Editorial: Moment of a lifetime, and unity
A goddess to the Greeks, worshiped by witches, an inspiration to mad necromancers, the moon has always been a muse for poets and songwriters. The ruler of the ocean’s tides, slowly vanishing and reappearing in the sky as it passes through its phases, the moon is the mysterious silver sister of the golden sun. All through the ages sister moon has been the lamp of the magic night, bathing the world in cool blue light, guiding the persecuted on harrowing escapes, providing moody stage lighting for uncountable lovers’ trysts.
And, 50 years ago, men walked on the moon.
The Apollo 11 moon mission culminating with Neil Armstrong’s famous words — “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — was the first of six successful moon landings by American astronauts. But that first one was something — a magnificent moment in the history of human ambition, technology and courage. Young and old, rich and poor, street-smart cynics and wide-eyed innocents — everyone — watched it on TV. For some, the moment was almost surreal — the wildest Buck Rogers fantasies of their youth coming true.
President John F. Kennedy proposed the moon mission to Congress in 1961, when the United States was widely thought to be behind the Soviet Union in “the space race.”
The first unmanned Apollo mission came five years later, in 1966.
There was tragedy along the way. On Jan. 27, 1967, during a manned test on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., a fire took the lives of three astronauts. But America persevered. The Apollo space program continued.
The Apollo 11 rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center July 16, 1969, carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into the pages of history.
After 76 hours and 240,000 miles, Apollo 11 went into lunar orbit on July 19. The next afternoon, the lunar module Eagle, with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard, separated from the command ship and began its descent to the lunar surface.
About 4 in the afternoon on July 20, the craft settled on the moon’s dusty surface — in the Sea of Tranquility — and Armstrong radioed mission control: “The Eagle has landed.”
All around the world people were gathered at televisions on July 20 and watched as Armstrong opened the hatch of the module to the lunar night, descended a ladder, and at 10:56 p.m. stepped onto the surface of the moon. A television camera mounted outside of spacecraft sent the images home as he spoke his famous words to an astonished Earth.
A few exceptions here and there, perhaps, but it seems a safe bet the virtually everyone watching that television moment — Republicans and Democrats, scientific experts, baseball fans, librarians and taxi drivers, Americans and Russians and Chinese — cheered the historic moment and wished the astronauts a safe return to their home planet.
They came back to the arms of a welcoming world with a splashdown in the Pacific on July 24.
Amid all the 50-year remembrances, the words of a plaque left on the moon’s surface by the Apollo 11 astronauts, the men who first landed and walked there, seem worthy: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon—July 1969 A.D.—We came in peace for all mankind.”