It’s the summer of 2004 and NASA is plotting a new course into the cosmos. The Vision for Space Exploration calls for a return to the moon, followed by journeys of discovery to Mars and beyond. There are many uncertainties on the road ahead, but there should be no doubt that NASA can set lofty goals and meet them. We’ve done it before.
Apollo 11 at 35
Celebrating the Past with a Vision for the Future
It’s the summer of 2004 and NASA is plotting a new course into the cosmos. The Vision for Space Exploration calls for a return to the moon, followed by journeys of discovery to Mars and beyond. There are many uncertainties on the road ahead, but there should be no doubt that NASA can set lofty goals and meet them.
We’ve done it before.
Flash back to the summer of 1969. It’s a little over eight years since the flights of Gagarin and Shepard, followed quickly by President Kennedy’s vision of putting a man on the moon before the decade is out.
For that matter, it’s only seven months since NASA made a bold decision with the Apollo 8 mission. Like the current vision for exploration, the Apollo program attempted to do some things that had never been done before. Innovation and even improvisation were necessary. So in December 1968, rather than letting lunar module delays slow the program, NASA changed plans to keep the momentum going. Apollo 8 would go all the way to the moon and orbit without a lunar module; it was the first manned flight of the massive Saturn V rocket.
Now, on the morning of July 16, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sit atop another Saturn V at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The three-stage 363-foot rocket will use its 7.5 million pounds of thrust to propel them into space and into history.
At 9:32 a.m. EDT, the engines fire and Apollo 11 clears the tower. About 12 minutes later, the crew is in Earth orbit. (+ Play Audio)
After one and a half orbits, Apollo 11 gets a ”go” for what mission controllers call ”Translunar Injection” — in other words, it’s time to head for the moon. Three days later the crew is in lunar orbit. A day after that, Armstrong and Aldrin climb into the lunar module Eagle and begin the descent, while Collins orbits in the command module Columbia. (+ View Flash Feature)
Collins later writes that Eagle is ”the weirdest looking contraption I have ever seen in the sky,” but it will prove its worth.
When it comes time to set Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, Armstrong improvises, manually piloting the ship past an area littered with boulders. During the final seconds of descent, Eagle’s computer is sounding alarms.
It turns out to be a simple case of the computer trying to do too many things at once, but as Aldrin will later point out, ”unfortunately it came up when we did not want to be trying to solve these particular problems.”
When the lunar module lands at 4:18 p.m EDT, only 30 seconds of fuel remain. Armstrong radios ”Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Mission control erupts in celebration as the tension breaks, and a controller tells the crew ”You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again.” (+ Play Audio)
Armstrong will later confirm that landing was his biggest concern, saying ”the unknowns were rampant,” and ”there were just a thousand things to worry about.”
At 10:56 p.m. EDT Armstrong is ready to plant the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims, ”That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” (+ Play Audio)
Aldrin joins him shortly, and offers a simple but powerful description of the lunar surface: ”magnificent desolation.” They explore the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs.
They leave behind an American flag, a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew, and a plaque on one of Eagle’s legs. It reads, ”Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Armstrong and Aldrin blast off and dock with Collins in Columbia. Collins later says that ”for the first time,” he ”really felt that we were going to carry this thing off.”
The crew splashes down off Hawaii on July 24. America’s first Vision for Space Exploration has been fulfilled.
In an interview years later, Armstrong praises the ”hundreds of thousands” of people behind the project. ”Every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault.”’ (+ Read 2001 Interview, 172 Kb PDF)
In a post-flight press conference, Armstrong calls the flight ”a beginning of a new age,” while Collins talks about journeys to Mars.
Over the next three and a half years, 10 astronauts will follow in their footsteps.
Flash forward to the present. Armstrong says ”Apollo proved that humans were not forever a prisoner of Earth’s gravity. We could leave our planet and go to other celestial destinations.” (+ Read More, 82 Kb PDF)
He says the new vision has ”substantial merit and promise.” And he challenges the nation to be bold, warning that ”to limit the progress in the name of eliminating risk is no virtue.”
The bootprints of Apollo are ready for company.