One giant leap: 1st moon walk was 45 years ago today
"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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
- President John F. Kennedy in 1961 in an address to Congress
On this day 45 years ago, the world held its collective breath as it waited for news of the Apollo 11 spacecraft landing on the Moon.
There was no live video broadcast of the landing itself. Radio transmissions between the Apollo spacecraft were carried on television, though, and CBS News paired that with animation of a lunar module descending.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong, known for his cool attitude under pressure, guided the fragile Eagle lunar module to a safe spot in the (dry) Sea of Tranquility, despite unexpected obstacles - huge boulders - that would have caused a fatal crash if the primitive computer remained in control. With less than 30 seconds of fuel left, and astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin beside him, calling out instrument readings, he steered the ship to a clear spot and set it down at about 1:15 p.m. Arizona time, July 20, 1969.
And watching from the viewing room at Mission Control were astronauts Alan Bean, Charles "Pete" Conrad and Richard "Dick" Gordon Jr., the men who would fly the next lunar mission, Apollo 12.
Gordon, 84, now lives in Prescott. A captain in the U.S. Navy at the time, he said the crew heard the radio transmissions about the potential danger, but "we weren't concerned, and Mission Control told them to proceed, so they did."
Armstrong and Aldrin had lifted-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16 for their 239,000-mile journey. Five days later, the Eagle undocked from the Columbia command module, leaving astronaut Michael Collins to orbit the moon alone and await their return.
Gordon, a veteran of the1966 Gemini 11 mission, which he flew with Conrad, was the Apollo 12 command module pilot. He said that he was busy completing tasks during a lot of the time Bean and Conrad were on the surface, but "if you thought about it, you could feel that you were the most lonely guy in the universe."
Many may not remember that it was over six hours from the time the Eagle touched down to the time Armstrong stepped outside; the crew was supposed to sleep, but didn't.
Another hazy fact: on that first mission, the two men spent just two-and-a-half hours walking on the surface before leaving the Moon. (Later missions would stretch that "Moonwalk" time - on the final lunar mission, Apollo 17, the astronauts would be outside the spacecraft over 22 hours.)
When the time came for the first man to walk on the Moon, Armstrong set up a TV camera and the world was able to see him step out, live, as it happened.
"We were interested to see what the topography, the terrain, was like, what the total environment they were going to be operating in, was like, because we knew we were going to be next," Gordon said.
Armstrong created a long-running controversy on the Moon: As he planted his boot on the surface, did he say, as it appeared, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," or did he actually say "... for a man ..." which was what he planned?
Armstrong said that he'd used the correct phrase, and that the voice-activated radio system lost the "a" syllable. In 2006, a researcher analyzing the recording suggested that a brief gap in the transmission might well have contained the "a." Armstrong said he found the results "persuasive."
Armstrong died in 2012 at the age of 82. Collins is now 83; Aldrin, 84, known for his campaign to send manned spacecraft to Mars, made news in 2002 for punching a heckler who demanded he swear an oath that he had walked on the Moon, and called Aldrin a "coward, a liar and a thief" when he refused.
Gordon said he's run into skeptics for years, starting with a worldwide goodwill tour held just after they returned from the mission.
"You'd be surprised at the number of people in this world who don't think you had done that," he said, but he said that, since he couldn't convince them otherwise, he just laughed them off.
That first mission to the Moon was followed by others, but, with JFK's goal met, interest in the space program began a rapid decline. The Apollo 18, 19, and 20 missions were cancelled.
Gordon said he would have been the commander on Apollo 18 had the mission happened.
"I would have been able to finish that last 60 miles," and walk on the Moon, he said, "which was my goal all along."
NASA's funds were diverted toward production of the then-new Space Transportation System - the space shuttle program - which, while it would not leave Earth orbit, could be flown again and again. The shuttle, which was first test-flown in 1977, never quite reached the potential for which it was designed - NASA envisioned monthly flights, which proved to be too expensive.
In 2011, with the program flying spacecraft that had already served 15 years longer than planned, the space shuttle program was shut down and the three remaining active ships were retired.
Now, the U.S. space exploration program focuses on Earth orbit with the International Space Station, and our astronauts are taken there by former enemies: they fly in Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Other planets and moons are explored by probes and remotely controlled rovers.
Private companies seem poised to take over manned spaceflight, but even Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind the SpaceX company, said recently that a joint manned mission to Mars between SpaceX and NASA wouldn't be happening until at least 2024.
"I'm sure someday we will (go to Mars)," Gordon said. But, he said, the momentum built during Apollo seemed powerful. "When we (started) the Apollo program, most of us thought that we were going to continue exploration," he 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."
- President John F. Kennedy in a speech at Rice University in 1962
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