ALL ABOUT THE MAN ON THE MOON
It’s one of those events that carved a space in our collective psychology.
We know where we were on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Just like we seem to remember where we were when John Lennon was shot dead in New York.
And so, Armstrong’s death yesterday from complications after heart by-pass surgery earlier this month might actually have us all doing what his family has urged: “Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
His achievement is more than a mere life accomplishment.
There are the words that have passed into our lexicon. “The Eagle has landed”, as the lunar landing craft he and Buzz Aldrin steered to the Sea of Tranquility touched down. And then when he planted both feet on the moon: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But more than anything else, the Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of an epoch. JFK, the young US President elected in 1961, ushered in an era of hope and the unrealised promise of world peace as the United States confronted the former Soviet Union over the Cuban missile crisis and in a “space race”.
The Apollo 11 mission ushered in an era of hope as the US confronted the Soviet Union in a “space race”.
A quick reminder of the times:
- The Apollo space flight program was administered by the newly created NASA and conceived by JFK’s predecessor, President Dwight D Eisenhower.
- It followed Project Mercury and ran from 1961 to 1972 alongside Project Gemini, which sent ten manned flights into space between 1965 and 1966.
- Project Mercury’s greatest achievement in May 1961 when it sent Alan Shepard to space was eclipsed by the then Soviet Union that a month earlier sent the first human to outer space – Yuri Gagarin.
- Gagarin’s exploit left the US determined to do one better to stay ahead of its Cold War enemy in the technological race.
- On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the US ambition of landing the first man on the moon. “First, 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.”
- First and foremost, President Kennedy saw the space race as a fight between freedom and tyranny. He believed the Soviets had made a head start with their large rocket engines that they would exploit to achieve even more impressive successes. A year later he said: “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. … 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.” If you’d like to see JFK deliver this speech, take a look at this at about 11.50 minutes in.
- Kennedy committed US$531 million to the space project with total cost expected to exceed US$40 billion.
- The race continued with several Apollo missions preceding success. Apollo 1 ended in tragedy when the three astronauts on board perished in a cabin fire.
- Six years after President Kennedy was assassinated, NASA bridged the once imponderable gap between getting humans into space and landing on the moon.
- The Apollo 11 spacecraft had three distinct parts – a command module which was the only section to return to earth, the service module that held the propulsion power, electricity, water and oxygen, and the lunar module, which actually landed on the moon.
- Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre on July 16, 1969. Take a look at the astronauts readying for take off here at about the eight-minute mark.
- Armstrong and Aldrin moved to the lunar module whilst the third member of the mission, Michael Collins remained alone in the command module.
- They continued on to NASA’s preferred landing site but it was not to Armstrong’s liking. It was a large crater 150 metres in diameter with steep slopes covered in large boulders. So Armstrong took over the computer manually and “flew it like a helicopter” west to a smooth area.
- Fuel was now running low and computer alarms were sounding. But he landed the module safely with 20 seconds of fuel left.
- There was little time for self-congratulation. The lunar surface is very hot, and the module’s thermal systems might be affected, Armstrong later said.
- But nothing went wrong. They stayed on the surface for 21 hours and outside the spacecraft for two-and-a-half hours.
- As Armstrong opened the hatch and climbed on to the moon’s surface, he activated a camera and uttered those famous words: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”.
- Aldrin joined him and described what they saw as “magnificent desolation”. As the two hopped around the moon’s surface, they noted how soft and slippery its dust was.
- Armstrong collected moon soil using a sample bag on a stick. He couldn’t see his feet because of the Remote Control Unit he was carrying on his chest.
- They planted a US flag along with a number of monitoring instruments. In honour of Gagarin, they left a memorial bag containing medals commemorating him and others who had travelled to space. They also left a small disc carrying messages from various Presidents.
- Safely returned to the craft, Armstrong took a telephone radio transmission call from President Richard Nixon who was urged to keep it short, in respect of the legacy, which belonged not to him but to JFK.
- But they still needed to get back to earth.
- Moving back in to the cabin, Armstrong accidentally broke a main engine circuit breaker. They feared they wouldn’t be able to fire the engine and would be stranded – on the moon! Armstrong used a felt-tipped pen to activate the switch.
- Carrying some 21.5 kilograms of lunar dust and rock samples, they journeyed to the command module Columbia and on July 24, they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, east of Wake Island.
- President Nixon was on board the USS Hornet to welcome the men back to earth. He told them: “As a result of what you’ve done, the world has never been closer together before”.
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