Nearly all of us who are old enough to remember claim to know where we were and what we were doing when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I remember distinctly and I have a cassette tape to prove it.
In those days, cassette tapes were all the rage. Many younger people today don’t even remember them, but they were the compact successor to 8-track tapes, which themselves had replaced cumbersome reel tapes. In 1969 cassette tapes were the state of the art, and I remember taping the audio of the Moon landing by holding up a microphone to the TV, recording the commentary by the late, great Walter Cronkite and astronaut Wally Schirra. As I recall, Uncle Wally (Cronkite) was occasionally and very uncharacteristically dumbstruck at the enormity of the event going on at the time. Astronaut Wally (Schirra) was appropriately matter-of-fact, much as was astronaut Deke Slayton when I interviewed him in Houston a few years later. (Basically, the feeling was “OK, we did what we said we would do, why are you so excited?”)
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I do have a vague impression of the crescent Moon being in the eastern (yet still daylight) sky, although by the moment of the first footstep on the Moon (approximately 9:56 p.m CDT), it was low in the western sky.
Down two and a half. Forward. Forward. Good.
Forty feet, down two-and-a-half. Kicking up some dust.
Thirty feet, two-and-a-half down. Faint shadow.
Four forward. Four forward. Drifting to the right a little …
Okay. ENGINE STOP …
We copy you down, Eagle.
Houston, Tranquility Base here. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED.
It was absolutely mesmerizing to think that there were two men there, on the Moon, within my field of view, almost 240,000 miles – roughly a quarter of a million miles – away. These two humans, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, along with Command Module pilot Michael Collins, were as far from Earth as any three human beings had ever been. I distinctly recall later sitting at the foot of my bed, listening to that recording over and over and over.
Somehow, even more than Neil Armstrong’s epochal “The Eagle has landed,” I recall Buzz Aldrin’s calm and collected, “Four forward, four forward. Drifting to the right a little.” The phase might have been a premonition of the change in political climate in the coming decade, but I am sure that is not why I remember it. I think that mostly I was impressed by the steely determination in Aldrin’s even, matter of fact voice. Not to downplay emotions, but great achievement is often the result of personal control and dedication to the mission at hand. With this mission, Armstrong and Aldrin did not save lives as war heroes have done; they did not provide food to the starving children in Africa or India or China (choose whichever guilt was imposed on you as a child); they did not end despotism in the world. But they gave us all an example of the best of humankind. They showed us what is possible through hard work, cooperation, rational thought, personal character and flat out raw determination. They represented the tens of thousands of Americans (as well as citizens of other countries) who made it all work. They were — and are — in the best sense, American heroes.
After Apollo, the moonwalkers went in different directions. Armstrong taught at a small college, later becoming pretty much a recluse who rarely appears in public. Aldrin, who by the way was the first PhD in space and the first PhD on the Moon, overcame some personal problems and went on to various air and space related projects.
And let’s not forget the other moonwalkers. Pete Conrad, commander of the Apollo 12 mission and third man to walk on the Moon,left NASA but stayed in mostly commercial aeronautical pursuits. Alan Bean, fourth man to walk on the Moon and Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 12, became a renowned space artist and still lives in the Houston area. (The photo of Bean here is from a snapshot by my buddy Ron DiIulio, taken at JSC in the mid 1970s. If you are in need of a laugh, click on the image to bring up the full snapshot, complete with me in my “trying out for the Marx Brothers” phase. Or was that Leon Redbone I was impersonating?)
And while I won’t mention all the others here, Alan Shepard, the first American in space and the fifth person to walk on the Moon (Apollo 14), went on to various business ventures, at one time owning a Coors beer distributorship in the Houston area. (Click on the image at the right for a larger image of myself with America’s first astronaut — courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Alan Shepard, as if I needed to tell you, is the handsome fellow on the right.)
As an aside, I have a little story to tell about Buzz Aldrin. I met him twice, or sort of. The first time was a brief conversation at the first “Case for Mars” conference in Boulder, Colorado in 1981. It was a short and “interesting” experience for me. The next time was in the late 1990’s on a June afternoon in Paris. My wife and I, along with our two kids and two sisters-in-law, were taking our first “European Vacation” (and yes, you know what I am referring to). One afternoon we were walking down a street in Paris. I had taken my position at the end of the line. My family had disappeared ahead of me into the crowd, and as I scanned the throng of people headed toward me, a highly familiar face appeared walking my way. It was Buzz Aldrin. He looked right at me and he obviously did not know who I was. However, he did recognize that I knew who he was! Understandably, he did not want to be stopped and forced to converse with some boob on the street in Paris (and possibly being further recognized and swamped by autograph seekers). We did not speak, but our eyes locked and he sent me a very clear and distinct message: “I don’t know you, but I know you know me. But don’t you even dare think of talking to me!” Obediently, I walked on by without a word. But boy did I have a story to tell my family when I caught up to them!
(Dear Dr. Aldrin, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, I just wanted to thank you for making my day! For you it was a fleeting moment long forgotten, but for me it was without a doubt the most exciting and memorable event on that vacation. And of course, thanks for all your achievements and work on behalf of space exploration.)
Human spaceflight after Apollo
(Note that this is MY opinion only!) Despite the many successes of NASA manned spaceflight after Apollo, there is little argument that the Apollo program was NASA’s finest moment, not just u until its time but extending even to today. Skylab, the Space Shuttle program and the ISS have had high moments and successes, but none have spawned the emotional involvement or motivation that so marked the Apollo missions. In fact, there are many who will argue that all manned spaceflight after Apollo was placekeeping at best, window dressing at worst. To borrow a metaphor (and perhaps distort) from physicist Ernest Rutherford, “In manned spaceflight there is only Apollo. All the rest is stamp collecting.”
In my opinion, the greatest amount of scientific information in the years since the last Apollo mission have come from unmanned missions including the phenomenal planetary exploration robots of the NASA/CalTech collaboration in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Hubble Space Telescope (Space Telescope Science Institute), the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and others.
If you look just pure scientific return, I think that unmanned exploration is by far the best option. But without humans, space exploration loses much of its impact. There are obviously times that the human eye is better than a camera, the human brain more discerning than a computer. And without human exploration, a major motivational factor is gone.
So in terms of manned spaceflight, what is the most valuable option – what gives the most bang for the buck? NASA plans are to return to the Moon, which can be a real scientific bonanza at a relatively low cost. Are there resources we can utilize for a permanent colony? Scientific discoveries that will shed light on the origin of the Moon, the Earth, the Solar System or even the Universe? What awaits us on the still largely unknown farside of the Moon? These are all good reasons to go back.
But does it make more sense to skip a return to the Moon for now and head straight to Mars. Going to Mars is longer, harder and more expensive, and the actual scientific return dollar for dollar is likely to be much less than going back to the Moon. But considering the great allure of Mars and the motivational benefits such a mission will generate, we have to consider whether or not it should be the next big goal, without the Moon as a way station.
Given proper preparation and a strong dedication to scientific principles and procedures, I’ll vote with Buzz Aldrin and Robert Zubrin. Let’s go to Mars. But either way, the next few decades will be exciting in space.
Four forward. Four forward. Drifting to the right a little.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.