Never to be forgotten in history is the date July 20, 1969. In fact, it should be a U.S. holiday as at no other time in history has so much been accomplished during so little time.
That’s the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent a day at Tranquility Base on the Moon, the first moonwalkers keeping their focus on years of training despite the emotions of fulfilling the greatest human adventure. The two Americans spent two and a half hours outside their moon ship named Eagle. They went about their work of setting up a few simple experiments, grabbing 47 pounds of the alien rocks and soil by the handful and taking photos. Their crewmate, Michael Collins, circled the Moon very two hours in the mothership called Columbia and was the isolated person in the history of the home planet Earth, 240,000 miles away.
The story of Apollo 11 and the mighty, three stage Saturn V rocket that flawlessly launched America to the Moon nine times is known to varying degrees by anyone who has studied or lived in the 1960s and ‘70s. From Alan Shepard’s meager 15-minute suborbital spaceflight on May 5, 1961 the moment Neil Armstrong’s boot touched the lunar dirt that hot, July Sunday evening of July 20, 1969 was a mere eight and one-half years. During that brief time, the whole world changed was changed forever.
The 21st Century still remembers the astronaut heroes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo who rocketed their spaceships off a Space Port named after the dead U.S. President who challenged America to “go to the Moon, not because it was easy, but because it is hard.” An entire nation was challenged in a toe-to-toe Moon Race battle with the perceived evil Communists in the USSR. It was a close call; The Soviets had their Moon rocket, called the N-1, fail on three unmanned tries, one time killing 50 top rocket engineers at the launch pad.
NASA, too, paid a high price of lost lives to make it to the Moon before “the end of the decade” as challenged by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Three astronauts died on a launch pad fire inside their Apollo 1capsule during a training test, two Gemini IX astronauts died when their jet crashed in a storm, and several NASA contract workers died in accidents at the renamed Kennedy Space Center one the east coast of Central Florida.
Neil, Buzz and Mike were on everybody’s minds that magical third week of July 1969. From the Saturn V launch Wednesday July 16 to the ocean landing Thursday July 25, the media news was rarified with the feeling that a change was happening in the human perspective of Earth.
Seen around the world live by an estimated 1 billion people were the ghostly, black and white television images of Neil and Buzz hopping around the lunar surface—truly a unique moment in history. Mothership Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii with 47 pounds of the Moon in a special insulated trunk and a bag full 92 undeveloped black & white and color photographs in Hasselblad camera film packs. Some of those images are now iconic tributes to mankind’s greatest adventure.
Winning the Moon Race against the USSR was a triumph shared by more than 500,000 American space workers from all 50 states. Forty-eight years later the landscape of human space exploration has changed. Since 1999 an amazing International Space Station orbits earth every 90-minutes, 250 miles high with six occupants that include our one-time Space Race foe, Russia, and 14 other spacefaring nations.
A new private industry Space Race is taking place with aerospace startup companies seizing the opportunity. The investment is in a new age of outer space services, including commercial tourism, off the retail shelf satellites and rocket ships for hire. The Summer of 2017 finds a robust Buzz Aldrin at age 87 enjoying life as a Twitter monster, promoting on social media his personal campaign to “Get Your Ass to Mars.” Mike Collins at age 86 isn’t as publicly seen as Buzz. But he has made is impact during the years after Apollo as director of the National and Space Museum, then forming his own aerospace company in Arlington, Virginia.
Neil Armstrong died in in 2012 at age 82, and the world lost one of the most famous men to be forever remembered. Religiously he said he was a deist, believing a god doesn’t interfere directly with the world. After Apollo 11 he became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati for eight years. After which he stayed humble and rather reclusive on his Ohio farm.
The name Neil Armstrong will always be known in space history and pop culture. In many ways, the civilian astronaut was the perfect man to be immortalized for taking that first step on an alien world, his spirit truly representing all mankind.