This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the landing of a man on the moon on July 20, 1969. Surely you must remember those famous words uttered by American astronaut Neil Armstrong from your own memory or from your history class. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was one of the greatest adventures in the history of humanity, if not the boldest.
Do yourself a favor and take time to watch any one of a number of documentaries or movies that describe the courage and bravery of the men and women who have been a part of the space program. Especially look for a show about the Apollo program such as “Apollo’s Moonshot” on Smithsonian Channel as we celebrate this historic event and the thousands of men and women who have contributed to the success of the manned space program.
So many people today live vicariously through the fictional explorers in "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Guardians of the Galaxy," and other space fantasies. Aside from some activity on the international space station, there has been a hiatus of new manned space exploration, especially since the space shuttle program ended.
I wonder if we have lost some of the courage and willpower to continue to be real explorers. Yes, I know we have plenty of problems here on Earth. I agree. To a point. Perhaps we can get our act together as nations long enough to actually become explorers again. If not for the courage of explorers throughout history where would we be today? Given that our cell phones hold significantly more technological capabilities than the entire Apollo spacecraft, you would think we would be raring to go in our efforts to continue space exploration.
I know there is talk of a mission to Mars, but have we really committed to it the way President John F. Kennedy inspired us to commit to a moon landing? Funding aside for a moment, where is the spirit of adventure that led explorers like Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Leif Erickson, James Cook, Sacagawea, the Wright Brothers, Nellie Bly, Amelia Earhart, Jacque Cousteau, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, and our Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins?
The insatiable curiosity of all mankind demands we follow the "Star Trek" motto and continue to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” But do we still have the courage of the explorer to withstand the inevitable backlash in today’s social media driven world?
To me, real leadership comes down to one word: courage. We need leaders in government, science and business to come together and inspire the whole world with a vision of a future that includes collaboration and inventiveness that will allow us to push beyond current limits in space (and the oceans for that matter).
Getting back to that funding issue — and it’s a big issue — we have to remember that with every one of these explorers’ accomplishments came direct and indirect spin-offs that led to advances in technology, medicine, communications and much more. The number of inventions and improvements from the Apollo program alone more than justify the time and money spent on exploration. I am not talking just about advances in rocketry and aeronautics or civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, but in thousands of household products that we use everyday that were invented or improved as a result of the public-private partnerships that NASA formed with business and industry across the country.
Hopefully continued exploration of space will encourage more and more young people to consider STEM careers. Quite frankly, we have enough sport management and sociology majors in the world, and we could use more scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians.
I hope that we haven’t lost our nerve and are being overly impacted by safety and liability concerns. At some point early sailors had to cast off the ropes to explore the world’s oceans. Think about the bravery of the test pilots and the astronauts in NASA, especially those pioneers who were involved in the moon landing program. Exploration is an inherently dangerous business and has never been for the faint of heart. Accidents will happen and thankfully throughout history there have been brave men and women willing to take the risks.
A lot of people do not know the story about how close the lunar landing module came to crashing on the surface of the moon that day in 1969. The astronauts were running dangerously low on fuel as pilot Neil Armstrong was trying to avoid craters and the boulder-ridden landscape to touch down on a level and safe location.
Meanwhile command module pilot Michael Collins was circling the moon by himself some 239,000 miles from Earth, wondering if his colleagues would make it back from the surface of the moon. I can’t imagine the anxiety thinking about the possibility of having to go back to Earth by himself, knowing that he had to leave behind Armstrong and Aldrin if something went awry on the moon.
"I had, on a string around my neck, an 8-by-12 loose-leaf notebook with 18 pages in it. The 18 pages were the various rendezvous possibilities, should things go slightly awry on the moon," Collins said in a NASA press release commemorating the landing. While the crew was prepared for difficult situations, if Armstrong and Aldrin were not able to get off the surface of the moon, there was no way for Collins to save them.
Buzz Aldrin described the scene when he returned to the lunar module and found a device on the floor that turned out to be a broken circuit breaker. As fate would have it, the breaker was for the ascent engine that was necessary to take off from the moon. Aldrin said that he asked Houston control what they should do and the message back was “get some sleep, we’re working on it.” Right! They were 239,000 miles from Earth and they were supposed to just get a good night’s sleep? Houston’s engineers did come up with a solution and the astronauts, of course, made it back safely to Earth.
Many of you may remember the Tom Hanks 1994 movie “Apollo 13,” which tells the true story of an explosion on the service module that almost stranded astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise in space. Teamwork and ingenuity brought the crew back safely to Earth, but not without the stress of an entire world watching in real time.
All explorers share common traits of courage and bravery. If it were not for that adventurous spirit many of today’s advances in technology, communications, medicine, psychology, logistics, biomechanics and many more may have never occurred. They certainly would not have happened at the accelerated pace of the late 1960’s that were a direct result of the investment in the moon landing program.
I know there are a lot of social issues and other challenges that need our attention and our resources. But I sincerely hope that we never lose that explorer’s desire to push beyond our current limits. Explorers throughout history have pushed the envelope of human endurance and skill.
Like most kids growing up in the late ‘60s I dreamt of being an astronaut. I built all sorts of model rockets and pretended to be an astronaut in my own mind over and over again, practicing fictitious launches and landings. I hope that this current generation of kids will be excited to make more dreams come true. It will take the courage of the explorers.