When Ralph Kramden threatened, “To the moon, Alice,” it was for comedic effect. When President John F. Kennedy told the Congress on May 25, 1961, “I believe that 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,” it was a promise. When Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon and said, “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” it was the culmination of an audacious dream. Now, that dream is being revived.
It was in a Sept. 12, 1962, speech at Rice University that President Kennedy said, “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.”
Kennedy’s speech at Rice came less than seven months after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, circling it three times in Friendship 7, and the moon seemed so very far away. The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in 1962 — and the U.S. was playing catch-up.
On Oct. 4, 1957, he Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite into earth orbit. It sent the first man into space when Yuri Gagarin blasted off on April 12, 1961, and the first woman when Valentina Tereshova lifted off on June 16, 1963.
The U.S. followed with similar achievements, but still was behind the Soviets. But not for long. As the space race heated up, the United States steadily pulled ahead. Fifty years ago this coming Tuesday, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins set out for the moon — and the world held its breath. No matter where you lived, this was one of the most momentous events in the history of the world, and everyone watched and held their breath.
Four days later, on July 20, the lunar module Eagle touched down on the surface of the moon. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” mission commander Armstrong reported to mission control in Houston. People around the world cheered in joy at the safe landing.
Almost seven hours later, Armstrong stepped out of the spacecraft and into history — and the world wept. Aldrin soon followed and the two astronauts set out to explore and collect samples to take back to Earth. Aldrin called the landscape as “magnificent desolation.” The two men spent two and a half hours exploring the moon’s surface and gathering more than 47 pounds of rocks for the return to Earth. After a little more than 21 and a half hours on the moon’s surface, the two astronauts lifted off to rejoin Collins in he Columbia command module to begin the return to Earth.
After more than eight days in space, the three astronauts safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean — and the world could breathe again.
In the following 41 months, 10 more Americans walked the surface of the moon. Since December 1972, no human has returned to the lunar surface.
That may be about to change as NASA — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — once again is talking about returning to the moon, possibly as a jumping off place for a manned mission to Mars.
The space race has brought many scientific advances and modifications, including portable computers, the computer mouse, the insulin pump, LASIK eye surgery, solar cells, wireless headsets, freeze-dried foods, CAT scans and so many more. Who knows what advances will come from a renewed interest in space?
In the 50 years since Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the lunar surface, despite some tragedies, interest in space has waned. Many people today were born years after the excitement of the moon landing had faded.
As we continue to explore the far reaches of space with unmanned missions, it is time to take the next step and send humans once again into deep space.
As we go forward — and we sure could use a visionary presidential declaration of a new goal — let’s remember Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins who, 50 years ago this week, carried humankind on a glorious adventure. And remember, also, the thousands on designers, contractors and mission specialists who made the first lunar excursion possible.