any era of history, in which era would you choose to live? At the time I said I would choose to live in this era, right now. If I’m interested in what we have already done, I can visit a library, I reasoned. But if I live right now, on the leading edge of history, I get to see a tiny fragment of what we will do. That seemed so much more exciting to me than choosing to live in the past. But now that I’ve had about twelve years to think about it, I have a slight revision. I might be willing to sacrifice 40 years of watching new history being made if I could travel back to that day in the middle of July, 1969, and be among that immeasurable throng of humanity gathered in south Florida to watch a rocket the size of the Statue of Liberty shake the Earth and take to the sky, carrying the crew of Apollo 11 on their way to the Moon. I get choked up by the archival footage, or watching the Apollo 11 episode of From the Earth to the Moon — seeing it that day, watching it unfold as it happened, must have been something.
Ralph Abernathy, civil rights leader and Baptist minister, experienced something of a conversion after witnessing the launch that day. Abernathy had arrived at Cape Canaveral flanked by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he had co-founded with Martin Luther King Jr. and led since King’s murder the previous year, to protest the Moon mission. The money it cost to fund Apollo would be better spent helping the poor here on Earth, he argued. NASA administrator Tom Paine admitted Abernathy and a few members of his group to a restricted guest area, where they witnessed the launch while shouting protest chants. Years later Abernathy confessed that, despite his opposition to the very expensive space program, he was moved by the sight of the great rocket climbing into the heavens: “There was no prouder American than I that day.”
Even though I missed the first manned moon landing by eleven years, it has affected my life in subtle and profound ways. I’ve been fascinated by astronomy, by the universe and our tentative exploration of our little corner of it, for as long as I can remember. My Mom got me books about the planets when I was a child, filled with color photographs of Saturn and Jupiter taken by the Voyager probes. I had VHS tapes of NASA-produced documentaries on Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. I had a telescope through which I observed the Moon religiously for years into my adolescence. Sometimes I imagined I could see the descent stages of the Apollo lunar modules still sitting up there, perfectly preserved on the airless lunar surface. My Dad had an old boy scout tent, and in the summer I’d camp out in my back yard. Sometimes I pretended my tent was a lunar module (it was actually a lot roomier inside than the real thing), and that I had landed on another planet and was about to take the first human steps on a strange new world.
The local planetarium had a full-scale replica of an Apollo command module on display in its back courtyard. Many Tuesdays during the school year Mom and I would visit to see the new programs, and as we walked back to the car afterwards I’d slow down and stare at the replica spacecraft in utter amazement. It was so small. Once on a school field trip our tour guide let us go right up to it. A girl in my class, knowing of my interest, walked up next to me as I was standing on my toes to see through a window and said, “I bet you could fly this thing.”
“I bet I could, too,” I told her. Like probably billions of other children born in the last fifty-odd years, I once held out hope of becoming an astronaut in real life one day — until eventually I realized, a little bitterly, that I wasn’t nearly smart enough.
All I had were childhood fantasies. But there was at least a tiny thread connecting my fantasies to reality. Children have dreamed about walking on the Moon for as long as there have been children, but thanks to Apollo, children of my generation knew what the Moon actually looked like. I wasn’t pretending to hack my way through dense lunar forests, or exploring craters in a giant ball of Swiss cheese. I had a picture in my head of the real thing, and that picture didn’t limit my imagination — it set it on fire. That’s what Apollo 11 and the missions that followed it gave to my childhood: the feeling — no, the certainty that the Moon was something real, a place where men had walked, a place I might actually go.
Landing on the Moon was the greatest human achievement. I’m not even sure what to rank second; all the other feats usually mentioned alongside Apollo shrink in comparison. Charles Lindbergh flying solo over the Atlantic in 1927 was certainly a monumental event, but next to flying to the Moon it seems more like an interesting footnote. Francis Drake sailed around the world in the 16th century — again, a milestone in human history, and again vastly overshadowed by the Apollo missions. Name your accomplishment — the Wright brothers’ first flight, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Mount Everest, Matthew Webb swimming the English Channel, the crews of the Chicago, Boston and New Orleans completing the first aerial circumnavigation of the Earth — they all fade to insignificance compared to landing and walking on the Moon.
Besides the enormity of the feat itself, let me also note that those other great accomplishments were achieved by individuals or small teams of people, while the manned moon program was much more of a group effort. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and every other astronaut who traveled to the Moon deserve to have their names and deeds remembered for as long as there are people to remember them, but it took a lot of people standing on the shoulders of a lot of other people to get them up there. In total the Apollo program, and the Mercury and Gemini programs that paved its way, took the genius and perseverance and hard work of half a million people — scientists, engineers, physicians, factory workers, administrators, politicians, and astronauts, to name only a few. Some worked for NASA, many others were independent contractors hired to design and build, and in many cases to invent from scratch the machines that made the lunar missions possible. Most were Americans, but the men who designed the rockets the astronauts rode into space were German, many of them (including Wernher von Braun, mastermind of virtually the entire American space program) former Nazis.
And decades, centuries before those men and women (though mostly men, a sad byproduct of the sexism of the times) did the practical work, others had laid the foundation. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein conceived the formulae that allow us to understand and predict the force of gravity. Galileo Galilei observed the Moon through a telescope and was the first to detect the presence of mountains and craters on its surface. Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion, and wrote perhaps the first science fiction story, Somnium, in which the hero dreams himself from the Earth to the Moon. Jules Verne wrote the novel De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), which depicts three men being shot to the Moon from a massive cannon, riding in a giant bullet called the Columbiad. Fritz Lang made the silent film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), depicting a group of explorers reaching the Moon by means of a multi-stage rocket. Robert Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Hermann Oberth, who between them invented modern rocketry, had all been inspired by Verne’s novel as children, and Oberth had been Lang’s technical advisor on Frau, a film which was also a favorite of Wernher von Braun’s. Landing on the Moon was not just the achievement of one man, or three men, or any group of men, or any nation — it was an achievement of ours, of the species itself.
Look at almost any of the countless famous photographs of an Apollo astronaut on the lunar surface. What do you see? You see a human being: a torso atop two legs, ten fingers on two hands at the end of two arms, a head — but no face. No skin color. No sex. No age. We know that extraordinary image to the right is of a particular human being named Buzz Aldrin, but look — if not for a tiny name tag, he could be anyone; if not for a patch on his left arm, he could have come from anywhere. Who went to the Moon? We did.
Seven years before Armstrong and Aldrin touched down at the Sea of Tranquility, President Kennedy delivered one of his most remembered speeches to a crowd at Rice University in Houston, the city that would shortly become home to NASA Mission Control. There is an often quoted passage of the speech where Kennedy says to his cheering audience,
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Beautifully written, passionately delivered — it’s only right that we quote these words, especially when we think of the space program. But it’s just as important, maybe even more so, to remember and take to heart what Kennedy had just said moments before:
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. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
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 may never come again.
The Apollo missions called on our best and noblest qualities — intelligence, ingenuity, determination, courage — and found a way to put some of our least desirable ones — nationalism, politics — to productive use. Together, they were the last — perhaps the only — truly great thing we have done. And that day forty years ago, when Neil Armstrong pressed the first human footprint into the soil of another world, while 250,000 miles away a few billion of his brothers and sisters looked on, was our species’ finest hour.