One Giant Leap for Mankind

Men walk on the moon

July 21, 2020

 

“One small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.”

Man on the Moon 1969These words were spoken at 2:56 a.m. (UTC) on July 21, 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon.

For those of a technical bent one could argue that those famous steps took place on July 20th; at least that was true for those of us living on the west coast of the United States. Everyone was glued to their television sets all that Sunday afternoon and evening, the drama playing out in a single day.

The race to the moon began over a decade earlier in November 1957 with the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by then President Dwight Eisenhower. Its formation was in response to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. This was followed in early 1961 with the first earth orbit by a human. (see my blog about the Century 21 Exposition and the day a Russian cosmonaut visited!)

The U.S. – now behind in the space race – was urged by President John F. Kennedy to throw their resources and national enthusiasm behind the program. On May 25, 1961 he implored Congress thus:

“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 for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations—explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

— Kennedy’s speech to Congress

Despite setbacks in the Apollo program, resources were poured into the ambitious plans. With each Apollo mission, the systems were refined as the best and the brightest minds of the day labored to solve the myriad of problems encountered. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“In July 1962 NASA head James Webb announced that lunar orbit rendezvous would be used and that the Apollo spacecraft would have three major parts: a command module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, and the only part that returned to Earth; a service module (SM), which supported the command module with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and a lunar module (LM) that had two stages—a descent stage for landing on the Moon, and an ascent stage to place the astronauts back into lunar orbit.] This design meant the spacecraft could be launched by a single Saturn V rocket that was then under development.

(snip)

Project Apollo was abruptly halted by the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, in which astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee died, and the subsequent investigation. In October 1968, Apollo 7 evaluated the command module in Earth orbit, and in December Apollo 8 tested it in lunar orbit. In March 1969, Apollo 9 put the lunar module through its paces in Earth orbit, and in May Apollo 10 conducted a “dress rehearsal” in lunar orbit. By July 1969, all was in readiness for Apollo 11 to take the final step onto the Moon.

Ap11InitialThe Soviet Union competed with the US in the Space Race, but its early lead was lost through repeated failures in development of the N1 launcher, which was comparable to the Saturn V. The Soviets tried to beat the US to return lunar material to the Earth by means of un-crewed probes. On July 13, three days before Apollo 11’s launch, the Soviet Union launched Luna 15, which reached lunar orbit before Apollo 11. During descent, a malfunction caused Luna 15 to crash in Mare Crisium about two hours before Armstrong and Aldrin took off from the Moon’s surface to begin their voyage home. The Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories radio telescope in England recorded transmissions from Luna 15 during its descent, and these were released in July 2009 for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.”

It was truly an amazing feat as has been chronicled in book, documentary, and a feature length movie.

At the time Armstrong, particularly, became a national hero; the very face of American greatness. No doubt that mission motivated a whole generation of science minded kids to dream of one day traveling into space beyond the moon.

It was truly an inspirational moment and ranks up there with other events that you absolutely remember where you were and what you were doing.

In those days most families had a single television. So you watched whatever your parents watched. With three basic channels (ABC, CBS, NBC) the choices were limited. On July 20, 1969, ALL three channels were broadcasting just one thing: man landing on the moon.

I was 11 years old that July day and it was a pretty typical Yakima summer day with temperatures in the low 90’s. Like any self respecting kid, I’d watched the initial landing but then wandered off to do other things.

Sometime after dinner, the family gathered around the TV once again to watch the first steps on the moon by Armstrong. A couple of things stick out. Despite having a color television, the moon landing was all in black and white. The American Flag they planted was stiff since there was not any sort of breeze to flap the cloth. And everything was done very, very slowly.

My older brother and I decided to play cards as a way to pass the time. The game was called Casino and it consisted of trying to collect more cards than the other person AND obtain certain specialty cards which were worth points. I remember the two of spades was a desired card, and I doubt I could play the game today. At the time I was pretty good at the game AND very competitive. My brother and I were sitting on the floor of the family room a few feet from the TV, playing our game, and looking up every once in a while to see if anything was happening (it wasn’t).

Finally, just before 8 p.m., Armstrong slowly bounced his way down the steps of the Lunar module, his echo-y micro phoned voice coming through the TV as he intoned, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was years later when I learned that he had not said what he planned, since the sentence was supposed to be “that’s one small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind.” Personally, I think it was much cooler the way it came out.

Soon after his grand arrival – not being particularly interested in watching the astronauts collect rocks – I drifted away to do other more interesting 11 year old things. I do think we all went outside and stared up at the quarter moon that night, in awe of what had been accomplished.

casino cardsI really can’t recall who won the Casino game, so I’ll just claim I did and squabble with my brother when he reads this. And, BTW, Mr. P., the Shaw and Sons little league guy was out. That’s what Dad always said. Higher and Higher. Cherry Cola. Sibling rivalry and inside jokes are the best.

The What’s and Who’s on the Facebook post:

  1. Moon Pies
  2. Moon Landing
  3. Moon River
  4. Sailor Moon
  5. Harvey Moon (a brand used in advertising in Yakima when I was growing up)

 

 

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