That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. —Astronaut Neil Armstrong
For many involved, the event still evokes a pungent sense of immediacy. But it was 20 years ago—on July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. eastern day-light time—that American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the Eagle, the Apollo 11 space mission’s lunar module, and became the first man to set foot on the silty surface of the moon. Eighteen minutes later, while pilot Michael Collins orbited the moon alone in the command ship Columbia, Edwin (Buzz)
Aldrin stepped from the Eagle’s hatch to join Armstrong, while an estimated 600 million television viewers on Earth, 241,500 miles away, watched. Surveying the Sea of Tranquility, a vast depression strewn with finegrained, dusky-colored powder and dark boulders, Aldrin mused aloud about the “magnificent desolation” of the moonscape. Later, addressing the astronauts by satellite from the White House, President Richard Nixon told them that “because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world.” It had taken eight years and $26 billion to achieve the goal that President John F. Kennedy set in a special state of the union address to Congress on May 25, 1961. Then, the concern that many Americans expressed was -that the Soviet Union, which had put astronaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit a month before, would become the first nation to reach the moon. In a determined effort to establish the supremacy of U.S. technology, Kennedy vowed to put Americans on the moon by the end of the decade.
Like Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas only two years after he made his pledge, the moon landing had a momentous and lasting impact on those who witnessed it, sealing impressions from that moment into unshakable memories.
Watching the lunar landing on large outdoor screens, crowds cheered in London’s Trafalgar Square, in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square and at a so-called moon-in in New York City’s Central Park. There was dancing in the streets of Santiago, Chile, and along the Champs Elysées in Paris. Interrupting bulletins about a heavy air battle over the Suez Canal during an
Israeli-Egyptian border clash, Arab radio stations praised the achievement. So did Pope Paul VI, although he cautioned mankind against mistakenly venerating human achievements above those of God.
A series of ceremonies was scheduled to mark the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, including a barbecue at the White House for 400 participants in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) early programs. The three guests of honor— Armstrong, 58, now an Ohio-based aviation
consultant, Aldrin, 59, an aerospace consultant and author living near Los Angeles, and Collins, a 58-year-old author who lives in Washington, D.C.—have all retired from NASA.
Two decades after the historic event, the promise of the U.S. space program—so vividly embodied in the deeds of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins—has waned. Only minutes before the two astronauts left the Eagle, then-VicePresident Spiro Agnew predicted that the United States would land a man on Mars by the end of the century. During five further Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972, 10 other astronauts reached the moon. But after that, NASA suffered funding cuts and technological setbacks—culminating in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January, 1986, which killed seven astronauts.
Since then, NASA has resumed shuttle flights, including the $635-million Magellan mission in May, which deployed a radar-mapping space probe on a 15-month trip toward Venus. But, despite a 1988 presidential directive to NASA to come up with plans for further human exploration of Mars or the moon, the U.S. administration has yet to commit significant funds to such a program.
Instead, the agency is devoting most of its efforts to research into a permanently manned international space station, which agency officials say that they expect to start assembling in space in 1995. The Canadian government has committed $1.2 billion to the project, in part for research and construction of an advanced service-and-repair module for the station. Intended to be fully operational by 1997, the space station could serve as a staging point for missions bound farther into the solar system, as well as a laboratory where scientists will be able to study human adaptability in space and z observe the Earth’s environg mental changes. 2 It is also possible that 1 Americans will once again 2 look to the moon as a source z of inspiration for future life. NASA scientists have said that - if construction were to start
in 2004, a lunar base could be fully operational by 2012. And there is widespread optimism among space industry observers that President George Bush may soon order NASA scientists to proceed with plans to establish a colony on the moon in order to carry out advanced astrophysical, geological and physiological research. If that happens, the moon could once again capture the imagination of Earth’s citizens— just as it did on that July day 20 years ago.
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