45 Years Ago
On July 16, 1969 the first people to actually set foot on the Moon strapped themselves into a tiny Apollo 11 craft on top of a Saturn V rocket and blasted off. It seems hard to believe that all this time has passed, particularly for those of us who fully expected that within a decade or so, regular trips to the Moon would be ours to take.
Sadly, things didn’t turn out that way. Our space program (in the U.S.) has not yet proceeded in the direction of daily or weekly trips to the lunar surface for fun, work, or colonization. But, the Moon is still an object of scientific (and possibly political) interest, even today. And, maybe in my lifetime, it will become that stopping-off point we all hoped for, useful to folks on their way to other places in the solar system.
Not long before the Apollo mission, I became enamored of Star Trek. It seemed to me that with a little work (I didn’t understand all the technology at that point), humanity would soon be embarking on five-year missions of exploration, just as Captain Kirk and his crew was doing. Apollo 11 was just the first step. I anticipated missions to Mars that might start when I was in college, and regular trips to the Moon for tourists by the time I was in my 30s. And, starflight? If I thought about it at all, I probably figured it would be something I’d see others do as I waved fondly farewell to them from my retirement cottage in Mare Imbrium.
Well, things haven’t turned out quite that way. We have accomplished a lot in space — planetary missions, for example, have showed us what a HUGE and diverse place our solar system is. In the interim years between Apollo 11 and now, I’ve studied education and science journalism, worked as an astronomer, written many millions of words about astronomy and space in books, articles, documentaries, and blog entries, and I’ve come to realize that going to space is tough. It is, as John F. Kennedy said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
So, as we embark on this week celebrating the accomplishments of Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins 45 years ago, let’s think about what they really set in motion. Yes, Aldrin and Armstrong set foot on the Moon, and so did other astronauts after them. From them, people have learned to live and work in space. And, I hope that we’ll keep stepping out proudly to new places in space, if for no other reason than they cleared the path for us to do so. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s hard, both technically and politically. But, going to space is the right thing to do. It’s what will help our species live long and prosper. Our first steps will NOT be our last ones.