July 20, 1969: What Does it All Mean?

By Richard Mains, Posted 07/14/09


"Earthrise on Moon" Source: NASA

The media is awash in a small tidal wave of Apollo 11 mission analysis and nostalgia for that time, 40 years ago, when an earthling first set foot on the Moon.  I watched the Lunar landing on an old black and white TV in a low-budget Berkeley rental with my young family.  My teeth were clenched when Neil Armstrong manually took over the controls due to a large field of boulders suddenly appearing in the field of view at the landing site.  He veered away from it and finally landed the "Eagle" on a smoother surface with only 17 seconds of fuel left.  After the landing I remember comments from Mission Control at Johnson Space Center indicating that many of those sitting at the consoles still looked quite blue, but were slowly recovering.  It reminds us of the value of being prepared for most anything, as were the astronauts and mission control operators, and the role of good luck.  It seemed so impossible, so surreal, and very hard to grasp even though it was on live TV.  Only after some deep breathing could we appreciate the fact that Armstrong, the first to place a foot on the surface, was "our" earthling.  It was truly a step for all humankind even though the U.S. budgetary driver was in large part a big bet against the Soviets in the "Space Race".  The fact that the Russians never tried to land people there after that is a testament to the race.  Nixon's cancellation of the last several Apollo missions is also a clear message that winning the race was the overriding goal. 

Color images called "Earthrise" taken from the earlier Apollo 8 mission during lunar orbit and the iconic images of the "pale blue marble" we know as Earth taken enroute to the Moon, had an impact that persists to the present.  The contrast of the cratered, dry, grey Moon with the water and cloud-covered Earth clearly showed that we live on a planet that is our global "spacecraft" and provides us critical life support as we move continuously through space.  To me that is still a profound realization even though it's now old news.  One benefit of having lived for several years pre-Apollo on Earth's surface was that our first "off-Earth" view back home could be so profound.   

John Noble Wilford, the renowned NY Times science writer, was at the "Cape" in Florida for several Apollo missions including Apollo 11 when astronauts first landed and he claims it was the biggest story he ever covered.  He has now provided us with a special gift  by rethinking and retelling his story and assessing the Apollo legacy.  He figures he'll never have such a story again unless life is discovered on another planet and he lives to tell about it. 

I can't help thinking about our current place in space.  We've had twin rovers tooling around Mars for years that continually send images back and get themselves unstuck, when necessary.  We've just completed another brain transplant on the Hubble telescope that has allowed us to "see" back to the beginning of the universe and better understand our place in the evolving cosmos.  Missions are underway to search for other "Earths" around far-away planets and to monitor Earth's ongoing adaptation to human habitation and climate change.  The International Space Station, occupied now for a decade, is nearing completion and hopefully we will be wise and resourceful enough to use it effectively to discover more about living, working and researching while "off-Earth".  We need to understand how more of us might do that someday, if/when it's needed because of threats to Earth and our need to access more resources.  Our view from space and our foothold there provides us with options for conducting research and feasibility studies that could open the door globally to unlimited, clean space-based solar power.  The ISS can provide opportunities for the industrialized and emerging nations to collaborate and participate in the benefits that can accrue from space research and development.  This includes significant new opportunities for space commerce and related Earth commerce that the world needs now to help spur a global economic recovery. "Spaceship Earth" needs its human inhabitants to learn how to be better stewards of the life support system since we and all life depend on it.   Apollo opened the door to many of these possibilities to utilize space wisely for the benefit of all.  Perhaps that's really the answer to what Apollo means - the gateway to a better, more sustainable future.   


A Good Answer to My Question Above

From: Richard Mains, 07/23/09

Seth Borenstein in his excellent article in the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger has provided many good insights and another answer to the meaning of the events of July 20, 1969. Bottom-line, he thinks "the giant leap for mankind" set the bar height for all other challenges to seem lower than. If we could walk on the Moon we could certainly solve X, Y or Z. I think we all recognize the truth of that simple conclusion and appreciate the herculean effort it took and the extraordinary good luck that came our way.

Add Your Comment

(not published)