|Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin|
July 20, 1969 was an historic date in human achievement. That was the day that the outrageously bold challenge offered by President John Kennedy was fulfilled. On May 25, 1961 Kennedy said, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, "First, 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 Earth." Only 20 days earlier, Alan B. Shepard aboard Freedom 7 had finally become the first American in space. His time in space had lasted all of 14.8 minutes. Now Kennedy says we need to go to the moon. What an amazing challenge.
The "space race" was an integral part of America's goal of achieving superiority over the Soviet Union, our Cold War nemesis. Our desire to show that the American way of life...free enterprise, capitalism and democracy was better than the Soviet Unions's iron-fisted socialist, communist state was embodied in the space program. While the Soviets had beaten us into space and beaten us with the first man in space, and even were the first to land (crash is more accurate) a spacecraft on the moon, we were determined that the first man to set foot on the moon would be wearing the stars and stripes on his space suit.
America began manned space flight with Project Mercury which consisted of seven total flights. Maybe you've seen the movie "The Right Stuff." That was followed by the Gemini program which consisted of ten 2-man flights. The Mercury and Gemini programs were geared to prepare us for moon landings under the Apollo program. Apollo 8 and 10 were missions that orbited the moon.
Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969 with its Saturn V rocket boosters generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The journey to the moon would encompass 240,250 one-way miles. Its crew consisted of Michael Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, all three being NASA veterans who had previous space flight experience in the Gemini program.
On a black and white TV, watching anxiously in our living room in Berwick, Maine, I, along with millions of other people were frighteningly mesmerized as we watched the lunar module touch down on the moon at 4:18pm our time. About six hours later, Neil Armstrong made his way down the ladder of Eagle and became the first human to set foot on the moon. Aldrin followed and the two spent about 2 hours on the lunar surface. An American flag purchased from Sears Roebuck was planted at Tranquility Base and Americans swelled with pride. People all over the world (well maybe not in the USSR) cheered this great human achievement.
Two days ago, Neil Armstrong died 20 days after his 82nd birthday. For an American kid coming of age in the 1960's, the astronauts of NASA were, and still are, genuine national heroes of mine. The bravery they exhibited in the quest for space is nothing short of amazing. Relying on technology that was still in its relative infancy guided by computer systems that didn't have the computing power of an iPhone, these men strapped themselves on top of ballistic missiles and left the earth behind. There was no guarantee that the lunar module that landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon would even be able to lift off from the moon's surface and return home. I heard on the radio today that then US President Richard Nixon had a speech prepared just in case he had to deliver tragic news. There was no plan B if the Eagle's rockets failed to get them back off the moon's surface. Michael Collins, who remained in the command module Columbia orbiting the moon, would have had no choice but to return home, leaving Armstrong and Aldrin to remain forever on the moon. Neil Armstrong and the summer of 1969 will always be a part of my life journey. I will always remember the summer we walked on the moon. Godspeed Neil Armstrong.